SALT LAKE SYMPHONY and UTAH VOICES, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, April 26
As a young man the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch wasn’t particularly religious. It wasn’t until much later in life that he embraced his Jewish roots. And finally in his 50s, Bloch’s testament to his faith found voice in Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service), a profoundly powerful and personal statement that ranks among the major orchestral/choral works of the 20th century.
In their annual collaboration, the Salt Lake Symphony and Utah Voices gave a stunning performance of the work Saturday with guest Anton Armstrong on the podium. The choral director at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota and a widely sought after guest conductor, Armstrong is one of this country’s top choral conductors. And he brought his vast interpretative talents to Saturday’s performance.
Armstrong captured the spirit and emotional force of Bloch’s work with his sensitive and perceptive direction. He elicited expressive singing from the choir and nuanced playing from the orchestra. The dramatic moments were nicely contrasted by lyrically infused passages and he kept everything wonderfully in balance.
Utah Voices is a fairly new choral ensemble in Salt Lake City. Under founder Michael Huff, it has become one of the choirs to be reckoned with. Saturday, they sang with passion, feeling and emotionally charged power. There is a full and rich resonance to their singing, yet there is also a wonderful transparency that never lets the choir sound dense. Their singing is always finely crafted and expressed.
The Salt Lake Symphony is without question one of the area’s top community orchestras. Under Armstrong’s precise direction they played with conviction and forcefulness that balanced well with the choir.
As cantor, baritone Christopher Clayton gave a remarkably vibrant, heartfelt performance. He infused his singing with beautifully molded expressions and finely delineated lyricism.
Ryan Pickett was the minister, who recited the Kaddish in the last section of the work.
The concert opened with music director Robert Baldwin leading the orchestra in Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. There were several notable solo moments in the piece, played by principal oboe Hilary Coon, assistant principal flute Nancy Toone, and especially by principal clarinet Gary Merrell.