Fischer closes Utah Symphony’s pandemic season with provocative eclecticism

May 29, 2021
By Rick Mortensen
Thierry Fischer conducted the Utah Symphony’s final program of the season Thursday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo; Marco Borggreve

Eclectic programming that juxtaposes works in a thought-provoking way has been a hallmark of Thierry Fischer’s tenure as music director of the Utah Symphony. 

The constraints of the pandemic have accentuated this gift. With shorter concerts, no intermissions, socially distanced musicians, and until recently, very few wind instruments, audiences have been exposed to pieces they might not have otherwise heard and have heard familiar pieces in settings that shed new light on them.

This was particularly true of the Utah Symphony’s season finale, presented Thursday night at Abravanel Hall. The program zig-zagged from Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, written in 2006, to Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik to Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 and finally, to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Experiencing these pieces in the above order without the distractions of an intermission—or a non-household member sitting within six feet—allowed one to notice their similarities as well as their obvious differences.

Strum is the second piece the symphony has played this season by Montgomery, who was named composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last month. The first was Starburst, a shorter piece she wrote in 2012, which the orchestra played in November under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman. Both pieces, featured on her album on the Catalyst Quartet, are masterfully written for strings.

What was a quartet on the album has been enlarged into music for a 31-piece string ensemble Thursday night. Montgomery’s expanded arrangement made full use of the orchestra, inventively spreading the piece’s thematic material throughout the string sections. The piece begins with a single second violin playing a pizzicato figure in a minor key. It is joined by the first violin and then cello introducing a legato three-note motive which Montgomery explores and expands in a way that is only possible to a composer who seems to have the styles of everyone from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky and John Adams at her fingertips.

Though it is a single movement, Strum contains many moods, beginning with a mysterious, sensual, vaguely Spanish sound, morphing into something sweet and sonorous, breaking down into low and dissonant gloom before finding its way back into the sunshine for a triumphant finish. Fischer and the orchestra mastered each mood and maintained the rhythmic drive that propels the piece forward.

It’s a tribute to Strum that it held its own next to one of the most beloved pieces for string ensemble ever written, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The contrast between the two pieces was augmented by Fischer’s relaxed, subdued interpretation of the familiar Mozart. Fischer took the first movement slower than most and focused on getting the phrasing just right. This set the stage for a nicely contemplative second movement and created a contrast with the third movement, a saucy minuet. Fischer gave a dreamy, light comedic quality to that movement’s trio, which set the stage for the unrestrained joy of the fourth movement. As a whole, Fischer’s interpretation was distinctive, coherent, and delightful.

Written 32 years after his Chamber Symphony No. 1, Schoenberg’s Chamber 

Symphony No. 2 is more consonant, and it has more conventional orchestration. At times it almost sounds more like the film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold than Schoenberg’s own Variations for Orchestra, a serialist piece he wrote 11 years earlier. Written in two contrasting movements, the Chamber Symphony No. 2 features passages that suggest Johann Strauss, though the prevailing style is German late romanticism without the grandiosity and sheer volume of Mahler.

Curiously, the Schoenberg develops from a three-note motive that is similar to the one in Strum, but the development is more cerebral and uses less overtly contrasting moods. Fischer turned in a conscientious and expressive interpretation, highlighting the piece’s swelling string phrases and cinematic sweep. He particularly shone in the second movement, which begins with a bright waltz and ends in a more brooding mood.

The open fifths of Copland’s elegiac ballet Appalachian Spring were a welcome respite from Schoenberg’s dense counterpoint, as was the more hopeful tone. While the piece can sound somewhat disjointed without the ballet narrative, Fischer and the orchestra made the most of its more transcendent episodes, including the grand, stately final iteration of the “Simple Gifts” theme. The piece ends quietly and thoughtfully, with the chords that had undergirded the piece sustained in the strings. It brought the sparse, socially distant audience to its feet for a sustained standing ovation—which may have been as much to congratulate the orchestra for persevering through the pandemic and providing an excellent season under very difficult circumstances.       

The Utah Symphony will repeat the program 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Abravanel Hall. Seating is limited due to social distancing.; 801-533-6683.

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