Fischer finally returns and Utah Symphony responds with gleaming performances

Sat Jan 29, 2022 at 2:11 pm
By Rick Mortensen
Thierry Fischer led his first Utah Symphony concert of the season Friday night at Abravanel Hall. Photo: Mike Lund

After a string of guest conductors spanning the first five months of the 2021-2022 season, the Utah Symphony once again performed under the baton of its music director Thierry Fischer Friday night. The program showcased his strengths as a conductor and featured a new violin concerto written specifically for concertmaster Madeline Adkins. 

On Friday night, that new work, The Maze was sandwiched between Honegger’s Symphony No. 3 “Symphonie liturgique” and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, both of which served as reminders of the unique sound Fischer and the orchestra have cultivated during their 12-plus years together.

Written in 1945 and premiered in 1946, the Third Symphony was the first “postwar” work by Honegger, who had lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. He called the piece “a drama between three characters: misery, happiness, and man” and added that he had “attempted to bring them up to date.” As indicated by the title, each of the three movements is named after a different movement of the Catholic liturgy: “Dies irae”, “De profundis clamavi,” and “Dona nobis pacem.” While the piece is not overtly religious, it does have a stark, gothic quality that appears to evoke elements of heaven and hell.

The first movement begins with a rumble in the strings that quickly grows into a wave that sweeps over the orchestra giving rise to an urgent brass alarms. Fischer conducted this music with an engaging flourish, and his sharp, crisp phrasing highlighted the first movement’s primitive drive. The clear melodic lines in the strings helped give the first movement shape and narrative energy and prevented the cacophonous passages from slowing the momentum.

Fischer’s clarity and refinement were ideally suited to the piece’s second movement, which featured moments of heartbreaking beauty. Honegger’s counterpoint and the varied texture of his chords came through in the orchestra’s full but transparent sound. The movement ends ominously, with a mournful flute over low strings and brass, and the orchestra executed the final passage with breathtaking subtlety.

The third movement goes from ominous to demonic and ends with a weary peace. Urged on by the piano, timpani, and low brass, it builds to a dissonant march that grows darker until it falls apart, and a solemn but hopeful cello solo rises quietly above the gloom. 

The orchestra played the march with frightening intensity, with the strings providing passionate commentary above the unrelenting forward motion. Acting principal cellist Matthew Johnson’s soulful rendition of the hopeful solo was exquisitely phrased, and it set the tone for subsequent solo passages in the violins and flute. With care and sensitivity, Fischer guided the orchestra through the piece’s final resolution to an ambiguous chord in the low brass and strings.

The Honegger provided an excellent lead-in to Nathan Lincoln de Cusatis’ The Maze which had a somewhat similar harmonic language. 

The concerto was inspired by the composer’s six-day backpacking trip through the Maze District in Canyonlands National Park in Southern Utah. Adkins commissioned the work and performed the world premiere last June with the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

The youthful looking composer (born in 1982) explained the inspiration for each of the four movements: “Echoes”, “The Overlook”, “Pictographs”, and “the Confluence” (which refers to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers). 

Wearing a green and gold gown, Adkins established the violin’s presence with an intriguing solo passage evoking space and solitude. The orchestra responded not with accompaniment or counterpoint but with echoes of the melody, ricocheting throughout the orchestra. The echoing melodic fragments gradually gathered into a descending scale, which seemed to evoke shadows as the sun set over red rock formations.

Concertmaster Madeline Adkins performed The Maze with the Utah Symphony Friday night. Photo: Mike Lund

Beyond this cinematic effect, however, the concerto did not seem to go anywhere. In many ways, the piece failed to live up to the composer’s engaging travelogue, not the least of which was the fact that there were no breaks between the movements, and the music itself gave few clues as to where one ended and another began.

Adkins acquitted herself well on the virtuosic arpeggiated passages, which were mostly in her instrument’s higher register, but the lack of melodic transformation and rhythmic drive was, at times, stultifying. A notable exception was near the end, when the strings simulated the rushing rivers, and it was clear we were in the “Confluence” movement. Here, the clear rhythmic pulse and full chords were truly like water in the desert, but it did not last long, and the piece ended largely as it had begun.

With full, lush orchestrations and engaging rhythmic transformations, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances provided a stark contrast to The Maze’s desert landscape. Here, Fischer and the orchestra shone, creating gorgeous textures and phrasing, particularly in the strings, which swelled and shimmered in a way they largely haven’t all season.

Written in 1940, near the end of Rachmaninoff’s life, the piece shows the composer’s mastery of the modern orchestra, including instruments that were new in his time. The first movement features a lovely contrapuntal duet between alto saxophone and oboe, which blended seamlessly into a duet between bass clarinet and flute.

Fischer and the orchestra created a clear contrast between the elegiac first movement and the more rollicking waltz of the second, which is heralded by a chorus of muted trumpets and trombones. The brass and wind passages were as carefully phrased as the string passages, and Fischer’s free tempi gave enough space for the movement to grow.

The moody, starkly contrasting third movement showcased the orchestra’s ability to shift moods on a dime. Fischer carefully phrased the contemplative beginning and guided the strings into their furious darting 16th– note passage and then into an effusive, weeping legato passage which set the stage for Rachmaninoff’s characteristic big finale. This movement featured a brassy full quotation of the Dies Irae melody, which is mostly disguised in the Honegger. In Rachmaninoff’s hands, the macabre passage had a romantic rather than gothic quality, and Fischer and the orchestra rode to the exciting finish, eliciting a thunderous standing ovation.  

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Abravanel Hall.

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