Contemporary music and the modern American orchestra

Composer Andrew Norman.

As the Utah Symphony closes out its 2017-18 season and we begin to look ahead to the 2018-19 season, it’s hard to miss this organization’s commitment to presenting contemporary music alongside well-known favorites from the Western Canon. Beside familiar figures like Beethoven, Chopin, Copland, and Richard Strauss are newer, more unfamiliar names, like Vivian Fung, Joan Tower, Zhou Tian, and Andrew Norman (who happens to be our composer-in-association next season). One of Music Director Thierry Fischer’s favorite sayings is “a symphony is not a museum,” and presenting and commissioning new music is an integral part of this belief.

Orchestral music is a living, breathing art form. While the focus of most orchestras’ classical seasons lies in the heart of the most eminent 18th– through 20th-century repertoire, it is essential for the survival of the orchestral industry for modern orchestras to perpetuate the musical movements happening in the present day. If the American Orchestra is to remain a driving force in the centuries to come, we must support the composers who are creating new music now, as this body of work will one day be an essential part of our cultural legacy. To that end, the Utah Symphony commissions at least one new work each season, meaning we pay a composer to write something entirely new. The Utah Symphony often shares the full fee with co-commissioners, ensuring the work will have a life beyond our organization with other orchestras across the country and the world. As in every art form, some of these works go on to achieve great success and popularity, and others slip into obscurity. It’s a risky process given that some of the fee is usually paid before a single note is put to paper, but it is well worth the risk. Regardless of the outcome, the Utah Symphony has been instrumental in bringing a new piece of orchestral music into the world.

Incentivizing the creation of new music isn’t the only reward for an orchestra that makes commissioning a priority. Contemporary music is also able to engage with modern ideas and themes more directly than older works can. As an example, Andrew Norman’s percussion concerto Switch, which was commissioned by the Utah Symphony as part of its 75th anniversary season, takes its inspiration from video game logic, the percussion soloist starring as the unwitting protagonist. Each note he plays prompts a distinguishable reaction from the orchestra, creating a unique cause-and-effect tapestry with a modern sensibility. Next season, the Utah Symphony will feature another of Norman’s works, Play, which takes its inspiration from distinctly relevant themes. Norman himself describes the work as an exploration of “choice, chance, free will, and control, about how technology has rewired our brains and changed the ways we express ourselves, about the blurring boundaries of reality in the internet age, the murky grounds where video games and drone warfare meet, for instance, or where cyber-bullying and real-world violence converge.”

This season’s commission, to be performed on the Utah Symphony’s Season Finale concerts on May 26 and 27, comes from pioneering French composer Tristan Murail. One of the most prominent themes of this Utah Symphony season has been its study of the works of Romantic-era French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, making this commission especially relevant; Murail’s work represents the trajectory of French music from Saint-Saëns’ Romanticism and Debussy’s Impressionism into the modern era. In this work, listen for Murail’s signature use of the “spectral” technique, a compositional aesthetic developed in the 1970s. Spectral technique focuses on the color, timbre, and texture of different instruments and pitches, concentrating less on melody and rhythm and more on the acoustical science of sound. This shifting focus changes the way we as listeners engage with music, opening up a whole new world of possibilities while not entirely letting go of our musical foundations. In the words of Maestro Fischer, the Utah Symphony strives to be “an orchestra looking to the future as much as immensely enjoying the past.”

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra and enjoys writing about music in her spare time.

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Inside the Music: Franck’s “Le Chasseur maudit” (The Accursed Huntsman)

In any given symphony season, it’s important to balance the giants like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler with lesser-known composers who, despite their lack of widespread name recognition, have produced a great body of work in the symphonic medium. As for this weekend specifically, I don’t think I have to tell you why Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev are worth coming to Abravanel Hall to listen to, especially since we have one of our favorite pianists, Conrad Tao, back in Utah to perform Prokofiev’s famously bold and inventive Second Piano Concerto. To start off the program, though, the Utah Symphony will perform César Franck’s tone poem Le Chasseur maudit, or in English, The Accursed Huntsman. Franck’s name may be familiar to particularly avid classical music fans, but his name certainly doesn’t garner the same recognition as the other two composers that occupy this particular program. Despite Franck’s relative obscurity, The Accursed Huntsman is an incredibly thrilling, melodic, and listenable work, and should excite you just as much as the rest of the program this weekend.

