When Thierry Fischer became the Utah Symphony’s music director in 2009 he had a vision about what this orchestra could be.
He saw its potential and under his leadership he raised playing standards, boosted musicians’ morale and rejuvenated it. Fischer wanted the Utah Symphony to be one of the best in the country and now, five years later, he is well on his way to having his dream realized.
And the symphony’s audiences have reaped the benefits. The orchestra has never sounded better than it does now. The repertoire has been expanded, it has recorded its first CD in many years (not counting the album it recorded under Keith Lockhart in 2006, which was an artistic and creative flop) and it’s planning on undertaking some major tours.
With Fischer at the helm, the quality of the performances and the nuanced and brilliantly executed playing by the musicians have been impressive. It seems as if each concert is better than the previous one. And this season, which opened Sept. 12–13, promises to be its best to date. The orchestra’s playing is much more polished and refined than in the past, and it’s certainly on its way to leaving its mark on the national music scene.
The opening weekend’s featured work was Gustav Mahler’s nearly hour-long Symphony No. 1, which was also recorded commercially on the Soundmirror label for later release, perhaps as early as this Christmas.
At the Sept. 12 performance it was immediately obvious that Fischer had carefully prepared his score. He paid close attention to Mahler’s dynamic, tempo and expression markings and conveyed them to the orchestra. The reading was vibrant, dynamic and well defined.
Fischer decided to include the original slow second movement, known today as Blumine. Mahler omitted it from later versions of the symphony and it is occasionally played as a stand-alone work. A lyrically soft piece, Fischer’s account was broad and brought out the depth and expansiveness of the music. It was a sensitively crafted reading, and the musicians played with great feeling and finely tuned phrasings.
Throughout the symphony Fischer elicited playing from his musicians that ranged from the sensuous to the bold. Among the high points was the otherworldly atmosphere that the maestro created in the fourth movement funeral march; it was eerie and tantalizing. Principal bass David Yavornitzky’s solo playing to open this movement was wonderful, as was principal tuba Gary Ofenloch’s solo turn.
Indeed, all of the musicians played magnificently, with clarity and precision.
The following weekend’s concert was no less spectacular. On the program were Igor Stravinsky’s brief but powerful Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Arnold Schoenberg’s emotionally charged Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and Johannes Brahms’ imposing Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman as soloist.
Stravinsky’s piece is a delightful mélange of modern and classical harmonies and vibrant rhythms. The writing is sectional, pitting the woodwinds against the brass; occasionally, the two sections work together to create a whole. The woodwind and brass players were exceptional and Fischer’s direction brought a seamlessness to the performance that made the work cohesive.
Verklärte Nacht was originally written in 1899 as a string sextet. Schoenberg later made several arrangements of it for string orchestra. It was the composer’s final revision, from 1943, that Fischer and the Utah Symphony strings played.
Being one of the composer’s early works and a product of its time, Schoenberg embraced the Germanic romanticism and harmonic voluptuousness of the period, and Fischer elicited wonderfully expressive playing from his strings. It was an atmospheric and nuanced reading that captured the eloquent lyricism that flows through the work, even in its darkest moments.
Too often, performances of the string orchestra versions of Verklärte Nacht lack the intimacy of the original sextet. But Fischer’s perceptive reading underscored the chamber like quality of the original.
The highlight of this concert, however, was Bronfman’s amazing account of the Brahms concerto. His playing breathed new life into this well known, popular and oft-played work.
Bronfman played it as if it had been written for him. There was a naturalness and ease in the manner in which he commanded the bravura passages, as well as in the way in which he treated the softer lyrical sections. The Second is a concerto on a grand scale, but Bronfman never overplayed it. He played with sweeping lines and large gestures that allowed him to give a wonderfully articulated and expressed account. It was bold and forceful where the music calls for it and gorgeously poetic in its most intimate moments.
One of those moments was the opening of the slow third movement. It begins with a cello solo that turns into a duet with the piano. The symphony’s new principal cello Rainer Eudeikis’ exquisite playing captured the tenderness of the melody, and he and Bronfman played off each other wonderfully.
With two such powerful concerts opening the new season there is no doubt that Fischer and the orchestra have now found their stride. It’s a wonderful collaboration that will undoubtedly result in many more exceptional concerts in this and in future seasons.
Salt Lake City Magazine, 6th October 2014