Utah’s national parks inspired this classical music piece, but few Utahns know about it. The Utah Symphony hopes to change that
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is paradise.
That’s what Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony, has come to believe after seven years of living here. But 40 years before the Swiss conductor had this realization, there was French composer Olivier Messiaen, who created a 12-movement orchestral work out of the red rocks of Bryce Canyon and the landscape of Zion National Park.
Titled “Des Canyons aux etoiles” (“From the Canyons to the Stars”), the large piece — a 90 to 100-minute performance when played in its entirety — was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to southern Utah in the 1970s. But to Fischer’s dismay, while the piece is popular in Europe, it is largely unknown in Utah and the United States at large.
“Since I arrived here, I always wanted to program it,” Fischer told the Deseret News. “But I’ve been told if we do that, there would be 300 people in the hall because it’s not a popular piece. … So everybody was nonstop telling me, ‘Thierry, don’t do that. It’s a waste. You’ll be happy musically, but don’t do that.’”
But at last, during the symphony’s 2019-20 season, Fischer’s wish will come true. Although the symphony performed the piece under Keith Lockhart’s direction in 2007, Fischer has a different approach in mind. At the heart of the upcoming season, which the symphony announced Tuesday evening, is Messiaen’s orchestral work — to be performed movement by movement throughout the season rather than played all at once.
“I thought, ‘I have to find a way to do this’ because people will love it," said Fischer, who was appointed the symphony’s musical director in 2009. “If it’s well-marketed and people know what it means and the ideas behind it, it could be something phenomenal for the community. … We wrote to the Messiaen Foundation to see if they would have something against us playing it (that way) and they said ‘Of course (not)! Messiaen would have loved it.’”
Given that go-ahead, Fischer programmed a nature-inspired season, pairing movements of Messiaen's piece with works such as John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme, Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and a new Canyonlands-inspired piece called “The Maze,” by jazz and classical composer Nathan Lincoln de Cusatis and commissioned by symphony concertmaster Madeline Adkins.
“This is typical Thierry being creative,” said Paul Meecham, the organization’s president and CEO. “He immediately started thinking out of the box, as he does, about an interesting way for our audiences to appreciate (Messiaen’s) piece from a different perspective.”
Another highlight of the Utah Symphony’s upcoming season is a performance from violin superstar Joshua Bell in May 2020. Although this will be Bell’s fifth appearance with the symphony, the last time he took the Abravanel Hall stage was in 2003. Getting the virtuoso back in Salt Lake City for this next season is the fulfillment of a longtime goal.
“Artists of his caliber are always on our radar,” Meecham said.
Bell’s performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto helps the symphony celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday — an event the orchestra plans to recognize all year. Throughout the season, the orchestra will perform Beethoven’s symphonies and other works, including his overture “The Consecration of the House,” which will help to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Abravanel Hall’s opening in September.
Bell’s performance also coincides with the 80th anniversary of the Utah Symphony’s first concert, held May 8, 1940 at Kingsbury Hall, and his program will include works the original symphony musicians performed during that first performance 80 years ago.
“I’m a great believer in looking forward and not necessarily looking back, (but) on the other hand, I do think people don’t realize sometimes just how far back the symphony goes,” Meecham said. “It emerged out of the (Works Progress Administration), the 1930s period of the Depression, when federal funding was made available to support an orchestra going into schools in Utah to provide concerts. … We want to draw people’s attention to not just the anniversary itself but why an orchestra was created 80 years ago.”
But as it reflects on how far it's come, the symphony also looks forward, seeking ways to expand and diversify its audience. This past season saw a big push to increase family attendance with the $30 family pass and earlier start times. In the coming season, the symphony will continue to try to reach Utah’s growing Hispanic and Latino population by performing the music to Pixar’s “Coco” while the movie plays on the big screen. Other programs during the season will include classical works from Latin-American composers, conducted by Mexican guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. The symphony also hopes to reach younger audiences with its new “Unwound” series, a casual concert experience where members of the orchestra dress down.
“I really hope the diversity of our programming will speak to the entire community,” Fischer said. “(Music is) an invisible energy which is not touching our skin as the wind would but it’s touching our inner spirit very strongly. (This is) innovative programming and I’m quite happy about it. I hope this will speak to all the differences we are having in our community.”
To view the full 2019-20 season, visit utahsymphony.org.