MORMON YOUTH SYMPHONY & CHORUS, Robert C. Bowden conducting, with pianist Grant Johannesen, Salt Lake Tabernacle, Oct. 14, 8 p.m.Over the years Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 4 has almost become Grant Johannesen's signature tune, as it was his teacher's, the late Robert Casadesus. But I wonder if he has ever played it more beautifully than he did Friday evening with the Mormon Youth Symphony.
Certainly not the last time he did it with the Utah Symphony, in 1982, a singularly unloving traversal for all its pianistic strength. Here, however, the sparkle was back, as was a warmth and humanity one did not always hear in Casadesus' performances.
The upshot was a supple, songful rendition which made of this score a supremely natural outpouring, from the rippling right-hand runs of the opening movement to the cathedral-like grandeur of the finale. Whether soft or loud, the playing was always fluid and flexible, something as true in the gently contoured Andante as it was in the playful strength of the scherzo.
In this he was serviceably partnered by the orchestra under its music director, Robert C. Bowden. At the same time I wish they had done more to bring out the transparency of the scoring (particularly the opening statement of the chorale), so much of which looks forward to the "Organ" Symphony.
"Here is the French Beethoven," Gounod is said to have proclaimed upon hearing this concerto (although "the French Liszt" might have been closer to the mark). And Beethoven is what it was followed with Friday, in this instance the "Choral Fantasy," with its remarkable anticipations of the Ninth Symphony another surprisingly forward-looking work.
It is also a problematic work, an uneasy amalgam of sonata, piano concerto and cantata, but happily those inequities were minimized. Instead Johannesen and Bowden came together for a well-integrated reading in which the piano, following its dramatic introduction, became part and parcel of the orchestral fabric.
Thus the former's lyrical statement of the principal theme was ably seconded by first the solo flute, then clarinet, and by the time the vocal sextet entered the entire frame hadexpanded to admit what then became the largest rendition of the choral finale I can remember hearing.
Apart from miking imbalances, the sextet was unified enough that one could hear they were singing English, as opposed to the usual German. And although the chorus was less sharply defined, its contribution made for a suitably regal conclusion, following a Presto that ignited handsomely.
Earlier the evening began with a performance of Gustav Holst's "The Planets," a bit smoothed-over in places but splashy enough in the big moments. For my taste "Mars" missed some of the bite inherent in the writing (though this was better on the reprise). And although "Jupiter" took off like a rocket, reveling in the music's English flavor, by the end it too was more notable for enthusiasm than precision.
Similarly the peaceful strains of "Venus" were hurt by some of the exposed solos, and a number of extraneous noises. Ditto the ultrametallic harps in "Neptune," otherwise effectively spun out with its antiphonally placed wordless female chorus.
But that was as nothing compared to the interruptions that plagued the crashing exuberance of "Uranus," from police sirens to applause that began before the concluding dissonance. That may or may not have been the logical outcome of a performance that featured, among other things, applause between every movement. But what I keep hearing is Holst's words to the Boston Symphony when one of those dissonances went a bit awry on a guest conducting stint he did there many years ago: "Now really, gentlemen! That doesn't sound very nice, does it?"