Faculty Recital: David Utterback, Piano
It’s the night of Saturday the 25th, just before seven. A large crowd has gathered outside the Alma Thomas Theatre in the Fine Arts Building. The Performer tonight is none other than David Utterback, a longtime piano teacher and staff member here at Southwestern. There is always excitement leading up to the various performers that come to this school, but there has been an unusual amount of buzz surrounding this show among the music department. Dr. Utterback has left his mark on Southwestern’s music community by accompanying talented performers in both the music and theatre department, but tonight he is in the spotlight for his first solo piano recital in over 30 years.
The day before the show, I got the chance to speak with Dr. Utterback about his music career, and he told me “If you ever question yourself if you want to work as a musician, then it’s not for you”.
As he told me his story, it seemed very clear to me that there was never any doubt in his mind that he would find his way in the music business. Even before the young Dr. Utterback was old enough to be in elementary school, he expressed a fascination with the piano. He recalled sitting under his family’s piano playing with his toys, banging on the keys to see if he could figure out how it worked.
At the age of 6 his family began looking for someone to teach piano to the young Utterback, but most refused on the grounds that he was too young. When he finally found a teacher, he was assured that if he didn’t shape up fast enough the piano studio would drop him. Refusing to let that happen, Utterback played his way through the program all the way to graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he trained as an accompanying pianist. Eventually he returned to Austin to pursue his doctoral degree at the University of Texas, while at the same time beginning his professional career playing for a production of Brigadoon at Zachary Scott Theatre.
“There is no better way to spend more time earning less money than to be a rehearsal pianist for a musical theatre show”, he joked about his early career. Luckily for him work was never hard to find for someone with his skill set, and his opportunities only became more lucrative until he eventually landed his job here at SU, where he has been for 32 years.
Back in present day Alma Thomas theatre, the lights in the room begin to dim and Dr. Utterback walks out on stage. “This concert is the culmination of a dream of mine that I didn’t know I had,” he jests as the show begins.
As Dr. Utterback sits down at the piano his previously jovial demeanor fades and is replaced by a stoic focus. His fingers run lightly along keys as the music plays through his mind like a record. He begins with Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35, a piece which contains the composer’s famous funeral march. The music sounds like something out of a dream, and the phrases rhyme like the lines of a poem. It opens with a series of deep chords, spaced apart in such a way to highlight the pieces somber mood. As the music opens up its tempo increases. Long melodic lines with irregular timing and dissonant leaps keep the listener from taking any comfort in the music, except perhaps the comfort of shared grief. Ever so briefly, the piece lightens with a few bright sounding chords only to be once again consumed by dissonant chaos. As the resounding final cadence of the first movement rings out one is left to reflect on the haunting beauty of what was just played. As the notes fade, Dr. Utterback jokingly wipes a beat of sweat from his forehead, and the audience chuckles; a moment of emotional relief from the oppressive nature of the music.
The audience erupts with applause as he makes a slight bow and begins to introduce the next piece, another Chopin composition titled: “Grande Polonaise Brillante precedee d’un Andante spianato.” The song is intended as a dance, but one is left wondering how one could dance to music so intricate. It begins with a long legato line that flows endlessly like a river, in and out and over the repeating chord progression as though the melody is itself dancing. In contrast to the last piece, this one is warm and inviting, evoking images of holding a lover in one’s arms and gently swaying. The music seems about to conclude at it slows down and switches from the smooth melody that has until now characterized it to a series of rippling chords. But out of the brief silence, a string of resounding open octaves fills all the empty space in the room. Dr. Utterback works his way up the keyboard as the tension in the music builds until finally, release! A streak of dramatic cadences and eighty-eight key runs up and down the keyboard finally concludes the piece. Even as the final chords fade, the melody continues with as much energy as at the beginning. It almost feels as though it is reaching for something just out of its grasp, calling for another few seconds of music so it can complete its task.
After a brief intermission, the second half of the show begins, which features three different works by Franz Liszt, another piano composer noted for his virtuosity, as well as his influence on program music, or music that tells a story. The songs in this section of the program are remarkably different in style, both from the earlier Chopin pieces and from other pieces written around the same time by other contemporaries. The music is highly experimental, unafraid to experiment with dissonances and strange textures rather than traditional melodies and chord progressions. It more closely resembles what today we would call avant-garde music than anything in the Mozart/Beethoven classical canon. Most notably though, all the songs are introduced with a deliberate story that informs the progression in the music. For example, one of the pieces, Ballade No. 2 in B minor, tells the tale of a priestess of Aphrodite who falls into forbidden love with a hero. Each night, to meet in secret with his lover, the hero swims across a raging river. But one night a powerful storm rolls in, making the river treacherous. Our hero, not to be deterred, still attempts to swim across, only to drown, and so the priestess, overcome by grief, throws herself from atop her tower. In typical ancient Greek fashion, death is not the end of this story, nor is it the end of their love. As their souls descend into the underworld, they are reunited and their spirits become one, their love lives on for all eternity.
Throughout this concert, Dr. Utterback left the audience amazed time and time again. His incredible nimbleness and speed on the keys is only matched by his incredible soulfulness in his playing. Even as he alternated between incredible technical sprints up and down the piano, and enchanting slow melodies full of emotion and feeling, he never misses a beat. For all the many years of serious intense practice he must have undergone to play like he does, his humor never fails, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. The whole experience was absolutely astounding from start to finish and I recommend anyone who has the chance to see Dr. Utterback play does so.
Let’s just hope he doesn’t wait another thirty years till his next show.