UTAH SYMPHONY, Abravanel Hall, Oct. 26; second performance 8 p.m. Oct. 27, tickets at 801-355-2787 or www.utahsymphony.org
Guest conductor Gerard Schwarz led the Utah Symphony in Friday’s concert of all Russian music. The evening opened with Dmitri Shostakovich’s “October,” a piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union. It served as a rousing prelude to the program’s most exciting work, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for orchestra and piano.
The pianist for this sprawling number was Lukas Geniusas, a young and vigorous Lithuanian-Russian musician. It’s always a pleasure to hear the work of a great composer meet the skill of a great performer, and Geniusas deftly facilitated that synthesis.
The theme-and-variation setup is a tricky one for both the composer and the performer. Although the form is a vehicle for wit, performers can easily sell the more somber variations short by emphasizing the thread of wit in the overall piece, rather than letting each moment speak for itself. Geniusas, however, performed each segment with the focus and sincerity that it deserved.
The Rachmaninoff piece was an excellent exhibition of Geniusas’ varied skills. At times I was amazed at his sensitivity and musicality, and at other times I was awed at the precision of his thunderous, almost viciously fast octaves.
After a lengthy ovation, Geniusas performed a pensive and focused encore that led the audience into another wave of applause.
The first piece after the intermission was Alexander Borodin’s Second Symphony. The symphony began with a low and surging melody on the strings which spread throughout the orchestra and became the primary motivic idea of the first movement.
It was an exceptionally melodious and rhythmic symphony. When we progressed into the second movement, the brass established a foundation for the other sections by playing a quick, repetitive rhythm with incredible accuracy. They built on this, resulting in a charming scherzo, an inviting Andante, and a powerful finale.
The last piece on the program was a selection from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite from The Tale of Tsar Saltan. They included a march and “The Three Wonders” and played them with sweeping force. During the final applause, just as I was making peace with a the absence of “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” a number so conspicuous by its omission, Schwarz turned to the audience and announced that they would now perform it as an encore.
It was a subdued and controlled rendition of the piece, but it hit its mark and sent the audience smiling into an unusually crisp October night.