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Concert Review

Fischer closes Utah Symphony season with impassioned Mahler

Sat May 25, 2019 at 12:13 pm
By Edward Reichel

Thierry Fischer conducted the Utah Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Thierry Fischer chose to end the Utah Symphony season this weekend with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan,” a work that has appeared on numerous programs he’s conducted during his tenure with the orchestra.

Fischer, who announced Thursday he’ll be stepping down as music director when his contract expires at the end of the 2021-22 season, gave a remarkably vibrant account of the work at Friday’s concert in Abravanel Hall. The conductor has shown that he is more than just a capable Mahler interpreter. He has always managed to capture the intricacies of the Austrian composer’s scores, and Friday he once again gave a well-thought out reading that was commanding and dynamic. With his meticulous attention to details of phrasing, dynamics, tempi and articulation, Fischer made the symphony sound fresh and new.

After the hushed, atmospheric passage with sustained strings that opens the first movement, Fischer transitioned easily into the main body of the movement with its bright, youthful mood. He balanced the leisurely pace that permeates this movement with finely honed dramatic high points and well articulated climaxes. The expanded orchestra responded to his direction by playing with soaring lines and subtle inflections.

The second, scherzo-like movement, opened with bold playing by the basses, and Fischer elicited vibrant and rhythmic articulation from his entire ensemble. His direction underscored the energetic drive of the main section, while allowing for a leisurely middle passage that offered contrast.

The third movement opens with a stately funeral march, with a beautifully played solo by principal bass David Yavornitzky. From there it goes in different directions, including a softly flowing lullaby, that the muted strings played with concentrated expression and fluid lyricism. There is even a rowdy klezmer-like section that the winds handled wonderfully. Fischer kept everything under control and brought much-needed cohesion to the movement as a whole.

The finale, like the third movement, is also rife with numerous contrasting musical ideas. Fischer once again was in full command and brought depth and cohesiveness to his account. He elicited crisp, taut playing from his orchestra that captured the relentless drive and stormy passion that dominates this movement.

The concert opened with a captivating account of Joseph Haydn’s three-movement Symphony No. 9. Fischer had his ensemble stand (except, of course, for the cellists) which has been his custom whenever he’s programmed an early Haydn symphony. His direction of the opening Allegro was decisive and he coaxed crisp, clean playing from the strings.

The middle movement was a charming Andante. The strings and flute, the latter played by Lisa Byrnes, gave alyrical account with finely delineated phrasings.

In the closing minuet Fischer underscored the spirited character of the music with his sprightly tempo and allowed the musicians to captured the nuances and rhythmic vitality of the dance.

The other piece on the first half is Alfred Schnittke’s musical joke, Moz-Art à la Haydn, a quirky “homage” to the two masters of the classical era. The brief eight-minute piece features two violin soloists, here, associate concertmaster Kathryn Eberle and principal second violin Claude Halter, and an ensemble of 11 strings.

Quoting snippets from Mozart and Haydn, in Schnittke’s modernist harmonic wrapping, Moz-Art à la Haydn is more of a visual treat rather than a musical gem. The piece opens with the hall in total darkness, until a dramatic mid-point in the music in which the lights suddenly go up. During the performance the ensemble moves noisily about and regroups a couple of times, and the work ends (think Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony) with the musicians walking off the stage individually, leaving Fischer alone to conduct a few measures, before he, too, exits.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall. utahsymphony.org; 801-355-2787.

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