Off-Score: A look into the off-stage passions of Utah Symphony members

Principal Flutist Mercedes Smith strives to empower youth through the natural structure and leadership opportunities an orchestra provides.

“I’ve been here for five and a half years,” Smith said. “It’s such a beautiful place to live, it’s so wonderful waking up and seeing the mountains every morning.” Prior to living in Utah, Smith lived in Dallas as the Principal Flutist for the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet Orchestras. In her free time, she loves to cook, work with non-profit organizations, practice yoga, and slowly but surely renovate her home.

In March of 2017, Thierry Fischer and 14 Utah Symphony musicians volunteered during their spring breaks and teamed up with BLUME Haiti (Building Leaders Using Music Education) to teach 100 young Haitian musicians. Every section of the symphony, with the exception of tuba and harp, was represented. “I was slightly hesitant at first because it was my vacation week,” said Smith, “but I went and had the best time. It’s such a beautiful place.”

“The people are so positive despite all the hardships they’ve been through. They don’t lack in intelligence or work ethic, just opportunities, so we went there to create the opportunities for them.”

The musicians worked with students from 9 AM to 1 PM. “We would do everything from the basic fundamentals of scales and tone exercises, to private lessons, to masterclasses. Really anything that filled up four hours.” Following their instruction, the students rehearsed for their concert as an ensemble with Maestro Thierry Fischer.

She taught five young adults that all had their own students. Pupils that were too old for the program could audit the class, and students that were too young benefitted from trainings their teachers received. “There were around 100 students in the program last year, but I think we reached closer to 1,000, and that’s in schools all throughout Haiti,” she said.

Before arriving in Haiti, Smith had no idea what to expect. “I was surprised at the high level some of them played at,” she said. “It’s clear that had they had the opportunities that we have here in the U.S. … they would have been able to excel far more than the level they were currently at.”

Political crises, natural disasters, and economic struggle make upward-class mobility extremely difficult. “It’s nearly impossible to get out of the middle class—and it’s not like our middle class. It really is poverty.” BLUME Haiti provides leadership opportunities, teaching youth that they are not stuck—differences in their community are possible.

After returning from Haiti, Smith continued to think about music as an agent of social change. “The thing is, we have a bit of this problem in our own country too,” Smith admits. “Kids that are poor tend to stay poor, or I guess we’re now starting to understand that not everyone has the same upward mobility that we may have once had.” She partnered with Salty Cricket Composer Collective’s ‘El Sistema,’ a non-profit after-school music program that provides 17 hours of after-school music instruction, free of charge to Jackson Elementary students in Rose Park.

Ms. Smith found BLUME Haiti and El Sistema worked hand in hand. “[El Sistema] is essentially doing the same thing BLUME Haiti is doing—empowering kids and teaching them about teamwork and leadership,” she said.

Based off the Venezuelan music education program, El Sistema is located in cities all throughout the United States. “I don’t know how long this program has been going, but it’s new,” Smith tells me. “Maybe 3-5 years old.” Currently, it only offers violin instruction but will be expanding to cellos and violas next year. “They need instrument donations, and they need to expand their budget,” she said.

Wanting to raise awareness and involve the Utah Symphony even further, Smith created “Saturdays with the Symphony,” a near-monthly exchange where one musician spends two hours with young students and their parents. “It’s basically a show-and-tell that’s 20 minutes long because the kids are so little.”

The musician plays a few pieces, speaks about their instrument, and discusses their journey studying music. “Then they have a little orchestra rehearsal, and we have the symphony member sit and play the little ‘Ode to Joy’ tune they’re working on,” she said. Following the concert is a potluck dinner where students and their families meet the musician. “It’s really such a motivating thing for the kids!”

Smith has made it her mission to expand the program to its full potential by utilizing the world-class talent available in Salt Lake City. “I really just want to help increase the visibility of this organization,” she said. “I want the symphony to do everything it can to help—that’s why I started this very small gesture of having one musician a month reach out to our community.”

In her experience, local Salt Lake initiatives don’t hold nearly as well as a large-scale Haiti trip would. “It amazes me how easy it is to fundraise for Haiti than it is to fundraise for children in our own community,” she said. “Jackson Elementary is a five-minute walk from the Utah Opera Production Studios.”

Interested in getting involved? You don’t have to be a professional musician to directly impact the lives of Salt Lake City youth.

First off, this Friday, February 16th, MOTUS (musicians of the Utah Symphony) After Dark will be holding a fundraiser at the jazz club Avant Groove, starting at 9 PM. Tickets can be bought online or at the door for 5$, and all the money raised directly benefits to El Sistema. “I think we’ve almost sold out all the VIP booths,” she said.

Secondly, El Sistema is accepting donations to expand the program to its full potential. Donations can be made online here.

