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Utah Symphony
Keith Lockhart

Keith Lockhart is starting his 11th — and final — season as music director of the Utah Symphony this weekend with mixed feelings.

"I feel good with what I've done there," he told the Deseret News in a phone interview from Boston. "There are some things I would have liked to have done that I didn't, but I'm leaving with good feelings."

True to form since his first season in 1998-99, Lockhart opens and closes the season with a bang. Continuing the tradition of beginning a season with a piano concerto, perennial Utah Symphony favorite Garrick Ohlsson returns to Abravanel Hall this Friday and Saturday in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.

Then the Utah Symphony Chorus joins Lockhart and the orchestra in Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony.

"Having an all-Beethoven concert is a season opener tradition with the Utah Symphony," Lockhart said. "And it's time we bring back the Ninth. The last time it was done was four years ago with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. And I did it eight years ago."

Lockhart closes the season May 29-30, 2009, with another work conceived on a grand scale, Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1971. "I've been wanting to do Bernstein's 'Mass' for some time," Lockhart said. "It's a major work and a significant 20th century work."

The "Mass" was originally scheduled for last season, but the expense involved in presenting it forced Lockhart to cancel it at that time. But given the work's theatricality and Lockhart's penchant for 20th century American composers such as Bernstein, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, the "Mass" is a natural choice for his final concert with the Utah Symphony as its music director.

In between Beethoven's Ninth and Bernstein's "Mass," the new season will be peppered with large works that will be new to the symphony's repertoire. Among these are Bela Bartok's "The Miraculous Mandarin" and Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony.

"The Bartok is a great challenge for the orchestra, and I hope that the audience will think it's one of the season's highlights."

A definite high point will undoubtedly be Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony, not only because it's the last work completed by the Austrian composer but also because it closes Lockhart's Mahler cycle, which he began in his first season as music director.

"That will sew things up nicely," Lockhart said. "In our cycle, we did all of the orchestral works, including 'Das Lied von der Erde' and the first movement of his unfinished Tenth Symphony."

Lockhart will also conduct the Utah Opera Jan. 17-25, 2009, in Marc Blitzstein's "Regina," which premiered on Broadway in 1949, conducted by Maurice Abravanel.

Lockhart has a bit of history with "Regina."

"I assisted in a production of it 20 or 21 years ago," he said. "It's a great piece based on Lillian Hellman's 'Little Foxes' with fascinating music. But the real clincher to do it here was because Abravanel did the premiere."

Since this is Lockhart's last season, his concerts include a number of his favorite pieces. "The concerts I'm doing will be a mix of things. They'll include some of my favorites and also some things that are just fun to do."

Besides "The Miraculous Mandarin" and Bernstein's "Mass," Lockhart will conduct Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto, Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto.

Joining Lockhart onstage will be some of his favored guests.

Among them are violinist Viviane Hagner (who joined the orchestra for several concerts on its European tour), pianist Olga Kern and cellist Alban Gerhard.

Lockhart believes this is the right time for him to step down as music director. "I've always said my intention was not to be there indefinitely. A music director's time is not infinite. And change is good for everyone. It will be good for me, and it will be good for the orchestra."

About two years ago, Lockhart approached then CEO of Utah Symphony/Utah Opera Anne Ewers about his position.

"My contract was up for renewal, and we talked about it," he said.

Both agreed this was a good time for Lockhart to consider leaving the Utah Symphony. After his meeting with Ewers, Lockhart received a new two-year contract, which was subsequently extended for an additional year.

There's a yardstick music directors go by, Lockhart said. "If you stay under 10 years, people wonder what happened to you. If you stay over 15, people wonder why you're still there. I think my time with the Utah Symphony is just right."

Lockhart believes he leaves behind a strong legacy of accomplishments with the Utah Symphony.

"This is a different orchestra from what it was 10 years ago. It's a better orchestra now. Of course, we have stronger and weaker concerts, but there has been a profound change in the day-to-day level of playing. The quality is much higher. Guest conductors who come here have commented on it."

There are quite a few things Lockhart points to when asked about his achievements here.

For one, he oversaw the hiring of a quarter of the current members of the symphony in the past 10 years. "We added some 20 to 22 new players in the last decade, and it's great to have that kind of relationship with the musicians."

On the musical side, Lockhart is particularly proud of some of the concerts he was able to conduct. "Bartok's 'Bluebeard's Castle' and Britten's 'War Requiem' are two major works I was fortunate enough to conduct. And I was so lucky to do Mahler's Eighth Symphony with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as part of the Tanner Gift of Music series."

Other things Lockhart cites as highlights of his time in Salt Lake City are the European tour and the CD that he and the Utah Symphony recorded a few years back, although he's disappointed there haven't been follow-ups to either one.

"But the good news is we're alive and kicking," he said.

After the financial hit the Utah Symphony — and every other American orchestra — took after Sept. 11, Lockhart is thrilled that audiences have returned to Abravanel Hall and that the organization is once again running in the black.

"Most of the money goes to sustain operations," he said, adding that this is one of the reasons why the orchestra hasn't gone on another tour or has recorded another album.

"We're close to doing another recording, though. (Former Mormon Tabernacle Choir director) Craig Jessop and I were hatching plans for a CD, but I don't know if it will go through (since Jessop has left the choir)," he said.

Administratively, Lockhart looks to the merger between the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera as a major milestone in his career in Utah. Lockhart was a fierce proponent of the merger. He believes that without the merger both organizations would be in dire financial straits today — if, in fact, the two could have survived as separate entities. "As one organization, we're in a bigger lifeboat together, and the waves rock you less."

Lockhart won't sever his ties with the Utah Symphony completely at the end of his tenure. He will return in the following two seasons as conductor laureate and lead the orchestra in at least two concerts each season.

"The number of concerts I'll be doing will be flexible, and my time as conductor laureate will bring some continuity to the symphony as it searches for my replacement."

Being able to spend more time with his family is the main reason Lockhart gives for stepping down.

"I have a young son, and sometimes I go seven weeks at a time without seeing him. I'm also in a new marital relationship. Maybe I'm going through a midlife crisis — I'll be almost 50 when I leave the Utah Symphony — but I want to focus on my personal life."

Having said that, Lockhart certainly has no plans to take early retirement. Far from it. He still has the Boston Pops, where he just completed his 14th season as conductor — the second longest tenure in Pops history after Arthur Fiedler.

"And given that he was there for 50 years, I don't think I'll overtake him," Lockhart joked.

Lockhart is also the newly appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.

"This is really exciting," he said. "It's great to be teaching. I'm looking forward to that."

The one problem with his new job is scheduling. Since Brevard is a summer music program and the Boston Pops season is principally in the summer, some creative planning had to be done to allow Lockhart to juggle both positions successfully.

Guest conducting is also in his future. Lockhart has no desire to assume the music directorship of an orchestra at this time, unless something big comes along, but he does want to substantially increase his guest conducting engagements.

When he spoke with the Deseret News, Lockhart had already lined up appearances in Australia and with the NHK Symphony in Tokyo and the BBC in London.

Lockhart also has a few words of advice for his successor.

"It's important that the new music director continues and improves on what I've done with the Utah Symphony. We have a tradition of bringing great music to the public, and it's imperative that the new music director continues with that tradition," he said.

If you go ...

What: Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Keith Lockhart, conductor, Utah Symphony and Chorus

Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 S. West Temple

When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

How much: $16-$60

Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787

Web: www.utahsymphony.org

E-mail: [email protected]