"Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" is one of the most popular works by composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. That popularity is both a blessing and a curse. The piece is played so often that it can become stilted and commonplace with nothing special to make it stand out.
Fortunately that was not the case Friday night at Abravanel Hall, as Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen and the Utah Symphony under the baton of Keith Lockhart brought new life to this beloved piece.
Cohen's interpretation of "Rhapsody" left little to be desired. He handled the demanding bravura sections effortlessly, incorporating a playfulness that truly made the piece his own.
Of particular note was the variation based on an inversion of the melody of Paganini's theme. This romantically textured section, recognized by many as the "Somewhere in Time" theme from the 1980 film starring the late Christopher Reeve, was lyrically nuanced and heartfelt.
Cohen captivated the audience, which rewarded him with a standing ovation. He then favored the crowd with an encore that further showed off his personality and skill.
The symphony opened the evening with Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead," a dark symphonic poem inspired by a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin. The music suggests the movement of waves breaking against the side of a boat as it approaches the Isle.
Lockhart brought a rich moodiness to this somber piece. He was clearly in control as the undulating theme filled with emotion pulled the audience in.
Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 in F minor brought the evening to an end. The work, composed when Shostakovich was 18 and still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory, is filled with a boldness and wit that creates a tension underlined by tonal dissonance.Lockhart's interpretation was charged with emotion and power. The orchestra and conductor were energized by one another, creating a sort of controlled chaos as the piece built to frenzied climax.