Utah Symphony opens season with music from the canyon to the cosmos

Sat Sep 14, 2019 at 11:20 am
By Edward Reichel
Thierry Fischer conducted the Utah Symphony in the orchestra’s season-opening program Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

For their season-opening program, Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony took their audience on a heavenly journey Friday night, culminating in an at-times rambunctious but always engrossing performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. 

The basis for the program choices for much of the new season is Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… Two movements of Messiaen’s epic were played Friday, though the focus this weekend was squarely on Holst’s monumental tribute to the planets. 

The one exception to the celestial theme of the evening was Beethoven’s Overture to The Consecration of the House. Written in 1822 for the opening of a new theater in Vienna, it served this weekend to commemorate the exact 40th anniversary of Abravanel Hall, which opened its doors September 13, 1979.  

In Fischer’s hands, the baroque-inspired dotted rhythms of the opening section were crisply executed by the players with precise strokes, punctuated by staccato brass. And throughout Fischer created dramatic tension with clearly defined phrasing by the musicians.

Kaija Saariaho’s Asteroid 4179: Toutatis followed next. In this work from 2005, the composer immediately casts the audience into another world, inhabited by brilliantly orchestrated sounds. The brief piece is eerie and almost Xenakis-like in its dark, bold intensity. 

Fischer had a wonderful command of the score and conveyed his intentions perfectly to the orchestra, who in turn underscored the brilliance and vibrancy of the music with their nuanced playing. 

Haydn was also represented in the first half with the spirited Overture to his 1777 opera buffa The World of the Moon, which was played with energetic drive.

Of the two movements of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles…, the third movement, “What Is Written in the Stars” was played in the first half, while the first movement, “The Desert,” opened the second. 

Fischer, for whom the music of Messiaen holds a special place, captured the essence and spirit of the composer’s sound world with confident direction that made the two movements sound fresh and alive. The musicians, with Jason Hardink at the piano, played with finely articulated playing that brought out the subtleties of the music with dynamic clarity. 

While Messiaen’s 12-movement, 90-minute epic was intended to be played at one sitting, Fischer’s concept of breaking it down into individual movements played throughout the season actually worked quite well at this concert. There was a cohesiveness between the evening’s two movements, as well as a strong connection between these and the rest of the program. 

Closing out the first half was the main title of John Williams’ score to Star Wars, offered no doubt as a populist sorbet to members of the audience for whom Saariaho and Messiaen were a bit much to take.

The Planets is a local audience favorite and has been a staple of Utah Symphony openers for many years. At Friday’s concert, Fischer went for the gusto in his account—to the extent that the performance sometimes felt overblown and overplayed—“Mars” and “Uranus” especially, where Fischer could have reined in his exuberance for the benefit of the music. 

“Mercury,” on the other hand, was given a nimble and lighthearted reading that captured the impish character of the music, while “Jupiter” was buoyant and lively. Fischer’s “Saturn” was brooding and deliberately paced, which underscored the solemn nature of the music.

Concertmaster Madeline Adkins’ solo passages in “Venus” were one of the highlights of the work as a whole. Her sweeping lines soared over the soft orchestral accompaniment, while the effusive playing of the ensemble was richly textured and nuanced. Fischer’s reading emphasized the lushness of the music and brought the sensuality that Holst created to the fore.

The fluid interpretation of the closing “Neptune,” was almost spiritual. Fischer allowed the orchestra and the women’s voices of the Utah Symphony Chorus to spotlight the ethereal otherworldliness of this captivating movement. 

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

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