About Gerald Elias

Gerald Elias is an acclaimed author and musician. A former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he has concertized on five continents as violinist and conductor, and his compositions have been performed throughout the United States. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concert series in Salt Lake City, and since 1989 a faculty member of the University of Utah. His award-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series, based upon experiences gleaned from his lifelong musical career, takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world and has won extensive critical praise. Visit his website at www.geraldelias.com.


WESTMINSTER CONCERT SERIES, Vieve Gore Concert Hall, Westminster College, Jan. 26

Monday night at Westminster College, on their “night off,” three Utah Symphony musicians — David Porter, Yuki MacQueen and Alex Martin — gave a scintillating performance of the monumental set of six sonatas for unaccompanied violin by the legendary virtuoso, Eugène Ysaÿe. As a sequel of sorts to a performance a few years ago of the six Bach sonatas, it demonstrated once again the admirable level of dedication and achievement of the symphony musicians.

From left: David Porter, Yuki MacQueen and Alex Martin. (Photo Credit: Westminster Concert Series)

It was gratifying to see a large contingent of Utah Symphony members past and present in the audience to support their colleagues on stage. Former board chairperson, Pat Richards, was also in attendance. If members of the symphony management and conducting staff had been there, they, too, would have been able to relish this rare treat of a program carried off so exceptionally well.

Ysaÿe’s compositions were written at a crossroads of music history. Clearly he was influenced by older 19th century romantic contemporaries like pianist/composer Franz Lizst and the violinist/composers Henri Wieniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps. As the greatest virtuoso of his generation, Ysaÿe included every pyrotechnic in the book: Harmonics, runs of fingered octaves and tenths, simultaneous ponticello tremolo with left hand pizzicato. (If this doesn’t mean anything to the lay reader, believe me, it’s hard!) But Ysaÿe was also a learned musician who paid due homage to Bach and baroque forms. Within the sonatas we hear fugues, themes and variations, passacaglias and other period dances. At the same time, Ysaÿe was clearly looking ahead to the incoming impressionistic style of Debussy and the French school.

However, there’s something unique and personal in Ysaÿe’s harmonic language, in that in large part it is derived from violin technique itself. As devilishly difficult as his sonatas are to play, they “fit” within the idiomatic finger patterns of the violinist’s left hand, and in combination with creative use of the violin’s open strings, create intervallic and harmonic progressions that are distinct from any other composer.

In the first movement of the Sonata No. 2, called “Obsession,” Ysaÿe juxtaposes two wildly contrasting themes: One is a quote from the effervescent opening of the Preludio of Bach’s Partita in E Major. The other is the ancient liturgical chant, the Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath. In other words, heaven versus hell. Likewise, it’s heaven to listen to, but it’s hell to play! The three violinists nevertheless pulled it all off with exceptional élan, exhibiting technical security and musical imagination, and displaying a mastery that does great credit to the musicians of the Utah Symphony.


NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Dec. 14

The Nova Chamber Music Series can be counted on to offer up programs of great diversity and quality. Its concert on Dec. 14 was no exception. In this season of round-the-clock Nutcracker and Messiah, it was so refreshing to listen to an entire program of music I had never heard before, and played so well at that.

If there was a theme to the concert it was that three of the four composers — Igor Stravinsky, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff — were Russian. The fourth, Igor Iachimciuc, a faculty member of the University of Utah School of Music, is Moldovan, but as he explained in his comments prior to the performance of his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, he often is mistaken for being Russian, so perhaps that made for an unofficial unanimity. Another unifying feature is that all four eventually found a home in the West — Tcherepnin in France, the others in the United States. But there similarities end, as the divergence of compositional styles and perspectives among the composers were striking.

Igor Iachimciuc

The program began with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, ably performed by Erin Svoboda, associate principal clarinetist of the Utah Symphony, and was followed by Tcherepnin’s Six Pieces for Horn Quartet. All pieces are miniatures depicting various moods or vignettes of no more than two or three minutes each. Yet Stravinsky’s are clearly forward-looking in rhythmic invention and melodic spareness, and are still refreshingly “modern” after a hundred years. The Tcherepnin pieces, on the other hand, took a deep bow to the 19th century, though they were composed in the same decade as the Stravinsky. Finely crafted musical depictions, most notably “Night,” and “The Hunt,” evoked reminiscences of Wagner and Berlioz in addition to Tcherepnin’s own Russian forebears. All six were wonderfully performed by the horn quartet, three of whom — Ron Beitel, Llewellyn Humphreys, and Stephen Proser — are members of the Utah Symphony. The fourth member, Nathan Basinger, performs frequently with the symphony as well. The high quality of their ensemble playing cannot be achieved other than by years of collaborative effort; and along with their Utah Symphony colleagues who performed on the program provides yet one more reason why a symphony orchestra is a city’s most important cultural resource.

These two lighter works were followed by Iachimciuc’s one-movement clarinet sonata, which was the most engrossing composition on the program. Iamchimciuc spoke of the musical crosscurrents to which he was exposed as a central-European Moldovan. The clearest influence on this particular composition was the Hungarian, Béla Bartók, with echoes of his “Contrasts” and Miraculous Mandarin. There is sometimes a fine line between being influenced by a great composer versus writing a piece that is derivative and imitative. Unlike Tcherepnin (and the Rachmaninoff later in the program), whose music was rooted in the past, Iachimciuc took Bartók’s inspiration (and traditional sonata form as well!) and ran with it. The result was something highly original and new, yet at the same time eminently accessible and compelling. Iachimciuc was aided in his musical vision by an exceptionally fine performance by Svoboda and Utah Symphony pianist Jason Hardink. It’s a challenge to find a workable acoustic balance between clarinet (and in the Rachmaninoff, the cello) and piano in Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Yet, even with all the sonata’s rhythmic complexity and technical challenges, Svoboda and Hardink pulled it off wonderfully.

Following intermission was the meatiest work on the program, the hyper-romantic Sonata for Cello in G Minor by Rachmaninoff, performed by cellist Matthew Zalkind and Hardink again at the piano. Composed in 1901, one senses that Rachmaninoff’s endlessly evolving (some would say long-winded) melodic lines represented a deep, subconscious reluctance to let go of the century that had just ended, of an irretrievable era. If there’s a certain poignancy to that sentiment, Zalkind and Hardink certainly made a good case for it, indulging themselves expressively while never becoming maudlin. Zalkind plays with an alluringly lustrous sound, yet is capable of changing tonal color on a dime to suit the musical needs of the moment. Hardink, always an immensely talented pianist, has also become an exceptionally sensitive accompanist. It would have been so easy to overplay Rachmaninoff’s densely packaged piano writing and drown out the quasi-vocal cello, which was almost entirely devoid of double-stops and chords throughout, yet Hardink played with admirable restraint without sacrificing a jot of expressiveness.

For discerning listeners of eclectic musical tastes, the NOVA Chamber Music Series once again delivered the goods, both in its unusual and creative programing, and in the uniformly high quality of performance.