Classical music fans who also crave a Rocky Mountain lifestyle could find no better home than the Salt Lake City region.
The Utah Symphony, led today by music director Thierry Fischer, established itself as one of the country’s finest back in the 1940s under the leadership of Maurice Abravenal, after whom its 2,800-seat home venue in the heart of the city is named. The Utah Opera has mounted on average four productions a year since 1978 and as many as five in recent years. The city boasts no fewer than three organizations that present ballet performances throughout the year, the acclaimed NOVA Chamber Music Series has presented thoughtful and challenging programs, including many commissioned works, since 1977, and the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Weber State University and Westminster College, all within the greater Salt Lake City region, are considered some of the best music schools in the region, if not the country.
So of course, when the Grand Teton Music Festival began in 1962, it pulled from the Utah state capital’s pool of talent and has ever since continued to rely on the ever-deepening roster of classical musicians from the Beehive State.
To celebrate that long and special relationship, the festival’s next “GTMF on Location” digital concert will come from the bright, colorful interior of the 111-year-old Cathedral of the Madeleine, just a few blocks from Abravenal Hall, and will feature six stalwarts of the Salt Lake City classical music scene who also have come into the GTMF fold — some of them recently, some of them a decade or more ago.
Utah Symphony Concertmaster, and co-concertmaster for the Festival Orchestra, Madeline Adkins and pianist Jason Hardink, still flush from his triumphant 2019 Carnegie Hall debut, lead a program of classical, early 20th-century and contemporary living composers, recorded and videotaped last week and set to broadcast via GTMF’s YouTube and Facebook channels at 7 p.m. Feb. 25.
“It went really well,” Adkins said of the recording sessions. “The space is really beautiful and, being a cathedral, very resonant. We had a lot of fun with that, could really fill the space with sound.”
Over the course of a year in which live performances in front of an audience have become a fond but distant memory, Adkins, Hardink and the rest — all members for the Utah Symphony — consider themselves fortunate for having been able to stay relatively busy in their professional lives.
“I try to keep busy with my own practicing and projects,” Hardink said, “and I’ve got plenty of notes on the schedule for Utah Symphony events, but things are still unclear.”
Soon after the coronavirus pandemic shut down pretty much all live venues throughout the country, the symphony adapted to the world of livestreaming and recording programs. Then, starting in the fall, it began to welcome up to 400 guests back to its sufficiently spacious hall for live performances featuring smaller ensembles.
“I think for the Utah Symphony, because of the way recording licenses and agreements with unions are written and all of that, we haven’t had a lot of material online of us as group. It’s nice to put stuff out of that … and I hope we continue to put material online after this. It’s good to reach people who aren’t in Salt Lake or who otherwise can’t attend.”
With months of operating under COVID-19 protocols, the six musicians are well versed in the often subtle adjustments demanded by socially distanced, masked performances in an empty venue.
“You listen in a different way,” Hardink said of making music through the pandemic. “It feels like every time you step out of a recording session, even it’s not a difficult piece, you’re just wiped. Your concentration is ratcheted up to 11. Everyone is listening like we’ve never listened before.”
That ought to work in viewers’ favor come Feb. 25. The program for this month’s “GTMF on Location” concert will deserve close listening, as a good 80% of the music will be new to most. And the most familiar work — the three final movements from Schubert’s 1819 Piano Quintet in A Major, the much-loved “Trout” Quintet — while performed often, is an extremely difficult ensemble piece that will have benefited from the group’s intense focus.
The concert will start with two contemporaries, though from opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville, Spain, and for nearly a decade starting around 1905 lived and studied in Paris, where he fell under the spell of the great French impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy. In his Piano Trio No. 2, featuring Hardink, Adkins and cellist Matthew Johnson, that influence can be clearly heard, Adkins said, “but it also has got that Spanish flavor.”
“It’s a fun piece,” she said. “I think the audience will take to it right away. I like discovering music that people connect to.”
On the other hand, the story of William Grant Still (1885-1978) is a quintessentially American one. Sometimes called “the dean of African American composers,” Still was born in Mississippi and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. Exposed to a lot of music as a child, he did not, however, pick up an instrument until he was 15, when he started violin lessons. In short order, he taught himself clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bass, cello and viola. After a false start pursuing an education in medicine (per his mother’s wishes), he ended up in Ohio at the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied composition with a number of teachers, including Edgard Varese and George Chadwick.
After a stint in Memphis, Tennessee, working for “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy, and a hitch in the Navy during World War I, Still wound up in Harlem, New York, where he became a key figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Gigs through the 1920s included work with jazzmen like Fletcher Henderson, Eubie Blake, Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman, and later arranging and orchestrating popular music by James P. Johnson and others.
In 1930 he wrote his first major work for orchestra, his Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Afro-American,” which became the first complete work to be performed by a major American orchestra when the Rochester Philharmonic presented it in 1931. Throughout the ’40s it was one of the most popular symphonies composed by any American.
On the first of three Guggenheim Fellowships, Still moved to Los Angeles, where in 1936 he conducted the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl — the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra. Still wrote and arranged music for film, while also producing a prodigious amount of classical music — five symphonies, eight operas (1939’s “Troubled Island” was the first opera by any American to produced by the New York City Opera, and the first by an African American by any major company), four ballets, 30-plus choral works and dozens of art songs, chamber pieces and works for solo instruments.
Adkins and Hardink will play Still’s “Summerland,” the second of “Three Visions” he wrote for piano during his prolific 1930s and later arranged for various other instrumentations. “Summerland,” Adkins said, depicts a heavenly scene with a “sense of the languid dullness of summer. … It’s a lovely piece.”
Hardink then will play Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Etude No. 4, “Scalen,” one of six demonically difficult solos. The pianist posed the piece as a study (which is what “etude” means) in which the composer tries to work out a problem or question.
“The setup in my mind,” he said, “was that you’re playing these irregular modal scales and she introduces this disruptive element with these chords that disrupt the flow. The chords get more and more persistent as the piece goes on until it seems like they are going to take over.” At least one of the challenges of the piece, he said, is “trying to fit in the rhythm and the scales while jumping to these physical, loud interjections.”
Hardink said he put in hundreds of hours learning the piece, which is only a bit over three minutes long.
“I’d like to get all going,” he said. “It’s kind of a pandemic project for me.”
Cellist Johnson and percussionist Keith Carrick then present Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel.” The 60-year-old Golijov has composed many a furious, fiery work, but “Mariel” is different: “I wrote this piece in memory of my friend Mariel Stubrin,” he wrote of the piece on his website. “I attempted to capture that short instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life: a single moment frozen forever in one’s memory, and which reverberates through the piece …”
Adkins said its “beautiful timbres and long, meditative tones” could have been written for place like the cathedral. “It works so beautifully in the space.”
And three sections from Schubert’s slippery quintet “Das Forellen,” or “The Trout,” wrap up the program.
“We needed to have something that everyone knows and loves,” Adkins said. “The ‘Trout’ checks those boxes. And we were happy to include [bassist] Corbin Johnston, who has been going to festival for 15 years.”
Violist Whittney Thomas rounds out the ensemble for the finale.
Three more “GTMF on Location” concerts are planned for March, April and May, and February’s program, like the three previous events from New York, Chicago and Houston, will live on at GTMF.org. Visit the site for information, where an announcement about the festival’s 2021 summer season is expected soon. ￼