Fisch makes impressive debut leading Utah Symphony in a timely, resonant “Metamorphosen”

Sat Jan 16, 2021 at 11:38 am
By Rick Mortensen
Asher Fisch conducted the Utah Symphony in a streaming program of Strauss and Mendelssohn. Photo: Nik Babic

It’s striking how well music written decades or even centuries ago can address a current national mood.  After a fortnight that saw both a spike in U.S. Covid deaths and a siege of the U.S. Capitol Building, the Utah Symphony’s transcendent rendition of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen—streaming through February 11 along with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor—seemed of the moment.

Written in 1945 by Richard Strauss, Metamorphosen is a half-hour long lament for strings, in a musical language similar to Wagner or Mahler but with Strauss’s distinctive counterpoint and hints of the wider harmonic pallet the composer used in his operas Salome and Elektra.  It’s widely believed that Strauss was lamenting the destruction of his beloved city of Munich in World War II, particularly its opera house. Some believe he was also mourning the loss of his country’s character to the horrors of Nazism.

Making his Utah Symphony debut was guest conductor Asher Fisch – an Israeli whose regular post is principal conductor and artistic advisor of the West Australian Orchestra. Under Fisch, Strauss’s work packed a powerful, cathartic punch. In the opening bars, where the thematic material is first introduced, Fisch established a bold, intense presence, making the orchestra swell and recede dramatically at a moment’s notice. The conductor pulled the listeners into the piece’s vortex and did not let go, leading them through major key moments of heartbreaking sweetness, only to pull them down into a mournful abyss. The string section’s cohesion was remarkable, with beautiful solo work by concertmaster Madeleine Adkins and principal cellist Matthew Johnson.  

The refined optimism of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony provided a welcome contrast to the suffused tragedy of Metamorphosen. The composer is believed to have been inspired by touring the ruin of Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. It’s easy to imagine the ruins in the stately first movement, which rises to a more galloping climax. 

Fisch deftly handled the symphony’s many moods, with careful attention to each phrase as well as the piece’s overall architecture. The sturm und drung of the first movement seamlessly gave way to the frivolity of the Vivace before segueing into the gorgeous Adagio, the performance’s high point. The sweet, plaintive melody in the first violins and winds lay on the pizzicato of the second violins and the ostinato of the lower strings like a canoe on the glassy surface of a lake. Each of the voices was allowed to breathe as the orchestra rose to the emphatic climax and the effect was stunning.  

The orchestra finished strong in the furiously joyful Allegro conclusion.  

The program will be streamed through February 11 at

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