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Abravanel, Others Call Concert Debut 'Fantastic'

By William S. Goodfellow, Deseret News Music Critic
Deseret News, 15 September 1979, page B1

"It's everything I expected it to be," exulted acoustician Cyril M. Harris Friday night following the opening concert in his $12 million baby, Salt Lake's new Symphony Hall.

"No hall anywhere has superior clarity, and the bass is just great. It's as good as any hall I know!"

Even granting his natural bias, that's high praise from a man who's not only heard most of the world's great halls but has also had a hand in designing a fair number of them. And Friday his verdict seemed to reflect that of the real jury, the musicians in the orchestra and the members of the audience. (The concert will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m.)

“I feel as though I'm hearing the Utah Symphony for the first time,” one patron commented, and up and down the dimly lit corridors one heard over and over the word Maurice Abravanel had employed after hearing one of the orchestra's rehearsals, “Fantastic!”

Some patrons were disappointed that the sound of the orchestra didn't have “more punch,” as one expressed it, and a few on the main floor said resonances seemed more sharply attenuated than they would have supposed.

But from at least two perspectives the main floor and the uppermost tier in the balcony, I can report that balances are amazingly consistent from nearly any position in the hall.

As one might expect, the hall sounds less “live” with an audience than without. But the sound per se is beautifully dispersed, with no harsh or unpleasant edges anywhere along the frequency spectrum.

It is, in short, a smooth, natural sound – warm and full, yet of almost microscopic clarity. If balances favor the winds, they do not do so at the expense of the strings (the violins in particular sounded markedly improved) and even up near the ceiling the (that gorgeous, crystal-bedecked ceiling) the timpani still can be felt through one's feet.

Reverberation, in fact, seemed if anything superior from the more distant perch. But that may have been a product of the added resonance guest conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski instilled in the final piece, Brahm's Symphony No. 4 in E minor. Compared with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, the first major work on the program, instrumental weight in the Brahms seemed more vividly projected.

For all my past familiarity with his work, on records and off, Skrowaczewski has never impressed me as an easy conductor to type. The baton technique stays pretty much the same from concert to concert – highly animated, with large, sweeping gestures that occasionally border on the frenetic. But the sound itself exhibits a wide range of effect, a brilliant top above a warm, flowing bass line, as it were, capable of being weighted at either end.

Friday, directing from memory, he commanded a full palette of orchestral color, drawing from his players performances of remarkable character and precision.

The Bartok in particular seemed an excellent test for both the players and the hall. (It was, in fact, Maurice Abravanel's choice for his own hall-opener before construction delays and his decision to retire last season combined to make that event an impossibility.) A work of real substance as well as an orchestral showpiece, it demands more of its performers than sheer virtuosity; they also must remain sensitive to nuances of density and balance.

What emerged on this hearing was by no means a cool view of the piece, but it was until the final two movements a measured one, at once rich-textured and powerful, cultivated and caring. Wind solos were transparently clear from the outset, complemented by resinous strings and firmly pointed antiphonal brass.

Thanks to the acoustics even minor executional fluffs were mercilessly exposed. But these by and large were just that – minor – and did little to dim the overall luster of the whole, especially in the subdued brilliance of the outer pages of the Elegy.

The second movement in Skrowaczewski's hands became almost a slow-motion study in mordant wit. The forth was more lightly accented and fun, leading to a Finale of irrepressible energy and excitement. Again, instrumental definition throughout was extraordinary and even in the softest passages one sensed that what he was hearing was exactly what the conductor intended.

In contrast to the subtle registrations of this Bartok, Skrowaczewski's Brahms Fourth seemed almost craved from stone – large, imposing and as solid as granite. Intensity was the watchword here, from the slow swell and terraced dynamics of the opening movement (here making its points with unusual deliberation) to the monumental strength of the last.

But as President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acknowledged in his dedicatory prayer, all this is a product of a long tradition, as well as the hard work and generosity of those who have dreamed the dream. Certainly no one more so than Maurice Abravanel, as Skrowaczewski said to the cheering audience at the program's close, “This orchestra, this wonderful hall – this man made it!”

Either way we owe them both, as well as the many others who have contributed so much, an inestimable debt.

The future has begun.

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Abravanel, Others Call Concert Debut 'Fantastic'