First, a quick primer on Franck: born in December of 1822 at Liège, in what is now Belgium, César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (yes, that is his real name!) spent most of his adult life as an organist in Paris. During his lifetime, he was known as an avid improviser with massive hands that allowed him to perform harmonic feats many pianists couldn’t dream of accomplishing. Eventually, his fame as a performer led him to receive an appointment from the Paris Conservatoire. Though his appointment was to teach organ performance, he tended to give unsanctioned composition lessons as well and was maligned by some of his fellow faculty members for not adhering to the widely accepted theories and strict rules that often govern composition technique, at least in the teaching stages. Franck did not gain much recognition for his compositions during his lifetime—his Symphony in D, which is now arguably his most well-known work, was badly received by critics and disliked by the Conservatoire orchestra who premiered the piece. Most of his other works followed this trend, only a few receiving real praise from his contemporary critics. Franck passed away of a respiratory infection in 1890, still known above all for his virtuoso solo career but loved nonetheless by his contemporaries, including the subject of our season-long symphonic cycle, Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Accursed Huntsman was composed in 1882 and premiered in March of 1883 to a long ovation, an unusual response for Franck in his time. Franck was inspired by the German Romantic ballad Der wilde Jäger (or The Wild Hunter) written by Gottfried August Bürger in 1777, which describes a Count who defies the Sabbath to go hunting. Though the work is through-composed (meaning there are no breaks between sections), there are four distinct scenes: The Peaceful Sunday Morning, The Hunt, The Curse, and The Demons’ Chase.

The work begins, as one might expect, with the horns blasting a hunting call at full volume (a great way to kick off a concert!) The horns then fade out, and a pure, singing passage in the cellos illustrates the gently rolling hills and faithful worshippers heading to church on a peaceful Sunday—until the horns interject once again with their hunting call. This time, the peaceful cello theme returns with church bells and woodwinds gently chiming, calling all to worship. Defiantly, the horns continue to build in the background until we reach a climactic, sweeping full orchestral moment. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you’d stepped into the third act of a Wagner opera or perhaps a Rachmaninoff symphony on accident—Franck uses the full power of the orchestra to create this glorious moment.

And then, we’re off! The second part of the work, “The Hunt,” begins suddenly with an abbreviated version of the horn call we’ve already heard a few a times before. This time though, the woodwinds respond as the collective voice of the faithful, repurposing the melody of the horn call as a desperate, and at times admonishing, plea to the Count to call off the hunt and find his rightful place in the pews of the church instead. The strings begin to build ominously with interjections from the winds and brass, ramping up the intensity of the hunt. Now the full orchestra is behind the Count, urging him on as he speeds through the forest at an electrifying pace. The woodwinds provide fleeting virtuosic passages and trills, while the brass act as the driving force behind this forbidden hunt. Soon though, the cello theme from the first section returns in variation, following the Count even as he leaves the church far behind. God is following him on his unholy hunt, just waiting for his chance to punish the foolish Count. Soon, the orchestra reaches a grinding halt, just a tremolo in the low strings remaining.

Now we begin the third section of the work, “The Curse.” In a cruel twist of fate, the horns who once championed the Count’s hunt are now the start to his downfall, their sound transformed by being played “stopped” (the horn players achieve this metallic sound by placing their hand in the bell). String tremolos fade in and out as a new “Curse” theme is intoned by the clarinets and trumpets, followed by the trombones. The Count cannot move and his horn will not sound—suddenly, a voice comes down from the heavens to curse him to be chased by demons for all eternity. The orchestra builds to a crashing triple-forte as the curse is complete, and suddenly the Count is off again! But this time, he is the one being hunted. Thus begins the final section of the tone poem, “The Demon’s Chase.” Here we hear echoes of Berlioz’ famous final movement of Symphonie fantastique depicting the witches’ Sabbath. The music once again dramatically builds in pace and volume as the Count furiously tries to escape the demons—fleeting downward scales and trills from the high woodwinds abound, as well as rapid interjections from the brass. The strings join in with their frantic ostinatos, and before we know it the orchestra fades to a whisper before providing a final, staccato G-minor chord, God’s final word to the doomed Count.

All this action takes place in 15 short minutes and will certainly kick off this weekend’s concerts with a bang! We hope to see you this weekend at Abravanel Hall to enjoy Franck’s The Accursed Huntsman alongside Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian.”

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Bernstein at 100: Celebrating the legacy of an American icon

In the year 1918, American composer, conductor, pianist, and music educator Leonard Bernstein was born. Over the course of a storied career that spanned the globe (he was one of the first musicians born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim), he became nothing short of a legend. In the year of his 100th birthday, many orchestras are looking back at Bernstein’s legacy and how it has shaped the American musical landscape.

