When Israeli pianist Arie Vardi performed last summer on Temple Square I judged him among the best of that year's Gina Bachauer soloists. His strength, an imagination that permitted freedom even within smaller structures, but most of all his singing line all combined for a memorable evening of Haydn, Schubert and Debussy.
The same qualities were evident, albeit to a lesser degree, in his performances Saturday with the Utah Symphony. Here the subjects were Mozart, the popular Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major (K. 467), and his countryman Paul Ben-Haim, the latter by way of his 1960 Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.Again in the Mozart one noted a lyric sense that did not impede the music's progress, together with a reflective quality that, particularly in the first movement, managed to illuminate some of its darker recesses. Thus, apart from what sounded like a few dropped notes, the ringing songfulness of the opening Allegro prepared the way for the thoughtful deliberation of the Andante (here almost nocturnal in its effect) and a scampering finale whose speed gave about equal room to the music's intricacy and its essential high spirits.
The Ben-Haim is a different matter, a lushly scored opus whose Eastern and occasionally neoclassical overtones cannot disguise its basically romantic impulse or its comparative lack of substance. But if anything it found Vardi even more responsive to its natural curve, from the rhapsodic introduction to the energetic Scherzando, the introspective piano interlude that prefaces the central section being fitted in easily along the way.
Otherwise this evening pretty much belonged to associate conductor Christopher Wilkins, whose nicely rounded introduction to the K. 467 Concerto did as much as anything to establish the character of that piece (although again I wouldn't have minded a slightly less dreamy view of the Andante). Similarly in the Ben-Haim Capriccio he brought out the music's intensely Jewish quality as well as its Straussian influences - for example, the sinuous "Salome"-like rhythms of the central section and the nostalgic nod back to the beginning just before the coda.
Earlier he and the orchestra launched the evening with more Mozart, a genial account of the Overture to "Cosi fan tutte." And at the very end they capped it off with an exuberant reading of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony - not the first time it has appeared on this series but none the less welcome for that.
Here and there the orchestra may have let down a bit (e.g. the horns in the otherwise surefooted Andante). But the first movement - happily with the exposition repeat - was bright and bouncy without seeming overdriven, and in the development the divided violins payed even greater dividends than they had in the Mozart.
Similarly the middle movements were flowing but affectionate (thanks in part to the warmth of the strings). After which the concluding Saltarello emerged as a real Presto, full of vitality and brio, yet never so much that the rapidly articulated woodwind figures at the opening suffered. But that was typical of a performance in which the voices were as carefully balanced as was the music's energy.