SALT LAKE CITY — During a recent orchestra rehearsal, Thierry Fischer pleaded with his musicians. The Utah Symphony’s music director wanted the music to be light and fast, so he asked his players to imagine they were little birds, furiously flapping their wings.
The musicians were performing Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” so the analogy wasn’t actually all that odd. What was odd was the fact that this wasn’t a Utah Symphony rehearsal. Fischer was talking to Cottonwood High School students. And although they were significantly younger than the musicians he was used to working with, the conductor didn’t lower his expectations. He demanded the best from them.
“They are here to learn, they are here to discover, they are here to wonder and I am aware (that any) analogy or metaphor I can give is going to be strong in their minds,” Fischer said. “If they can’t do it, I’m even more motivated to give them another idea to try to do it better.”
The 90 young musicians in rehearsal were riveted. When they weren’t playing and taking Fischer’s advice to heart, they were silent, absorbing every word the Swiss conductor had for them.
“All the focus was on him,” said Aubrey Henrie, a 16-year-old viola player and sophomore at Cottonwood High School. "I’ve never seen a group do that before.”
Now, after three meetings and rehearsals with Fischer, the big moment has arrived for these students. On May 20 at 10 a.m., Aubrey and her fellow Cottonwood High School musicians will perform a suite from “Firebird” under Fischer’s baton. Thanks to Facebook Live, students from four other high schools — Gunnison Valley High School in Sanpete County, Tooele High School, Grantsville High School and Granger High School — will also join in and closely follow Fischer’s lead.
“I can say I’ve performed with Maestro Fischer of the Utah Symphony, ” said 17-year-old Jacob Pehrson, a senior and principal cellist at Cottonwood High School. "He’s the director of the Utah Symphony — it’s basically having like a music celebrity right in front of us.”
Utah’s first ‘Super Orchestra’
In total, around 250 students from across the state have been learning the Stravinksy piece and preparing for this moment. It's the first time the Utah Symphony has attempted anything like this, but creating what they've dubbed the "Super Orchestra" is far from the first time the organization has engaged with Utah schools.
According to statistics provided by Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, the company spends $4 million on education outreach each year — roughly 20% of the organization’s overall budget. About a quarter of that total, $1.4 million, comes from legislative funding.
“A lot of people don’t know that USUO is a nonprofit arts organization or know how involved in education programs we are in the schools,” said Paula Fowler, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s director of education and community outreach. “Probably a third of the symphony’s concerts every year are for education, … but it doesn’t always make a big media splash.”
Which is why Fischer has “adopted” the Cottonwood High School musicians and is leading the inaugural Super Orchestra. Fowler hopes this pilot program, called “Adopt a School,” will help draw attention to Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s dedication to reaching schools statewide — an effort Maurice Abravanel spearheaded with help from former senator Haven Barlow during the 1970s.
“They went to the Utah state Legislature and said that students throughout our state deserve the opportunity to see what professional artists can do, to have an experience with professional musicians,” Fowler said. “And so the Legislature granted matching funds to the symphony to go on a regular rotation throughout the state performing for students.”
Since 1975, when Abravanel received funding for what is now known as the Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools, the program has grown to feature more than 10 arts organizations — including Utah Opera, Ballet West and the Utah Shakespeare Festival — traveling throughout the state to perform in schools.
Currently, the Utah Symphony puts on 50-60 school concerts each year, with Utah Opera resident artists performing between 150 and 200 student concerts annually, Fowler said. Both the symphony and opera each reach about 12 percent of public school students in a school year, each performing for 75,000-80,000 students.
“I don't know of any other state that invests in the student experience, being inspired by professional artists, the way that we have it,” Fowler said. “Our professional arts organizations serve many more students than most professional organizations do. Most of them charge for their programs and they serve people in their home cities, but they don’t have that mission to travel their entire state.”
USUO taking part in music education programs throughout the state helps ensure Utah will continue to be a thriving arts state for many years to come, according to Fowler. She pointed to a 2016 study released by the National Endowment for the Arts that showed performing arts attendance in Utah to be significantly higher than the national average: In 2015, nearly 32% of U.S. adults attended at least one live music, theater or dance performance in a 12-month period. In Utah — which ranked No. 1 in the nation for performing arts attendance — that rate was 51%.
As a longtime music teacher at Cottonwood High School, Amber Tuckness loves what outreach programs like “Adopt a School” is doing for her students.
“I’ve noticed a huge decline in students choosing music, and legislatures (are) cutting it continually through the district,” said Tuckness, who has taught at the high school for 22 years. “Students don’t take private lessons as much anymore, and I think having somebody coming in as a professional and showing that they can make a living with music and keep it a part of their lives — kids don’t just always see that in a classroom. (USUO has) shown that they care about musicians at the younger age and where they begin, and that’s been really impressionable to me.”
‘The door is open’
Fischer has a lot on his plate. Just last Sunday, May 12, he was in southern France conducting the Marseille Philharmonic. After returning home, he leapt right back into Utah Symphony rehearsals, preparing for two performances over the weekend. And now, he's about to conduct a Super Orchestra of 250 high-schoolers. It’s a lot to balance, but the conductor wouldn’t even think to miss this opportunity — and not just because Stravinksy is one of his favorite composers. The way he sees it, that 10 a.m. gig on Monday is just as important as leading a professional symphony.
“It doesn’t mean (the students) will want to embrace the musician career, and it’s not important. I don’t have the feeling I have to motivate them to be musicians; I want to motivate them to be able to make choices,” he said. “It’s crucial that they know what is possible, whether they do it or not. But the door is open. … I’m very, very happy and proud to do this, and their response … being there, happy and wanting to learn, is a reward.”
For Cottonwood High School students like Aubrey, who grew up attending Utah Symphony performances, it's been surreal getting to know Fischer and work with the conductor on such a personal level. She might not remember how to play “Firebird” years down the road, but watching Fischer's flailing arms up close, egging her on to play with the energy of a flock of little birds, has been unforgettable.
“I’ve been going to the symphony for longer than I’ve been playing the viola,” Aubrey said. “So to see him up there and then to see him conducting me has been a fantastic experience. I have loved every second of it.”