When one considers what Bernstein gave to classical music, the scope and depth of his work are astounding. He was highly sought-after as a conductor, holding a long tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and guest conducting with some of the best orchestras in the world, most notably with the Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein didn’t just conduct, though─also a highly skilled pianist, Bernstein often “play-conducted” the piano concertos of Ravel, Mozart, and others, always an impressive feat. Furthermore, Bernstein produced a staggering number of recordings with the New York Philharmonic and numerous other orchestras, many of which still stand as pillars in the recorded catalogue today. In fact, Bernstein was instrumental in the first complete recorded cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies, from which Maurice Abravanel surely took inspiration when he recorded the same cycle with the Utah Symphony in the 1960s and 1970s.

Conducting was just one small piece of Bernstein’s legacy, however. Many of us also know and love him as a composer─his musical West Side Story was an immediate hit when it was released in 1957, and music from this groundbreaking work is still played by orchestras worldwide. He was able to capture the sound and mood of late 1950s New York City in this musical, and that’s a substantial part of what makes all of Bernstein’s music so captivating. He drew inspiration from styles that many may have considered to be at odds with each other─Austro-German classical music, jazz, Jewish music, and the idioms of Broadway musicals all found their way into his compositions to create a tapestry that is distinctively and uniquely American. And yet, the themes Bernstein conveyed in his music were themes of global importance. His favorite idea to come back to was the individual’s search for faith, an idea that remains especially relevant today─he explored this theme in his Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety” as well as in Chichester Psalms, both of which will be performed during Utah Symphony’s “Bernstein at 100” festival.

Beyond these incredible accomplishments, each enough for one lifetime on their own, Bernstein also catapulted classical music into the public psyche by televising the New York Philharmonic’s young people’s concerts on primetime television, starting in 1954 and continuing for almost two decades. He taught millions of Americans how to appreciate classical music through a new and exciting entertainment medium, furthering the reach of the American orchestra and guaranteeing new audiences for the future. So in the year of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the Utah Symphony pays homage to the man that transformed the American classical music scene, propelled it into the 20th century, and fostered generations of musicians and music-lovers alike.

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra and enjoys writing about music in her spare time. You can take a look at some of her other in-depth articles here and here

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Breaking Down Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”

If you know any piece by 19th– and 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, chances are it’s his hit concerto-like work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The work takes its inspiration from arguably the most famous of Niccolò Paganini’s caprices for violin, Caprice No. 24.

Of all of Paganini’s caprices for the violin, the 24th captured the imagination and interests of Romantic-era composers the most. Franz Liszt transcribed the work for piano, and Brahms wrote his own variations on the tune for solo piano as well. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody takes the creativity and scope of this fascination a step further, bringing a full orchestra into the mix and spinning out 24 variations on the 24th Caprice (notice a theme here?), some of which bear little resemblance to the original theme upon first listen.

What made this work so popular? First of all, Paganini was the closest thing the 18th century had to a rock star. He was known throughout Europe for his technical prowess as well as the works he composed to show off his unmatched skills on the violin. Also, in Rachmaninoff’s early life, works for solo instruments by virtuoso-composers like Paganini and others were the equivalent of today’s ubiquitous pop songs. Before the era of recording technology, the most common way to hear music was in the home, and the easiest works to perform (at least, logistically speaking) were solo works for instruments like piano and violin. Paganini’s compositions were popularized in the home long after he was no longer touring Europe as a virtuoso musician.

Paganini’s 24th Caprice also has a tonal structure that is ripe for variation, and Rachmaninoff not only exploits this but shows it off right at the top of the piece. In most theme-and-variations works, the form is just as it sounds—the theme is presented, and then the composer creates variations on that theme. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody subverts this convention by presenting the skeleton of the theme at the very beginning as the first variation, the strings simply plunking the first note of each bar.

(It should be noted here that Rachmaninoff was not the first composer to subvert this convention—another famous example of this is the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” In fact, Rachmaninoff’s “skeleton” first variation closely resembles Beethoven’s.)

This demonstrates to the listener that the harmonic underpinnings of the theme are actually extremely simple, centering around the first and the fifth notes of the minor scale, and makes some of the more “out-there” variations in the work that much more surprising. After this, the violins (fittingly) present the theme, as the piano reenters by delicately outlining that same harmonic skeleton just demonstrated in the first variation.

