UTAH SYMPHONY CHAMBER ORCHESTRA, Vieve Gore Concert Hall, Wednesday

Birds were the subject matter for the first concert of the Utah Symphony's renamed new music series, the Ardean Watts Contemporary Chamber Series — named in honor of the orchestra's longtime assistant conductor under Maurice Abravanel. And Watts was present at the concert Wednesday in Vieve Gore Concert Hall and offered commentary on the works performed.

There were only two pieces on the program, which was played without intermission — Olivier Messiaen's "Catalogue d'oiseaux" for piano and Dominick Argento's one-man chamber opera, "A Water Bird Talk."

Opening the concert was symphony pianist Jason Hardink playing two movements from the "Catalogue d'oiseaux:" "Le Courlis cendre" ("Curlew") and "Le Loriot" ("Golden Oriole"). Hardink is a remarkable pianist with prodigious technique and musicality to match. Messiaen's music is thickly textured and diffuse, yet Hardink makes this demanding music sound easy.

And while it may not be readily apparent on first hearing, these two movements are wonderfully lyrical. Hardink understood this and his reading was captivatingly melodic and expressive. Once again, he showed himself to be a matchless interpreter of Messiaen's music.

After Hardink's stunning performance, Keith Lockhart and 12 members of the Utah Symphony came onstage and were joined by baritone Timothy Jones for a fabulously riveting and forceful performance of Argento's 45-minute opera. The staged piece is a multi-media work with slides and recorded bird songs. On the surface it's a lecture on a series of water fowl, but it eventually turns into a wickedly humorous but painful portrayal of the Lecturer's domestic life. The audience soon learns how miserable and henpecked he is.

Jones was absolutely mesmerizing as the Lecturer. It's quite a demanding piece for the singer, but Jones, for whom this is a new work, was utterly believable in his transformation. His acting was first rate, and his singing, which alternated between song and "Sprechstimme," was magnificent.

The musicians played wonderfully as well, with crisp articulation and near flawless execution.

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