Wall Street Journal – Thierry Fischer’s Farewell to the Utah Symphony

The Swiss conductor is stepping down from his post as music director of the organization, which under his baton became one of the country’s finest regional orchestras

By David Mermelstein

The Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer possesses plenty of musical virtues, but the attribute that secured him the job of music director at the Utah Symphony was ambition—a desire to restore the reputation of a once-notable regional orchestra whose fortunes had sadly declined. Appointed to the job in 2009, Mr. Fischer did not assume his position fully until the 2011-12 season, but since then the orchestra has variously prospered, especially artistically. This week, Mr. Fischer, age 65, steps down from his post, his goals largely achieved—though he is quick to note that maintaining gains is nearly as difficult as attaining them.

Evidence of his success is perhaps best expressed by the bold programs the orchestra has undertaken as his tenure comes to a close, including tightly conceived and idiomatically compelling performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in late March and Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie” this past weekend. The conductor caps his directorship on Friday and Saturday with yet another daunting masterwork: Mahler’s six-movement Symphony No. 3 (his longest), the orchestra supplemented by the women of the Tabernacle Choir, the choristers of the Madeleine Choir School and the esteemed Swedish contralto Anna Larsson.

Such repertory is atypical from the world’s foremost orchestras, so it’s a measure of the confidence Mr. Fischer has instilled in his players that they feel comfortable performing these scores—particularly the Messiaen and Mahler in quick succession. The conductor has achieved this security primarily by rebuilding the ensemble. Even for a music director so long ensconced in one place, the number of musicians Mr. Fischer has hired—47 out of 85—is remarkable. But these personnel changes—among them the important positions of principal cello, flute, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion and, perhaps most consequentially, concertmaster—didn’t always come easily.

Not since the long-serving Maurice Abravanel, for whom the orchestra’s 2,800-seat hall is named, has this orchestra had a conductor so dedicated to making people pay attention to classical music—by expanding their appreciation without alienating them. Abravanel, whose tenure lasted from 1947 through 1979, made this orchestra America’s best between Texas and the West Coast, and Mr. Fischer has returned them to that cherished spot.

Some of his grandest plans involved making the orchestra live up to its name—that is, be a statewide rather than city-centered organization. And the resultant appearances across the Beehive State over the past decade had a big impact. From a tour of Utah’s five national parks in 2014 to one of various rural tourist destinations in 2017 and, finally, to a return to Zion National Park last year, Mr. Fischer demonstrated to citizens throughout Utah that classical music needn’t be beyond reach, that the live experience was, in fact, accessible.

Mr. Fischer, who began his musical career as a flutist before turning to conducting in his 30s, has also attracted a bevy of internationally celebrated soloists to Salt Lake—most prominently the violinists Hilary Hahn and Baiba Skride, the pianists Yefim Bronfman and Conrad Tao, and the flutist Emmanuel Pahud. In addition, he commissioned new works from significant contemporary composers like Nico Muhly, Andrew Norman and Augusta Read Thomas.

A series of recordings of French music on the Hyperion label, starting in 2019, deserves plaudits for returning the orchestra to the attention of those outside the region, though most don’t supersede the extensive competition for a listener’s attention. But on their latest effort, Messiaen’s “Des Canyons aux Étoiles” (“From the Canyons to the Stars”), released in April, the ensemble attains new heights. The piece, which was largely inspired by landscapes in Southern Utah, was recorded last summer, after a performance at Zion loosely tied to the impending 50th anniversary of the work’s composition, but it might just as well be a tribute to all that Mr. Fischer has accomplished while here.

The superb piano soloist on the recording, Jason Hardink, who just celebrated his 20th anniversary as the orchestra’s principal keyboardist, served a similar function on this past weekend’s riveting program of Messiaen’s “Turangalîla”—sharing the featured-artist honors with Augustin Viard on the ondes Martenot, a curious early electronic instrument that can sound similar to, but is considerably more flexible than, a Theremin.

Replacing Mr. Fischer with a new leader who will not just maintain but also expand his artistic advancements presents a significant challenge. The orchestra remains something of a hidden gem—not widely enough known to attract conductors who aspire to the world’s top podiums, but too good for journeymen maestros. And any new music director must continue Mr. Fischer’s commitment to engage Utah’s music-loving citizens beyond just its capital. The right choice will require leaps of faith from many, something not altogether unfamiliar in these parts.