The next few variations build in excitement and complexity until we get to variation 6, where the music comes to a reverent pause, and begins again with the soft and solemn variation 7. Here, bassoon takes on a somber, plodding version of the theme while the piano introduces another famous, secondary theme (though you may not notice it if you aren’t listening closely!). Appropriately enough, this famous tune also fascinated many a Romantic-era composer—Berlioz used it the final movement of Symphonie Fantastique, for example (you can listen to that here; the theme appears at 3:26). This is, of course, the Gregorian chant Dies Irae, or “Day of Wrath.” Though you may not know this tune by name, you’ll surely recognize it—take a listen here.

Rachmaninoff had what can only be described as an obsession with this tune—if you attended our Symphonic Dances performances on November 3rd and 4th, you’ll remember this melody making several appearances in that work.

He also uses this theme in his aptly-titled work Isle of the Dead. Much like the Paganini’s 24th Caprice, Dies Irae has a fairly simple melodic structure that makes it ripe for variation and ornamentation alike. The most-used portion of the tune in classical music is the first seven notes, which are comprised mostly of descending half-steps and minor thirds. If this tune is so recognizable, why can it be hard to catch the first appearance of it in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody? Perhaps because the melody is masked by its harmonic underpinnings (the theme occasionally takes an unexpected turn into major, but only for a moment at a time) and the deliberate tempo. This measured and mournful take on the Paganini theme in variation 7 don’t last long—the tone quickly turns dark and sinister to match the true nature of the Dies Irae theme, which makes a particularly grand statement as we move into variation 10. In this section of the work, Rachmaninoff shows off his ability to spin familiar melodies into deeply unfamiliar and distant territory, highlighting in particular his orchestration skills which he uses to emphasize the ominous and threatening aspects of both themes.

After capping off variation 10 with descending chromatic lines, we enter a brief respite in cadenza-like variation 11. This variation has the feel of swirling mist and starry skies, cleansing the listener of the sinister tone of the previous section and leading us into a coy minuet for variation 12. This diversion doesn’t last long though, as the allegro reasserts its dominance with gusto in variation 13 and sends us into variation 14 with a sweeping upward flourish. This variation contains one of the more interesting transformations of that pliable Paganini theme. Here, the theme is turned upside-down, and one of the notes is removed, creating a fanfare for the winds and brass and departing completely from the tone of the piece thus far. The allegro dies away again at the end of variation 15, giving way to an intimate moderato, which then leads us into the transition that marks the beginning of what would be the slow movement of a traditional concerto.

This variation (number 17, if you’re keeping score) is one of those that descends into deeply unfamiliar territory, the only remnants of our two themes being a simple outline of the first and fifth notes of the scale by the trumpets and woodwinds. The piano wanders through various harmonic realms until it finally finds its home in an unexpected key—D-flat Major. While this is an unusual place for a piece that starts in A minor to land, it feels as though the sun is emerging from a dark layer of clouds, sunlight washing over us as listeners. This variation, number 18, is the most famous—Rachmaninoff even said of it, “This one is for my agent.” Again, this glorious melody is a product of the Paganini theme being turned upside down, this time without any notes missing and in a major key. I won’t say more about this variation because its simple beauty defies words. Just sit back and enjoy this one!

As the musicians of the orchestra gradually fade out, the piano is left alone to wind down this variation. Suddenly, the strings pluck a couple of A Major chords to send the orchestra back into that snappy tempo and dark mood that permeates so much of this work, as if that glorious 18th variation was just a dream. This also launches us into what would be the breakneck, impressive finale of a traditional three-movement concerto. The piano plays right into this trope, bringing back the technically impressive style that Rachmaninoff is so famous for, all the while deeply imbued with both the Paganini and the Dies Irae themes. The orchestra and the piano gain speed and volume through the following variations, working themselves into a tizzy until the music reaches a surprising, climactic halt in A-flat Major.

After a delicious moment of silence, the piano reintroduces us to the Paganini theme in its original melodic form, signaling to the listener that this ride full of unexpected twists and turns is coming to a close. The orchestra and piano alike cascade toward a thundering finale (where Dies Irae makes a final appearance in full force), but we don’t get the resounding, full-orchestra chord that one might have been expecting to close out the work. Instead, a final moment of cunning and wit from the piano alone ends the piece, almost always eliciting a soft chuckle from the audience followed by boisterous applause.

