Whenever Larry Rachleff visits the Utah Symphony, it's like a big reunion.
Because of his association with the Rhode Island Philharmonic (where he is now in his 12th season) and with the San Antonio Symphony, he knows a number of the current musicians here, among them principal horn Bruce Gifford.
And as the director of orchestras at Rice University in Houston, he became acquainted with the Utah Symphony's assistant conductor David Cho, who was his student, and keyboard player Jason Hardink.
So, Rachleff doesn't hide the fact that he's thrilled to have been invited back to conduct the Utah Symphony and see some of his former colleagues and students.
"It's fun to be back," he said in a phone interview from his office at Rice. "I so enjoyed my stint two years ago. I had such a wonderful time with your gifted musicians. And Salt Lake is such a beautiful place."
Rachleff guest conducts the Utah Symphony this coming weekend in a program that boasts one of Sergei Prokofiev's greatest symphonies, the Fifth in B flat major, op. 100. "It's a great piece," Rachleff said. "It's been described as being one of the loudest pieces of unamplified music ever written. But it's also one of the most tender."
The work was written in 1944, during one of the bleakest periods of World War II for the Soviet Union. "You think that the war would have had to have had a profound influence on Prokofiev," Rachleff said. "You couldn't get around it. How could you?" The emotional range of the work is certainly immense. "The first movement is dark, the scherzo is filled with cynicism, the third movement is wide ranging. And by the end of the muscular finale your head is about ready to come off."
Finding other works to program with the Fifth Symphony can be challenging, but Rachleff feels he has found the right pieces in the first half to balance the Prokofiev in the second. The program opens with Spanish impressionist Manuel de Falla's Suite No. 2 from the ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat," followed by Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. Soloist will be the renowned musicologist and pianist Robert Levin.
Levin, who besides being a performer, is also a respected scholar of the classical period. He's perhaps best known in Utah for his new edition of Mozart's Mass in C minor and his completion of the Requiem, both of which received their Utah premieres within the past couple of years by choirs conducted by Brady Allred.
"Robert is a walking encyclopedia into the life of Mozart," Rachleff said. "I've never done Beethoven's First with him, but I've conducted the Second with Robert."
Bringing the improvisatory spirit of Mozart to Beethoven, Rachleff promises that for people who have become jaded with Beethoven, hearing Levin's approach will leave them enthralled. "I suspect that his rendering of the Beethoven will be a little different from what one is accustomed to, but we have to emulate that approach."Rachleff and symphony vice president of artistic operations Jeffrey Bram spent considerable time mulling over different program possibilities. "Jeff and I talked about many different configurations and repertoire," Rachleff said. "We both agreed that we wanted a big symphony since I didn't do one the last time I was there. I wanted the opportunity to bring to the public a wide range of repertoire, and I think this concert is a strong rich evening of orchestral sound."
If you go . . .
What: Utah Symphony, Robert Levin, piano, Larry Rachleff, conductor
Where: Abravanel Hall
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
How much: $12-$48
Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787Web: utahsymphony.org