Deseret News – ‘I could not imagine me doing more’: After 14 years, maestro Thierry Fischer says farewell to Utah

The Swiss conductor strongly believes it is the right time for him to leave

by Lottie Elizabeth Johnson

Thierry Fischer didn’t know much about Utah. He was aware the state existed — and that was only because of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

But that did nothing to deter the Swiss conductor from taking on the role of Utah Symphony music director in 2009 — if anything, it amplified his excitement.

Fischer has long possessed a fascination for the unknown, and on a recent spring afternoon in his office at Abravanel Hall, just minutes after a Utah Symphony rehearsal, he lamented the lack of mystery in an age where everything is a few clicks away.

“Everything is known. Everything is controlled. Everything is immediate. Everything is explained. Everything is shared,” he said, leaning forward at his desk. “This beauty of life is in mysteries … they are so rare. I’m trying to keep some in my life.”

It’s why he doesn’t really care to understand how he, a globetrotting conductor, emerged from a completely nonmusical family — his brother is a businessman and his sister’s a lawyer. For Fischer, it doesn’t need to make sense. It just needs to be right.

And it was right when, as a 16-year-old whose enthusiasm for soccer surpassed his skill, Fischer had a moment of clarity about his life’s direction. To this day he can picture sitting at the top of a set of stairs in Geneva, Switzerland, telling a friend that music was his true passion.

It was right when, after several years of playing the flute in professional orchestras throughout Europe, Fischer got asked to fill in for a sick conductor in a rehearsal — ”after just a few minutes or even seconds, I realized in this first rehearsal … that this is what I wanted to do,” he recalled.

It was right when, while serving as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan, he heeded the recruiting calls from the Utah Symphony and headed to the heart of Salt Lake City.

And now, after 14 years, Fischer believes it is the right time for him to leave.

His final concerts as Utah Symphony music director come this weekend — two monumental performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in collaboration with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and the Madeleine Choir School.

Following the performances, Fischer, who in 2020 was named music director of Brazil’s São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, will settle more deeply into that role. He was also recently appointed as music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León in Spain.

“Any reasonable leader knows when you have to leave,” he said matter of factly. “You see too many leaders staying too long, for obvious reasons. … And I realized a few years ago that I had the feeling that … the organization was needing some fresh ideas, some fresh philosophy, some fresh fire here.

“And you know what? Me, too.”

Arriving in Salt Lake City

Coming to Utah was a challenging decision for Fischer.

The Utah Symphony board of trustees had a vision for the orchestra, a “clear mandate,” Fischer said, to restore the reputation of an orchestra that had risen to prominence under the leadership of the legendary Maurice Abravanel, another European conductor who guided the symphony from 1947 to 1979.

It was a daunting request. But Fischer connected with the people he met in Utah. As an avid hiker, he found the scenery extremely convincing. But more than anything, he was propelled by a phrase he said is common throughout Europe: “In America, everything is possible.” With the mindset of an intrepid explorer, he was eager to put that cliche to the test.

So he began discovering. He embarked on multiple statewide tours that extended the symphony’s reach to rural communities and major Utah landmarks, including the state’s five national parks. In 2016, he celebrated the symphony’s 75-year milestone with an anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall.

He was actively involved in the symphony’s ongoing service project to bring music education to young musicians in Haiti. Through extensive educational outreach, he became acquainted with young students and musicians throughout Utah, and even conducted 250 high school students across the state in a performance of Igor Stravinksy’s “Firebird.”

He commissioned new works and championed lesser-known works, like French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux etoiles” (“From the Canyons to the Stars”), a piece inspired by the composer’s visit to southern Utah in the 1970s. The symphony recorded this 12-movement piece in its entirety at Zion National Park last year, and recently released the recording to high praise internationally.

Over 14 years, the conductor spearheaded a vibrant era for the orchestra, enhancing the symphony’s visibility and expanding its horizons. And through it all, Fischer continued to love his job more and more.

“It was wonderful to discover this state,” he said, adding that he has been motivated every single day of his tenure with the symphony.

But his efforts weren’t always well received.

Fischer’s ambitious creative programming sometimes faced criticism — especially when he made “From the Canyons to the Stars” a central theme of the symphony’s 2019-20 season. He recalled phone calls and letters from patrons who stated that it wasn’t music.

The conductor respected their perspective, but he did not apologize. It was never his objective to please everyone.

“We’re not a museum,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as artists to enlarge the horizons. … If you play only Brahms, Dvorak and Mozart, you have limitations.”

Gradually, as the season went on, the number of complaints Fischer received regarding his programming dwindled.

“And now look at us,” he said. “Standing ovations.”

Developing an identity

Fischer is visibly proud of all the symphony has accomplished — but he won’t name a personal favorite highlight from his lengthy tenure.

“If I single out one, it’s undermining the others,” he said.

For the 65-year-old conductor, getting bombarded with questions from high school students about life and music carries just as much weight as performing at Carnegie Hall.

“Everything is important. A dinner with a donor, a meeting with musicians, an idea of project, the choice of programming,” he said. “You know, I really treated everything at the same level.”

It’s a pragmatic approach he’s also taken with his final concerts this weekend. As far as he’s concerned, it’s just the same as the first. Watching a rehearsal Thursday morning — just a day before Fischer’s first of two final concerts with the symphony — there was no indication that the upcoming performances may carry greater meaning for the conductor and the musicians he’s led over the years.

With a job still to be done, Fischer guided his orchestra through different parts of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, a work the music director selected largely as a tribute to Abravanel, who made the Utah Symphony the first American orchestra to record all of Mahler’s symphonies.

At times during the rehearsal, Fischer stopped to go over the articulation of a phrase. Occasionally, he violently shook his left hand and demanded more sound from his musicians. During one particularly animated stretch, roughly 25 minutes into the rehearsal, it looked like he was going to throw his baton at the second violin section.

And although he had his back to the empty seats in the concert hall, it was easy to see that a lot of the time, he had an irrepressible smile on his face.

And that’s largely due to what he’s most proud of: the 80-plus symphony members who have followed him on adventure after adventure over the last 14 years.

“Realistically, let’s face it: What could a conductor do without musicians?” Fischer said. “I’m proud of what we achieved together as a collective. … We developed our sound. … It is not my sound, it is not the musicians’ sound, it is our sound. … We developed an identity.

“I’m proud because we are proud.”

‘I could not imagine me doing more’

Fischer has a soft-spoken manner that belies his dynamic approach as a music director. He’s quick to deflect praise and frequently uses the word “we.” The way he sees it, through disagreements and triumphs, he and the orchestra have grown and evolved together to form a distinct entity. He’s learned to listen to them and they’ve come to understand him.

On the surface, that wouldn’t seem to make taking his final bow as music director any easier. But for Fischer, it’s a testament that there’s never been a better time to do so.

“I could not imagine me doing more,” he said. “I was extremely proud and happy to be appointed. I enjoyed every day of my tenure, and (am) equally, genuinely enjoying that I’m leaving now. Because it’s the right moment. … I’m really privileged.”

So with a sense of peace, of one who accomplished just about everything he set out to do, Fischer is heading into his final performances as music director of the Utah Symphony — although he noted that he already has a return date for February 2025.

It’s a clarity that has allowed him to approach these last rehearsals as he would any other — “I refuse the emotional pressure of the last week,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the emotion won’t come.

“Whether it’s the first or middle week, or the last one — and as life goes on, it is the last week — but I don’t change my habits,” he said. “I’m just doing what needs to be done with immense pleasure. And will I be hit by the last time? Probably, yes. Well, I have no idea.

“But I’ll just go on.”