If donations are not possible, Salty Cricket accepts volunteers of all kinds. If interested, please reach out to Victoria at, or by calling (919) 274-3845.

“[El Sistema] is small now, but it’s growing,” Smith says. “I can tell it’s going to be a huge thing in the future that affects so many children’s lives.”

To learn more about El Sistema’s Jackson Elementary program, visit their website.


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Fall in love with “Dancing and Romancing”

Gershwin, Berlin, and Bernstein, oh my! Prepare to be swept off your feet this Valentine’s season with Utah Symphony’s “Dancing and Romancing” program February 9th and 10th at 7:30 PM. You’ll be swinging all evening to Hollywood golden-age classics, right alongside famed singers and dancers.

Not a dancer? Even better! Join us at 6:30 for dance lessons with local professionals Marcea and David Hess as they teach the basics of the waltz, cha-cha, and fox trot in the lobby. You might want dance all night, but after the class you’ll get to hear romantic show tunes played by the orchestra while Kirby Ward and Joan Hess sing and dance to the music.

The Irving Berlin song “Cheek to Cheek” was written in 1935 for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ movie Top Hat. It quickly rose to the top of the charts and was named the #1 song of 1935.

In 1956, beloved jazz singers Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald featured “Cheek to Cheek” on their 1956 album, Ella and Louis.

Today, “Cheek to Cheek” stands as an American classic, inspiring the name of a 2014 jazz album featuring Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.

Who doesn’t love Chicago? Rouge your knees and roll your stockings down for the sultry “All That Jazz,” sung by Joan Hess and Kirby Ward.

After such a hot performance, cool down with Nacio Herb Brown’s song “Singin’ In The Rain.” First performed by Doris Eaton Travis at the Hollywood Music Box Revue, the song quickly became a smash hit, being recorded by a number of artists, including Cliff Edwards, Annette Hanshaw, and Judy Garland.

The song became a centerpiece for the classic 1952 musical film Singin’ in the Rain, starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.

This superb collection of songs will entrance audience members of all ages. Grab your loved ones and enjoy Utah Symphony’s evening of reminiscing and celebration of life today.

Get your tickets to Dancing and Romancing here.

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Everything you need to know about Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony

What is Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony?

It’s a symphony written by French composer Saint-Saëns cast in two movements. It has been a crowd favorite ever since its premiere in London’s St. James’s Hall in 1886 when Saint-Saëns himself lead the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Although the whole symphony is well-loved, the final movement is what truly lends the piece its name as the “Organ” Symphony. The organ dramatically begins the movement by roaring resonant chords. A theme is introduced by the strings, evolving into a full-on march with all instruments—including the organ—working as a team.

Why is this piece so notable?

“I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” – Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns’ C minor Symphony, “avec orgue” (with organ) is the third and very last of his symphonies, naming itself as one of his most beloved works throughout his tremendous musical career. As a piece cast in two movements, “Organ” is nearly unprecedented in 19th century symphonic composition. Further reconfiguring 19th-century music, Saint-Saëns doesn’t just use an organ, but also a piano, to establish and communicate themes.

“Organ” was heavily inspired by a key originator of thematic transformation, Liszt, to whom he dedicated the composition. Ambitious and groundbreaking, “Organ” teases with musical puzzles that reveal themselves at the end of the piece.

The main motif of the last movement is one of the most well-used tunes in classical music history, finding its way into movies like Disney’s “Babe,” and being adopted as the national anthem of micronation Atlantium—a small empire in New South Wales, Australia.

What should I expect when I come to the concert?

First off, prepared to be blown away by powerhouse organist Paul Jacobs.

We seriously mean this one.

Jacobs is pretty much THE rock star of the organ world. He is the only living organist in America to accumulate such an immense number of orchestral engagements. Typically, organists are restricted to just churches and religious ceremonies due to repertoire constraints, however, Mr. Jacobs has broken out of that box, creating a career for himself as a guest soloist, traveling all over the world with some of the most prestigious symphony orchestras.

As if that wasn’t enough to tell you how cool this guy is, at the age of 23 Mr. Jacobs played Bach’s complete organ works in an 18-hour marathon performance on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Have you ever accomplished that much in 18 hours?

He also has been featured on NPR Music’s “Tiny Desk Concert,” and has amassed nearly 50,000 views on YouTube alone.

Second, don’t be alarmed if you see weird recording devices on stage. The Utah Symphony and European recording company Hyperion are teaming up to perform and record all five of Saint-Saëns’ symphonies—live. Join us as we make history as the first American orchestra to ever record the full cycle of all five works.

Whether you’re a massive Saint-Saëns fan or have never heard of him until now, this performance is one not to be missed.

Get your tickets for Saint-Saëns’ grand “Organ” symphony here.

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