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Thierry Fischer of the Utah Symphony Orchestra: An irresistible attraction to music

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Yes! Yes! I have the capacity of wonder, still. This is one of the keys to achieve things. The capacity to have wonder and get stupefied or the desire of things happening. I have it in all things. The capacity of wonder. Passion. I like to be constantly challenged. I have an irresistible attraction to the unexpected. – Thierry Fischer

SALT LAKE CITY — Thierry Fischer, music director and conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, can remember the exact moment music claimed him. He was 7 and his mother insisted that he take music lessons. At the outset of his first lesson on the recorder, he put the instrument in his mouth, and, well, let him tell you the rest.

“I played one note — one note, that’s all — and I can still remember this moment,” he recalls. “It opened a door. I can remember the pure sound, and the physical impact it had on me — the vibration as it passed through my body. I can tell you the taste of the wood in my mouth, what I was wearing, who was sitting by me.”

As fate would have it, he also possessed the dexterity to play the instrument, and just like that he found his calling. No one had to pester Fischer to practice.

“It became an irresistible attraction in my life,” he says. “I was playing and playing, nonstop. It was like an addiction.”

Now 56, Fischer says he still has the same passion — the “capacity of wonder,” as he calls it — for music he experienced as a boy. In the interim he has made music all over the world, first as a flutist and then later as a conductor. Raised largely in Switzerland, he has pursued his music far and wide. He was principal flute in Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, then principal flute of the Zürich Opera Orchestra, and later principal flute of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

He began his conducting career as chief conductor of the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, then principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, and later principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales while also serving as chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra. Then came the recruiting calls from the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

“I did hesitate a lot before taking the job,” he says. “I did a lot of research.”

A three-person entourage representing the symphony flew to Europe to woo Fischer. In July 2009, he and his wife, Catherine, flew to Salt Lake City to see for themselves. His hosts wanted to fill their schedule with events and meetings, but Fischer declined, telling them they wanted to get a feel for the place on their own.

“We wandered the city, we hiked Cottonwood Canyon, we discovered restaurants, we visited a few places and met a lot of people,” he recalls. “We decided it had all the ingredients and we could feel happy here. If you are happy, you have the energy and determination to make things happen.”

That is precisely what the symphony board wants.

They hired Fischer to rebuild the orchestra, which rose to prominence under the legendary Maurice Abravanel, another European conductor who guided the symphony from 1947 to 1979. At the time, the Utah Symphony was considered one of the best in the United States.

“When I was approached to take this job, the clear mandate from the board was they wanted this orchestra to go back to the way it was at the end of Abravanel’s time,” says Fischer

When Fischer arrived, there was “a natural turnover” that occurs when a new conductor is hired. Roughly one-third of the musicians left, enabling Fischer to bring in new blood.

“It is fascinating to be involved with the players, the staff and the board, as well as the community leaders, in developing a vision for the coming years for this orchestra,” he says, as he begins his fourth season with the Utah Symphony.

Fischer was born in Zambia. His father was a Swiss engineer who “gave his life for Christianity.” He put his engineering skills to use for a Christian organization in Africa. He moved the family to Geneva when Thierry was 6 years old, then to Ivory Coast four years later before finally settling in Geneva to work for the World Council of Churches.

Fischer's parents were not musicians. His mother wanted her son to have some musical education and pushed him to take recorder lessons, and that led him to the flute.

“When I was a teenager the flute was my escape,” he says. “You find your way to be rebellious. For me it was playing the flute nonstop.”

When he was 16, he experienced another moment of clarity.

“I remember it clearly,” he says. “I can tell you I was on the stairs in front of the college, and I thought, I’m going to be a professional flute player.”

He played the flute professionally into his late 30s, as a principal flute, guest performer and recording artist. He never considered doing anything else until a local conductor called him at his home one day. He was sick and needed someone to cover for him at that night’s rehearsal.

“I’ve never conducted,” Fischer replied. “Find someone else.”

He had already tried calling everyone he knew, he explained. An hour later Fischer conducted a rehearsal, and he experienced another epiphany.

“After one minute, my life was totally changed,” he says. “I’d touched something I wanted to explore. I couldn’t resist.”

