Review: Schwarz leads Utah Symphony in Russian rhapsody

Review • Conductor, soloist have fun with all-Russian program.
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If you want to introduce audiences to something different, the conventional concert-programming wisdom goes, pair it with a proven draw. So it is this weekend, when pieces not heard in Abravanel Hall in 25 years — if ever — share the program with some music most of the audience probably could hum in their sleep.

Gerard Schwarz is this week's guest conductor, leading the Utah Symphony in an all-Russian program that, by fortunate happenstance, features a young Russian pianist as soloist. Lukas Geniusas, winner of the 2010 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, returned to Salt Lake City on Friday to play Rachmaninoff's ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Schwarz favored invigorating tempos, and Geniusas' nimble fingers charged through them with assurance.

The Utah Symphony always seems to play well for Schwarz. On Friday, conductor and orchestra achieved a transparent sound that allowed a wider-than-usual variety of orchestral colors to shine through. Geniusas also displayed a nice, crisp technique and some stylish phrasing. Neither orchestra nor soloist allowed the famous 18th variation, immortalized by Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," to bog down in sentimentality. There was a bit of the showman in Geniusas as some of the livelier passages pulled him off the piano bench, but if you can't be a showman in Rachmaninoff, where else can you be?

Geniusas encored with "Alla reminiscenza" from Nikolai Medtner's "Forgotten Melodies."

The program opened with Shostakovich's 13-minute tone poem "October," written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Though not one of the composer's better-known works (this was its Abravanel Hall debut), the sound is unmistakably Shostakovich. The Utah Symphony played with urgency under Schwarz's baton.

Borodin's Symphony No. 2, once a concert-hall staple, hasn't been played in Abravanel in 25 years. Friday's lively performance was highlighted by Bruce Gifford's horn solos, Tad Calcara's clarinet and Caitlin Valovick Moore's piccolo.

Schwarz closed the concert with two selections from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Tale of Tsar Saltan." Trumpeter Jeff Luke led a stellar performance by the Utah Symphony brass section; the percussion section also played with high energy and panache.

Oddly enough, Rimsky-Korsakov didn't include the most famous tune from "Tsar Saltan" — "Flight of the Bumblebee" — in the concert suite (not unlike The Beatles' practice of not including their singles on the albums). Schwarz would have been crazy to pass up an opportunity to play this showpiece, so he treated the crowd to a rare orchestral encore. Hearing the familiar melody flit all over the Abravanel Hall stage was a delight. —

Utah Symphony

Music of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

With • Conductor Gerard Schwarz and pianist Lukas Geniusas.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

When • Reviewed Friday, Oct. 26; repeats Saturday, Oct. 27, at 8 p.m.

Running time • About 2 hours, including intermission.

Tickets • $23 to $72; 801-355-ARTS, the ticket office or

Learn more • Schwarz and Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan will discuss the music onstage at 7 p.m.