This work is Rachmaninoff at his most impressive and inventive; we hope you enjoy hearing it this weekend at Abravanel Hall performed by Jon Kimura Parker and the Utah Symphony! Tickets can be purchased online here.

If you want to get a feel for this work before you arrive at the concert hall, or simply put all of this information in perspective, you can take a listen here:

Or if you’d like a pianist’s perspective on this piece, here’s our soloist, Jon Kimura Parker, discussing the work:

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance from the University of North Carolina, and still enjoys playing bassoon and studying music history in her spare time.

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The Legacy of Camille Saint-Saëns

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance from the University of North Carolina, and still enjoys playing bassoon and studying music history in her spare time.  


When one thinks of the music of 19th-century French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), what comes to mind? Perhaps the sultry Middle Eastern melodies of Samson et Delila, or the triumphant, brassy finale of the “Organ” Symphony. Perhaps even the glittery, whimsical tunes that permeate Carnival of the Animals. These are all fantastic examples of Saint-Saëns’ unmatched musical style, but there is so much more to this composer than his few most famous works.

Saint-Saëns left an immense musical legacy behind, having written five symphonies, five piano concertos, several operas (and operettas), incidental music, a wide breadth of chamber music, and numerous works for solo piano and solo organ. The Saint-Saëns Project focuses mainly on the composer’s five symphonies; only one of which is regularly performed by American orchestras (Symphony No. 3, his final attempt at the form). Additionally, the Utah Symphony will record some of his more well-known, shorter orchestral works, including Bacchanale from Samson et Delila, Danse macabre, and ‒ perhaps his most famous work of all ‒ Carnival of the Animals.

Saint-Saëns occupied a particularly unique stylistic space in his compositions; bringing the influences of the composers he most admired (Liszt, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, to name a few) as well as the musical idioms of far-flung destinations (including Egypt, Algeria, and Japan) into the sphere of French Romanticism. Similar to the Romantic Movement that took hold in Austria and Germany in the mid-1800s, French Romanticism was marked by a preoccupation with drama on a historical and an individual level, a heightened interest in national identity, and a general expansion or rejection of existing musical structures. As some of his late-19th-century contemporaries were forging new paths at the edges of tonal music, Saint-Saëns was firmly rooted in the classical conventions of French composers before him, making him an unusual figure within the framework of the Romantic period. Despite this, his signature use of colorful harmony influenced the French Impressionist composers that would rise to popularity toward the end of his life. The confluence of these seemingly disparate stylistic attributes is what makes Saint-Saëns’ music so intoxicating and irresistible. He is able to seamlessly weave unusual, exotic harmonies and melodic lines into ingrained musical forms, simultaneously surprising and delighting the listener’s ear.


Saint-Saëns’ music is clearly worth learning and exploring, but why record so much of it? As our Vice President of Operations and General Manager, Jeff Counts, wrote in a playbill feature last year, recording raises the level of artistic excellence and focus in an ensemble. Beyond that, recording also allows an orchestra to put its distinct interpretation of a work into the world, to stand and be judged among other orchestras’ interpretations. In the case of Saint-Saëns, however, some works have rarely been recorded at all. For example, his Trois tableaux symphoniques après La foi – another non-symphonic orchestral work that will be included in the recording project – has been commercially recorded less than ten times. This recording project on European label, Hyperion, will make the Utah Symphony the first American orchestra to record all of Saint-Saëns’ five symphonies, giving the orchestra the extraordinary opportunity to become a leading voice in the interpretation of Saint-Saëns’ works.

While many contemporaries and students of Saint-Saëns considered him to be a genius, his influence is certainly felt less in the orchestral world today.  For this reason, recording three discs worth of his music will be no easy feat, especially because this music is both technically and artistically difficult. Due to the logistical challenges of live recording, most of the repertoire that will be recorded is piled into consecutive weeks. Recording weeks are exhausting, as players are operating at the highest possible level of artistic awareness. Nevertheless, our musicians are certainly up to the task. Over the past five seasons, the Utah Symphony has taken on many symphonic cycles, covering some of the most revered symphonists in history (Beethoven and Brahms) as well as composers who challenged the very idea of what defined a symphony (Mahler and Ives). It is now time to shift the focus to a composer whose works, as Music Director Thierry Fischer has pointed out, truly embody the artistic identity of the Utah Symphony in their audacity, spunk, excellence, bravery, creativity, and – perhaps most importantly – their balance between tradition and diversity. How fitting a challenge to further Saint-Saëns’ legacy.

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