Utah Symphony’s cautious opening proves a moving experience

Fri Sep 18, 2020 at 9:46 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Thierry Fischer opened the Utah Symphony’s season with a program of music for strings Thursday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The Utah Symphony opened its 2020-21 season on time Thursday night, ending a six-month intermission. Earlier the same day the Utah Department of Health reported a state record of 911 new cases of the novel coronavirus.

The orchestra took abundant care in its first concert since the Covid-19 pandemic stopped the music world in its tracks. The Abravanel Hall stage was extended to allow at least 6 feet of distance between the night’s performers—about 40 string players, joined briefly by harpist Louise Vickerman and even more briefly by principal percussionist Keith Carrick. 

There was a similar buffer between audience members and groups. Patrons were admitted to the hall on the honor system after prior confirmation that they were healthy and without Covid symptoms and reaffirming their commitment to wear face masks for the duration. For good measure, violinists and violists brought their instrument cases onstage with them to minimize backstage interaction. Similarly, the short, hour-long program dispensed with intermission and avoided unwonted milling of audience members.

The necessary precautions seemed like a small price to the 160 listeners in Thursday’s audience. (The orchestra expects up to 400 for each of the next two evenings.) Prolonged applause greeted music director Thierry Fischer, who saluted concertmaster Madeline Adkins with a fist bump as he took the stage. The traditional opening-night rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner carried more pathos than at any time since the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Fela Sowande’s “Joyful Day” opened the show in festive fashion. In this first movement from the Nigerian composer’s 1944 African Suite based on West African tunes, it may have taken a few bars for the string sound to coalesce, but the orchestra soon showed itself in top form.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings followed, in case anyone needed a reminder that we’re living through a somber time. The performance was sensitively shaped, with a climax of shattering poignancy.

Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The string orchestra got to show even more range in the short evening’s major work, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The cellists gave the first movement enough heft to make listeners forget they were hearing only half an orchestra. The ensuing second waltz brought a welcome light touch. The remainder of the piece felt like the embodiment of cautious optimism, blossoming gloriously from the gentlest of beginnings.

“You simply cannot imagine how happy we are to be here tonight,” the masked but clearly emotional Fischer said in announcing the three unbilled selections that followed: Puccini’s lilting I crisantemi, Sowande’s danceable “Akinla” (also from the African Suite) and a string arrangement of Copland’s “Hoedown” from Rodeo.

Fischer closed the evening with a novel way of bringing the rest of the Utah Symphony into the proceedings. Early in the pandemic, the orchestra commissioned the 4-minute Fanfare of Hope and Solidarity from Augusta Read Thomas, then recorded their parts at home. The finished performance, expertly edited by Andrea Peterson and projected above the Abravanel Hall stage, was a touching and bittersweet closer.

The Utah Symphony will repeat the program 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Seating is limited and strict health protocols must be observed. 

Next week’s concerts will feature Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Masterworks programming for the rest of 2020 will be announced as the public-health situation unfolds. utahsymphony.org; 801-533-6683.

12 Responses to “Utah Symphony’s cautious opening proves a moving experience”

  1. Posted Sep 23, 2020 at 6:14 pm by Gerry Leonard

    The performances were emotional , varied, and beautifully done. The Adagio brought us close to tears. Bravo!

  2. Posted Sep 23, 2020 at 6:15 pm by Nola Stirling

    It was wonderful to be back in Abravenal Hall after a long dry spell. The Orchestra was perfect and brought tears to my eyes with the beautiful renditions we were privileged to hear. I can’t wait for this week’s performance. Filled my soul with joy. It was weird to sit so far removed from the women I attend with, but small price to pay to be able to be there. Thank you to the musicians of the Utah Symphony, and all those that worked so hard to make this performance possible.

  3. Posted Sep 23, 2020 at 7:08 pm by Rex Wangsgaard

    Covid protocols were excellent. Disappointed that the crowd was so small.

  4. Posted Sep 23, 2020 at 7:42 pm by Jann Johnson

    Finishing Touches… So great to be back. Missed the Symphony and opera tremendously. We did miss the coffee and breads.

  5. Posted Sep 24, 2020 at 6:29 am by Dianne Carr

    Thank you so much for your moving performance. We were so happy to have the Maestro Fischer back as well. Please don’t leave us after this season!

  6. Posted Sep 24, 2020 at 6:52 am by Orest Gogosha

    The orchestra was its same old excellent. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy has turned COVID ignorance into stupidity and thus limited the number of people who could listed to this marvelous music played by such talented and well-led musicians.

  7. Posted Sep 24, 2020 at 7:42 am by Richard Clegg

    I and a friend were there at the opening. Ms. Reese Newton’s review captured the touching beauty of both the importance of the evening and the glorious music. I wept uncontrollably at the national anthem. I wept at the profound messages in Barber’s and Tchaikovsky’s music made even more profound by the Covid pandemic. Congratulations to the Utah Symphony and the entire organization for giving us our symphonic music again. Thank you all.

  8. Posted Sep 24, 2020 at 12:17 pm by Anne Cullimore Decker

    Ashby and I came with some apprehension since it was our first experience of any form of social distancing outside our home. We were pleasantly surprised and relieved with the procedures which made us all safe and separate. To hear live music again was a thrill and we loved being back in Abravanel Hall with most of the symphony members. Thank you.

  9. Posted Sep 24, 2020 at 3:11 pm by Marti Lythgoe

    Loved it! Felt blessed to be among the relatively few who were there Friday night. Felt very safe. The program was perfect–beautiful and inspiring. Loved the strings only. So interesting to see & hear each section so well. Fisher was at his best! Didn’t want it to end. Season ticket holder–Pick 5.

  10. Posted Sep 24, 2020 at 3:29 pm by Charles Deneris

    Attended Saturday night’s concert. Wonderful to have the Orchestra back! Kudos to Maestro Fischer and the entire orchestra for a truly moving performance, and to the entire Symphony organization for working so hard and coming up with a way forward in these new times. Bravo!

  11. Posted Sep 25, 2020 at 1:51 pm by Dennis Lythgoe

    My wife, Marti & I attended Friday night and LOVED it! Thierry was in exeptional form & the gifted strings were memorable. We stood after each number, but our vigorous applause seemed inadequate in the great hall. When Thierry announced the last pieces, one woman in audience shouted, “Thank you!” For all us starved Arts fans this was a keeper! I look forward to the next performance even if still socially distanced. It brightened our lives immensely! This was an inspired performance – thanks for making us happy!

  12. Posted Sep 28, 2020 at 11:24 am by Ruth H ATWATER

    My first concert in 8 months. The beauty of the music and the joy of being in this gorgeous venue brought tears to my eyes!

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