UTAH SYMPHONY, ANDRÉ WATTS, PIANO, Abravanel Hall, Feb. 17; second performance 8 p.m. Feb. 18, tickets at 801-355-2787 or 888-451-2787 or online at www.utahsymphony.org
Andre Watts transformed a concert that, before his appearance, had been mediocre and turned it into something special. Watts, who was honored by President Barack Obama earlier this week with the National Medal of Arts, brought enormous energy and refinement to his rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. It was easily the best work of the evening.
After a change in the program the concert, with music director Thierry Fischer on the podium, began with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Perhaps it’s because the musicians have been playing Beethoven all year, or perhaps because the Fourth isn’t among the best of Beethoven’s works – whatever the reason, the symphony seemed to lack the vigor that the orchestra typically displays. The playing was still professional, with the strings having a particularly good night, but the music did tend to get bogged down from time to time.
After intermission the program was spiced up considerably by Stravinsky’s Scherzo à la Russe (1946), a short work for orchestra that had obvious jazz influences. Bursting with flourishes of color and a strong performance by the brass, the energetic piece succeeded in capturing the audience’s attention. Then Watts walked onto the stage for his 11th appearance with the Utah Symphony.
Rachmaninoff’s concerto had a bit of a rough opening, with the orchestra and soloist losing synchronization for the better part of an entire early phrase, but it was all smooth sailing from there. The remainder of the first movement was tightly executed by all parties, with the ending of the movement being particularly strong.
The second movement was simply transcendent. Watts displayed a sublime lyricism while the orchestra managed to offer a perfectly understated accompaniment.
The third movement had the audience on the edge of their seats: Watts’ considerable technical skills were on display, revealing an effortless elegance by the old master. At times the orchestra threatened to overshadow the soloist, but Watts simply responded with a little more oomph. When the concert was over and the final cutoff was executed, the audience exploded into vigorous applause, one that lasted for four full bows. It was merited. Watts showed that he’s a veteran soloist at the peak of his ability, and provided a polished and unique take on Rachmaninoff’s masterwork.
Watts’ first performance with the Utah Symphony dates all the way back to 1971, and he has appeared with the symphony at least once in each ensuing decade. Those interested in solo piano performances shouldn’t miss Watts’ second performance tonight. It’s highly recommended.