Thierry Fischer discusses three new Utah Symphony commissions.
Any modern arts organisation has the responsibility to represent the world that surrounds them. At Utah Symphony, one way in which we achieve this is through the commissioning of new works by contemporary composers. These new pieces provide huge value to an organisation engaged in innovation and creativity, bringing the composers into the life of the symphony. It’s always an invigorating experience for myself and the musicians alike, a collective feeling of pleasure, excitement, motivation and utmost commitment to the new score. When music is written especially for you, you develop a strong connection with it, building a sense of identity. After the first performance, you really feel like it is something you can call your own.
When I began to think about commissioning three new works to celebrate the Utah Symphony’s 75th anniversary, it was immediately obvious that we should commission three American composers, and also to present this American image on CD, to honour the legacy of the orchestra. Augusta Reed Thomas was an obvious choice. I really admire her sophisticated style of writing and she’s very much in the Boulez school of composition that I’m instantly attracted to. Nico Muhly was another obvious choice, as he’s a very popular composer in the US, especially in the East Coast with all of his activity at The Met. I remember witnessing a piece of his at the BBC Proms a number of years ago and being really taken by the instinctive nature of his music.
Andrew Norman was more serendipitous – at some point he, Colin Currie and I were all in Salt Lake City and when we met, the idea of commissioning a percussion concerto came instinctively upon us. When I first listened to Andrew’s music it reminded me, in parts, of the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger. But the more I listened, the more apparent his distinct sound world became that I was really taken by.
Prior to each premiere, we have involved each of the composers in the life of the orchestra as deeply as possible. They join us in Salt Lake City, give educational workshops, are in touch with other chamber music groups in the city, participate in rehearsals working with me on stage and engage closely with the recording team.
With contemporary music, especially music written for you, you are carried by the vision of the composer, so that’s why I like to have them right next to me during rehearsals, even interacting with the musicians when I’m conducting. We adapt toward his or her vision, modelling the sound like two architects having ideas at the same time, one more creative, one more organising.
In general, I experience three different phases of emotion when seeing a score for the first time. The first is the excitement of discovery, feeling as if you are entering into unknown territory. The second is anxiety, and this was particularly true when I saw Andrew’s score for Switch, due to the sheer complexity of what he had written. I was anxious as to whether the true beauty of the music I was reading would be fully captured in performance, but it was Andrew’s calm and confidence after the first rehearsal that gave me comfort and allowed me to enjoy the absolute pleasure of being in the middle of all of these new sounds.
Switch was premiered in November, and its pairing with Mahler Symphony No.5 worked perfectly. As Mahler 5 is played quite regularly in concert, the audience is already familiar with the music, hence the contrast of discovery combined with the comfort of something you know very well was very appropriate.
When you create new music it gives rise to new challenges, and that’s also the beauty of it. You may think these challenges are limited to the piece, but it is a challenge for the whole organisation in areas you could not have imagined. In a sense, being creative is not about the creation of the piece, it’s about our state of mind and our general approach to the music. We may feel we are secure in our approach to Mahler 5, but when prepared alongside a piece like Switch, it opens new doors and makes us question what we think we know already. The beauty and importance of being involved with commissioning new music ensures we are not left behind and are always looking ahead to the next step.
Our next performance of Switch will be in April 2016 at Carnegie Hall. While there won’t be any dramatic changes in our performance, there will surely be new discoveries and impressions to enjoy. When you first perform a piece there is a lot of excitement, and in successive performances this is replaced by a kind of maturity and also an awareness of the pleasure the music brings.
Thierry Fischer, Music Director, Utah Symphony