Review: Utah Symphony audience basks in Hilary Hahn's star quality

Review • The violinist dazzles the Utah Symphony crowd in a concerto by a Hollywood film-score luminary.
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It's always a festive occasion when Hilary Hahn visits Abravanel Hall — not just because Hahn is one of the music world's brightest stars, but because Salt Lake City was one of the first cities to discover her gift. It's hard to believe it has been nearly 20 years since the then-13-year-old violinist dazzled the Utah Symphony's audience on New Year's Eve 1992, an event Hahn still mentions with fondness in preconcert interviews. This weekend, she is treating concertgoers to a gorgeous performance of the deliciously romantic Violin Concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer best-remembered today for his work on Hollywood film scores.

Impeccable technique is a given whenever Hahn plays, whether she's digging into double-stopped passages with fiery intensity or floating the silkiest harmonics to the far corners of the hall. But her interpretive skills also are top-tier. She always seems keenly aware of everything that's going on around her in the orchestra. And in Friday's concert with the Utah Symphony, Hahn's consummate musicianship inspired the orchestra and music director Thierry Fischer to respond in kind, with a performance that was not only technically secure but emotionally resonant.

The audience, which had obediently refrained from applause between movements of a Mozart symphony earlier, could not restrain itself from applauding heartily after the first movement of the Korngold concerto. The second movement was even more enchanting, with harpist Louise Vickerman and keyboardist Jason Hardink (at the celesta) adding particularly delightful color. (The audience greeted the end of that movement with several seconds of rapt silence before erupting into a chorus of coughs.) The fiery heroism of the finale was more exciting still.

A foot-stamping ovation, not just from the orchestra but from the audience as well, coaxed Hahn back for an encore — a transcendently beautiful performance of the slow movement from Bach's solo partita in E Major.

It's not every week that Mozart's final symphony, nicknamed the "Jupiter," is the curtain-raiser, but Fischer never has been tied down to the traditional concert model. The Utah Symphony's performance on Friday was lean — almost to the point of austerity sometimes. The finale, which Fischer took at a brisk clip, was especially invigorating and featured some impressive details from the woodwinds at top velocity. Bruce Gifford and his colleagues in the horn section also had a fine outing.

The other work on the week's program is the Adagio movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 — the final symphonic movement Mahler completed. At 20-plus minutes in length, the movement is as long as some symphonies and traverses as much emotional ground. The Utah Symphony viola section, led by Brant Bayless, was the star of this portion of the show. The violists played with smooth, rich expressiveness, setting a standard for their colleagues in the other string sections. Once again, the horns and harp also shone.

Fischer hasn't programmed much Mahler in his tenure here, but his performance of the composer's Symphony No. 4 was one of last season's highlights. Let's hope there is more Mahler in his future with the Utah Symphony. —

Utah Symphony

Music of Mozart, Mahler and Korngold.

With • Conductor Thierry Fischer and violinist Hilary Hahn.

When • Reviewed Friday, Nov. 17; repeats Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.

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

Running time • About two hours, including intermission.

Tickets • $32-$82; or 801-355-2787

Learn more • Fischer and Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan will chat about the music onstage at 7 p.m.; free to ticketholders.