Jason Hardink came to Salt Lake City to fill a position that hadn't existed before. Now, it's hard to imagine the area's cultural scene without him.
In addition to his work with the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, Hardink has been a regular performer on virtually every chamber-music series in town, from Intermezzo to the Park City Chamber Music Festival. He's been a judge and recitalist for the Gina Bachauer Foundation, played with the Canyonlands New Music Ensemble and on the Madeleine Festival, helped patrons get to know the music of Schubert and Stravinsky and, perhaps most notably, spearheaded a 2007 festival celebrating the music of Olivier Messiaen that involved many of Salt Lake City's leading arts organizations.
He's shown himself equally proficient performing the complex and colorful music of Messiaen and accompanying the King's Singers in a stirring round of "All You Need Is Love." Hardink even showed a flair for acting and singing when he portrayed Mozart in a memorable Utah Symphony presentation.
Since 2009, he also has guided the NOVA Chamber Music Series. Hardink will solo in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Utah Symphony later in the week.
He has played solo arrangements of the piece before, but hasn't performed it with an orchestra. "It's an exciting thing to take on," said Hardink, who previously has played concertos and quasi-concertos by Beethoven, Bernstein and Messiaen with the Utah Symphony. He's struck by "Rhapsody's" subtle sophistication and noted that playing jazz isn't all that different from improvising concertos in Baroque music, as Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer asked him to do last month in performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.
Utah Symphony principal pops conductor Jerry Steichen said he's excited about collaborating with Hardink. "He's such a hard-working member of the orchestra, an incredibly talented pianist," Steichen said.
Like his NOVA predecessor, Corbin Johnston, Hardink isn't a flashy self-promoter. It's his quiet excellence that has made him an indispensable part of the music community.
Bruce Quaglia, an associate professor of music theory at the University of Utah who has two works on today's NOVA program, is a longtime fan of the series, which he called "a jewel for our city." He praised Hardink's musically adventurous bent and his skill in positioning new works alongside established masterpieces. "Most people can't hear 10 Schoenberg pieces in a row," Quaglia noted.
On the other hand, "it's tough putting your pieces up against Beethoven or Mozart." (Hardink has a good track record when it comes to programming new music; Andrew Norman's "The Companion Guide to Rome," which premiered at NOVA last November, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.) The Utah Symphony's Mercedes Smith will play Quaglia's Fantasy Variations for Solo Flute on Sunday's cocnert, and Matthew Nelson will perform "After Milton: Three Vignettes for B-flat Clarinet." (The Milton of the title isn't the one you might think it is, Quaglia confessed; it's modern-music icon Milton Babbitt.) Hardink hopes the short pieces will whet listeners' appetite for a larger Quaglia composition to premiere on NOVA next year.
Hardink, 37 and a native of Rhode Island, was hired for the newly invented job of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera keyboardist in 2003. Scheduling conflicts between orchestra and opera since have led him to concentrate on the former. "There are a lot more keyboard parts than anyone might guess" in the orchestra's season, he noted. "The variety is nice."
An avid hiker and ultramarathoner as well as the father of 2-year-old twins with his wife, pianist Kimi Kawashima, he's as enthusiastic about Utah's natural wonders as its musical landscape. "Spending time in the mountains gives me an extra-special connection to Utah that makes it impossible for me to consider leaving," he said.
Utah Symphony principal keyboardist Jason Hardink will play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the orchestra. Principal pops conductor Jerry Steichen will conduct the all-Gershwin program, which also features soprano Lisa Vroman.
When • Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3, 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29 to $59 ($5 more on concert day) at www.utahsymphony.org, the box office and 801-355-ARTS. Student and group discounts available.