The Utah Symphony’s 2010-11 season officially began two weeks ago. But for most, the season truly begins with new Music Director Thierry Fischer taking the podium for the first time this weekend. In his first season as the new Music Director, Fischer has been heralded as the man who is going to bring the Utah Symphony to new heights. The expectations of the Salt Lake community are high, and optimism is abundant.
The excitement surrounding Fischer’s first symphony appearance of the season has been growing, and he has received welcome messages from community leaders Adam Sklute of Ballet West, Mac Christensen of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Utah’s Governor Herbert, and many more. Salt Lake City has put out the welcome mat and is hoping Thierry Fischer will soon feel right at home.
As Fischer begins this new adventure with the Utah Symphony, he will endeavor to be a “catalyst” for “dynamic and creative energy and new perspectives” [Fischer’s message], and his first program of the season certainly includes dynamism! Fischer programmed two Stravinsky pieces, Fireworks and The Firebird, and the well-known Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto performed by guest soloist Hilary Hahn.
Fischer, Hahn and the Utah Symphony perform at Abravanel Hall on the 24th and 25th, but I took the opportunity to get a sneak peak at the trio up in Ogden on the 23rd at the Browning Center, home of the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association. I never knew about the performances in Ogden, as they aren’t listed on the Utah Symphony’s Web site. But there are about a dozen USUO performances in Ogden each year, and I highly recommend the short drive north of the city to sit in this hall that has fantastic acoustics, not a bad seat in the house, and free parking.
The symphony opened with Stravinsky’s Fireworks. The piece is fairly unknown and lasts less than five minutes. It starts out very, very, very, low and quiet, and the opening reminded me of the knife scene from Psycho! There was another passage in the piece that immediately reminded me of Tchaikovsky’s 1812. Fireworks was at times angelic and at others quite lively, and while it did not have the vigor and excitement that I associate with fireworks today, it did end with a large, triumphant close.
I only knew Hilary Hahn by reputation; I’d never heard a performance of hers, but she came highly recommended by many. Musician friends of mine praise her as one of the best in the world today and I was excited to have this opportunity to hear her perform live. I also had every intention of sizing her up against the prior violin soloists I had heard, and mostly been disappointed with (excluding Will Hagen), over the past year.
I was familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, op. 35, but had only heard it 2 or 3 times. It is beautiful and is one of the most well known works of the repertoire. Yet when presented to his teacher, Tchaikovsky’s work was rejected. Imagine that? 125 years ago when Tchaikovsky composed and dedicated it to his teacher, even as virtuosic as he was, he said it was ‘unplayable’. And today it is played by violinists regularly.
When Hahn walked out on stage, she received a rousing applause from the audience and her presence alone created whispers all around. Stunningly dressed in a rich red gown, it was the perfect statement of what was to come. The very first thing I noticed about her performance was the sound coming from her violin. It was rich and gorgeous, and not a person in the hall would strain to hear a single note. I can’t recall a time when the sound of a violin embraced me more.
Hahn collaborated beautifully with the musicians. Even as soloist, she was as much a part of the orchestra as every other musician. There was no ego, no hierarchy – just a musician telling the story with her violin. She felt each note she didn’t play, and shared each note she did.
The cadenza was absolutely sublime. Each higher note was better than perfection. Hahn slowly approached each note, almost as if to tease, and at each step higher, we held our breath in anticipation and then embraced her with respect and appreciation, as she reached each peak with precision. A breath in, an ‘ahhhh’ out… It was our own personal piece of heaven.
I was completely consumed by Hahn’s violin. It was her violin that was performing for us, and Hahn was its master. The violin sang, and while Hahn was completely connected to the violin, Fischer, and the orchestra, it was as though she were simply the conduit for its soul to be heard.
As it ended, Hahn’s virtuosity really shined. Not a note missed, not a moment unfelt, she commanded the stage with subtlety, poise and confidence, and the audience applauded with a roar. Even I was ready to stand for an ovation until I realized it was only the end of the first movement! In truth, Hahn, Fischer, and the Utah Symphony deserved that applause, and they deserved an ovation, because that moment of music magic doesn’t come along very often.
The second movement was slow, romantic, and luxurious. It spoke of longing, and it is where the violin sings the words of its story. There are familiar themes throughout, and as the orchestra gains momentum in the final movement, the violin screams life into the work, as if to say, “Hah! Take that!”. The violin takes on a life of its own and becomes the violin with attitude! What an amazing concerto! And if there is any doubt, it was by far my favorite violin concerto performance ever.
Stravinsky’s The Firebird was Fischer’s choice for the second part of the program. At 45 minutes, it’s a ballet that tells the story of a prince, a monster, a bit of magic, and love. It’s your typical fairy tale! With so many dynamics to the story, the music takes many turns. Instruments are highlighted throughout The Firebird that normally don’t have such prominence in orchestral works, and there a number of additional instruments we don’t frequently see on the stage at once, including three harps, tenor and bass tubas, celesta and piano, and tam-tam, glockenspiel and xylophone! The last time I saw that variety of percussion was during West Side Story!
While there is a specific storyline to the ballet, I chose to create my own images while listening to the music. In just the first five minutes, I imagined elements of wind, created by strings, followed by sounds of rain and lighting (not thunder). It was such a mix of sounds and emotions! It was also romantic, and it was easy to envision dancers pairing with this music.
Flutist Lisa Byrnes was stunning. Her virtuosity relayed the romance and lyricism throughout the piece, and Doug Wolf’s xylophone was pretty insane! The harps sounded like heaven, coming in at one point of the story as if to save the day. I imagined lovers, romance, fantasy, dreams and longing… and then there was the bad guy! At times, the strings played so quietly you could barely hear them and it was divine! The piece ends as the glory of the day comes with optimism, heroism and regality.
As rich as The Firebird is, it was long. I enjoyed it, but it’s probably not a piece I’d run out to buy to learn more about. As an orchestral piece alone, it does tell a story, but it’s missing a very important element; the dancers. As a ballet, I’d love to see the music paired with the dancers. Dropping my hints here to Messrs. Fischer and Sklute!
What more can I say about this performance? Hilary Hahn was sublime, and the Utah Symphony continues to give the community a reason to keep coming back for more. If I could attend each performance, I would. The gift of music may not be free, but it is free for the taking. And the Utah Symphony offers it to anyone who wants to embrace the moment. Now let’s see if we can get those seats filled Maestro!
Photos courtesy of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera.
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