Fischer wound up covering for the ailing conductor for the concert and then conducted only occasionally for the next year or so. In 1997, at the age of 40, he was offered the job of chief conductor for the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, and his career took a new direction. Since then he has been principal conductor in five cities, from Asia to Europe, while also accepting guest conductor jobs worldwide.

“I never pushed for anything,” he says. “I never had the need to. Everything arrived at the right time in a very natural way.”

He has managed a globetrotting career: tours to New York and Prague, the BBC Proms in Royal Albert Hall, recordings for the British classical label Hyperion Records in London, guest spots with orchestras of Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Birmingham, Monte Carlo, Gothenburg, and moves to Germany, Holland, Ireland, Wales, Japan and now Utah as principal conductor, and on it goes.

It is a life filled with hotel rooms, airplane flights, loneliness and study. He spends hours each day studying scores, preparing for concerts and rehearsals, creating concert programs, reading books and keeping abreast of the music industry. An outdoorsman who was drawn to Utah's mountains and desert, he finds inspiration for music in the silence of hikes and runs and observing nature and people and anything that gives "sense to standing in front of an orchestra."

He waxes poetic when he talks about music, or his "unstoppable desire of making moments happen, through the endless inspiration of the grace and magnificence of sounds. I like to say that I am having a 'shower of sounds' every time I am starting a rehearsal. The notion of sharing all this with the public is the culmination."

Sitting in his office on a recent afternoon, Fischer answers questions in his French-accented English while fretting that he is not expressing himself accurately in his second language. He grows animated when he is asked if, after all these years, he still retains the passion for music he experienced as a boy.

“Yes! Yes! I have the capacity of wonder, still,” he says. “This is one of the keys to achieve things. The capacity to have wonder and get stupefied or the desire of things happening. I have it in all things. The capacity of wonder. Passion. I like to be constantly challenged. I have an irresistible attraction to the unexpected. I’m inspired by the notion of excellence. With what we are creating on stage and in our private life, we are always in perpetual motion to discovering and reconsidering concepts. I am always reconsidering the notion of beauty and hope and happiness — the essential elements.”

A decade ago, he stopped playing the flute as he settled into his new life as a conductor. He not only didn’t play it professionally, he didn’t play even for his own amusement either. He quit cold turkey. “I never missed it,” he says. “I was like a smoker who just stopped one day.”

An old vow finally forced him to pick it up again.

Years ago he promised the mother of his best friend that he would play at her funeral. When she died last year, he flew from New York to Geneva to fulfill his promise.

“I had to keep my word,” he says. “I played in a church, very badly.”

When he packed his bags to travel to a conducting gig in Amsterdam, he did a curious thing: “Consciously or not, I kept the flute with me in my bag,” he says. “And the next day, after (conducting) rehearsals, I think, ‘Maybe I can touch this metal (the flute) and see how it feels.’ I played it. It was a pleasure. Slowly, I played a bit more. I kept playing a little bit.”

Last year he performed with a quartet during a private performance in a home in Palm Springs, Calif., with three members of the Utah Symphony as part of a fundraising event. Last month, on a lark, he played the flute briefly on stage during an encore performance by his friend, flutist Emmanuel Pahud. So the flute is slowly returning to his life again, which has a certain symmetry to it.

For four to five months each year, Fischer and his wife, Catherine, live in Salt Lake City during the symphony season and then return to their home in Geneva where their sons reside. Symphony officials provided extra enticement for Fischer to come to Utah when they found a job for Catherine in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, that she accepted on an unpaid, voluntary basis.

“We are both involved in the community,” he says. “That was very important to us, She has her work and a network of friends and loves what she does. We’re not both waiting for each other. We are both active. We couldn’t be happier.”

Warming to the interview, he continues, “If you ask me what I’m most proud of, it is my family and that we have managed to keep it very harmonious, despite the distance and the separations. I have a wonderful wife and three great sons. It worked because we worked on it. It is not luck.”

He counts himself fortunate that he is able to marry his passion to his vocation. He realizes this is rare. He calls it a privilege “to do what you really want to do and give a strong reason for your presence on the planet and then share it, which is a crucial element. That’s why I enjoy the notion of being a conductor. On top of the very lonely and necessary part of being a conductor — the traveling, the studying, the hotels, the weeks on your own, etc. — you share with the players, the staff, the community. It’s a very full life.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com