Salt Lake Tribune – Maestro Thierry Fischer bids farewell to the Utah Symphony this weekend

After 14 years at the podium, the symphony’s conductor and music director prepares for strong final performances.

by Palak Jayswal

Thierry Fischer said this past week — his last one conducting the Utah Symphony after 14 years — has been completely normal.

“I don’t believe in ends,” he declared.

Fischer’s office, the Conductor’s Suite at Abravanel Hall, was rather barren Thursday afternoon — one day before the first of two final performances with the symphony this weekend.

On Friday and Saturday, the symphony will perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.3, with help from members of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and The Madeleine Choir School.

In 2020, Fischer was chosen as principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. His debut there was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has been traveling between Brazil and Utah, and his home in Switzerland, for the last several months.

Fischer, who is Swiss, came to the Utah Symphony in September 2009. He started in music as a flutist, and before coming to Utah was the principal conductor for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He also had been a guest conductor for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Zurich Opera, Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and other places.

Looking back at 14 seasons, Fischer said, “we worked together very hard. … It was not really easy every day, but thank God it was not easy. It means we were building an identity.”

Fischer said he “certainly expects” to get hit by emotions at some point during the weekend, but he feels incredibly happy about everything.

“We created our sound together, between my leadership and them,” he said. “So it’s not their sound, not my sound — it’s our sound — which is something beautiful.”

Mahler for Maurice

The performances will serve as Fischer’s victory lap. Ending his tenure by performing Mahler’s Third — the composer’s longest symphony — is a symbolic choice, and not just because Mahler is one of Fischer’s favorite composers.

“I chose Mahler to honor Maurice Abravanel,” Fischer said, referring to the Utah Symphony’s founding conductor, who wielded the baton for 32 years — and for whom the symphony hall was named shortly before his death in 1993.

“He was the first conductor in America to conduct and record all the Mahler symphonies, with the same orchestra,” Fischer said.

Also, Fischer said, Mahler’s Third tells the story of creation.

Fischer’s face lit up as he explained the story behind the different movements. At one point in the interview, he stopped as he heard the sound of the brass section, from a speaker in his office connected to the Abravanel stage.

“This morning, I asked them to do this with more bite, so they’re rehearsing,” he said. With a thoughtful tilt of his head, he declared, “I like it.”

The first movement — which clocks in at 35 minutes, longer than a Beethoven symphony — is about the invisible forces of a planet, Fischer said. The second is about the poetic appearance of flowers and trees, and the music is a bit warmer. The third introduces little birds and other animals coming into the world. (As he described it, Fischer mimicked the sound of eggs hatching.)

It’s the fourth movement, Fischer said, when the human soul arrives, “with the mezzo-soprano singing this unbelievable text by Nietzsche about mankind.” The part will be sung by Swedish singer Anna Larsson, who is renowned for her interpretation of Mahler.

When the children’s and Tabernacle choirs come in on the fifth movement, Fischer said, they sound like angels, on hand to take care of the human beings. That last moment is full of peacefulness, serenity and love for this planet, he said.

The choice of this symphony, at this time, felt inevitable, he said. “After 14 years, it gives a very simple message: where are we coming from and where we could go,” he said.

Like a ship’s captain

When the Utah Symphony’s season started in September with a gala, some of Fischer’s triumphs through the years with the organization were recalled: Recordings, composer catalogs, bringing French compositions to the symphony, and developing relationships with guest artists.

Maestro Fischer — as he is often called by musicians and concertgoers — took the Utah Symphony to Carnegie Hall during its 75th anniversary season, worked with a Haitian orchestra, taught music students at schools around the state, and led such events as the Mighty Five Tour to Utah’s national parks.

On Thursday, Fischer took the stage with the 87 orchestra members for one of their final rehearsals. Wearing jeans, a blue collared shirt and a cream crewneck, he weaved between music stands and chairs — speaking with musicians before they got started.

Outside the entrance to the left of the stage, a schedule for the week — the 39th of the season — is pinned to the bulletin board. It declares that vacation begins this Sunday.

Most of the musicians are in jeans instead of slacks, tennis shoes and sandals instead of dress shoes. Their clothing is the only casual thing about them as they get ready.

Fischer has a no-nonsense start: Taking his spot at the raised podium. They practice the symphony out of order, focusing on certain areas. He provides comments, enunciating how notes should sound — softer here, sharper there. He also listens to the musicians, pausing when they ask for clarity in certain sections.

When he compliments someone, generally, or for improving on something specific, the orchestra — unable to applaud because they are holding their instruments — stamp their feet.

Fischer conducts with his whole body, but not in a theatrical way one would see in movies. He moves gracefully, his arms precise and accurate. Each flick of his baton is as light as a feather, but full of purpose.

Like a ship’s captain at sea, Fischer is in command. His gray hair flops along with his movements, his smile triumphant. It’s almost as if he is part of the music himself — an artist at work, a maestro at play. He is one with each note, each careful glide of a bow, each pluck of a string.

Part of the community

Of his time in Utah, Fischer said what he will remember the most is “14 years building, developing and giving meaning to what sounds can bring to those who are producing them and to those who are listening [to] them.”

In America, he said, he learned the importance of having an orchestra that belongs to the community.

“This notion that hit me at the beginning that, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the orchestra of the people of the community,’” he said, “So we better motivate them to be part to the development of our identity.”

Fischer said he will return to America, and to Utah, even if he’s not the conductor of the Utah Symphony. (When he leaves, Utah Symphony will give him the title of Music Director Emeritus.)

It’s hard to put it all in words, Fischer said, and he doesn’t want to dilute it to how many shows he has done, or works he has commissioned. “What are numbers? Give me a break,” he said. “I will remember the people from the board, organization, all the musicians. They will still inspire me in my upcoming activities.”

Classical music, he said, will never die out, because it’s indestructible. “Classical music is an ocean of art, which is stronger than any human decision,” he said. “It will exist without any doubt, in one way or the other.”

Music, he said, inspires everyone — whether in a concert hall or on a movie soundtrack.

“This unique live thing will simply always continue to have a positive impact [on] people,” he said. “Music is my life.”

Tickets for Friday’s and Saturday’s concerts are available at UtahSymphony.org.