On a bone-chilling day like Friday, what sane person would want to go near the water? Yet that's what the Utah Symphony invited listeners to do, on a cleverly programmed concert that started 2013 on a thrilling note.
The second and third suites from Handel's "Water Music," the best-known selections on the program, got top billing. British conductor Nicholas McGegan, known for his mastery of early music, led the chamber-size Utah Symphony in a brisk, jovial performance. Particularly during the trumpet-heavy Suite No. 2, it was easy to imagine oneself lounging on the banks of the Thames, nibbling on cucumber sandwiches, as the barge bearing the royal musicians floated by. Charming strings predominated in the merry Suite No. 3, with Caitlin Valovick-Moore contributing a delightfully jaunty air with her flute and piccolo playing.
McGegan paired the Handel on the second half of the program with water music of a decidedly different character, the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten's opera "Peter Grimes." From the opening bars, Louise Vickerman's distinctive harp playing made it clear that the North Sea beaches Britten's characters inhabited are nothing like the banks of the Thames. The full-size Utah Symphony brought all its force to bear in the most dynamic and involving performance of the Sea Interludes in recent memory.
Utah Symphony concertmaster Ralph Matson is this weekend's soloist in a pair of early concertos. First came Vivaldi's brief but lively E-flat Major Concerto, subtitled "The Storm at Sea." (It's the fifth in a set of concertos that included the far-more-famous "The Four Seasons.") Playing at breakneck speed, Matson and the orchestra deftly conveyed the gusts of wind and turbulent waves. The audience got a more leisurely look at the violinist's artistry in Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1, the only work on the program that had nothing to do with water. Matson masterfully balanced stately elegance with lyrical beauty, and McGegan led the Utah Symphony in a sensitive supportive performance. Jason Hardink's work on the harpsichord was especially noteworthy.
Mendelssohn's "Die schöne Melusine" and Sibelius' "The Swan of Tuonela" opened the program. McGegan, who conducted without a baton all evening, led the orchestra in expertly shaded readings of these short tone poems. Lissa Stolz, on English horn, gave a beautifully expressive performance in the role of the swan, with fine support from cellist Ryan Selberg, violist Roberta Zalkind and violinist Kathryn Eberle.
Catherine Reese Newton
Music of Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and Britten.
With • Conductor Nicholas McGegan and violinist Ralph Matson.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • Reviewed Friday, Jan. 4; repeats Saturday, Jan. 5, at 8 p.m.
Tickets • $32-$72 at www.utahsymphony.org.
Running time • Two hours, including intermission.