Although he says not to call it a comeback, Rob Utterback’s recital at the Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, June 1, is, in fact, a comeback. Way back in the halcyon 1990s, the local classical cognoscenti eagerly anticipated the ace harpsichordist’s recitals. Utterback’s technical fluency, edgy expressivity, and quirky wit had marked him out as an accomplished and individualistic player, but his penchant for improvisation was what truly set him apart as a classically trained musician.
During his recitals, Utterback would regularly invite members of the audience to suggest a theme, any theme, from Bach to Cobain. After pausing a few seconds to invoke his muse, Utterback would take the theme through counterpoints, developments,
and modulations to the sun, the moon, the stars, and beyond. Though Utterback would sometimes stumble over a progression or hesitate over an inversion, he would more often soar — and the results were often breathtaking. After audiences became acclimated to the novelty of hearing freely composed music, they quickly learned to love improvisation. But by the end of the century, Utterback had turned away from the solitary life of a soloist to the greater security of ensemble work — he’s been the Detroit Symphony’s go-to continuo player for years.
“It’s been a while since I’ve gone solo,” says Utterback, “and I’m ready. Improvisation is one of the most fulfilling things I can do in front of an audience. With somebody else’s music, there’s a wall — the piece — between me and the audience. But with improvisation, the audience is right there with me.” For his June 1 recital, Utterback says that he’ll be playing keyboard music of English composer Peter Philips — an assortment of his best known fantasias, pavanes, galliards, and intabulations (stylized arrangements of songs for keyboard) — but that he’s also “planning on improvising preludes to some of the dances, maybe three or four.”
Born a Catholic in the early years of the Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, Philips was a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral under the protection of a Catholic chorus master until the latter’s death and the horrors of the Irish Rebellion persuaded him to remove himself to Rome, where he spent three years as student and organist. After traveling in Europe for five years, Philips settled in Brussels, married, fathered a child, and, as he later wrote, “mainteyned him self by teaching of children of the virginals, being very cunning thereon.” Four years later, Philips traveled to Amsterdam to hear Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the great Dutch keyboard player who had written a set of variations on a theme from Philips’s first Pavane. After the deaths of his wife and child, he became a priest and died. He should provide a rich subject for Utterback’s imagination.
[Review published June 2007]