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 Victoria@saltycricket.org, 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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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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Pre-concert rituals: Stephen Hough

Professional musicians often spend much of their lives on the road performing in concert venues around the globe. Amid the hectic travel schedules, rehearsals, practice time and adjustments to a different time zone, culture and climate, regular routine is sacrificed. We ask our guest artists to share what pre-concert rituals help keep them grounded. Pianist, polymath, and Renaissance man, Stephen Hough gives us a peek into how he prepares for a show.

On the day of a concert, I have morning practice from about 10:30 to 1 PM. Then a substantial lunch, sushi is a favorite, and if a pudding is irresistible only a bite (or two). Then a walk, ideally somewhere where the spirit can soar, so a park, a museum, a surging cityscape. Then a nap, bedclothes thrown back, as if nighttime with the curtains firmly closed, phones unplugged, pillows fluffed, and unconsciousness for at least an hour. I set the alarm clock and at about two hours before the concert, I am out of bed. Then, with the kettle on, I travel with my own and the best tea bags I can find. I also usually just eat half a cookie to lift the mood a little. I Shower at full throttle–it takes the same time to brew a cup of tea as it does to wash your hair. I sip my mug of strong tea as I check emails. Then, dressed, I head over to the hall. I like to arrive about an hour before I’m due onstage. I like gentle, calm backstage practicing, most often on pieces other than the ones I’m playing that night. Then into concert clothes about ten minutes before going out from the wings. I hear the applause as I am bowing, then sitting on the bench, adjusting the stool, deep breath and…hands to keys, which is why I’m there in the first place.

But then there are the occasions when none of the above is possible. And, strangely, those are often the best concerts. Ah, the frustration and joy of the glorious unpredictability of being human!

Learn more about this amazing pianist in this video!

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Family fun at the symphony!

When you think of family fun, what do you think of? For us, we think about our family nights at the symphony and opera! If you’ve never taken your kids to the symphony, it might seem a little daunting, but it’s absolutely worth it. A Utah family, Darrell and Marissa along with their children, had the opportunity to attend our Messiah Sing-in this year and loved it. Read on to see how much fun it was for them and their kids.

Tells us about your family.

We are Darrell and Marissa, and we have 4 children Gabe (12), Sam (9), Lauren (7), and Peter (2).

As a family, we enjoy the outdoors – hiking, biking, running, camping; and we also a love for music. All three of our older children play the piano, as well as their mother. As teenagers, both Marissa and I sang in a choir for 5+ plus years. Music is always being played or listened to in our home.

What concert did you attend?

The Messiah Sing-in concert. It was great to have such great seats for the kids to sit and enjoy the concert. It was great to be able to sing along with the choir on the specific choral pieces. After singing it in high school, Marissa and I forgot how quickly it moves along! It was great for the kids to participate in something so synonymous with the holiday season!

How did you enjoy the performance?

We loved the performance! Great way to start off the holiday season. Our kids also loved it. A couple of the songs were familiar to them but it was good for them to be able to hear the entire Messiah. They were amazed at how thick the book was to it.

As a parent, what was the biggest benefit to taking your kids to the symphony?

The biggest benefit of taking kids to the symphony is to expose them to and have them appreciate classical music—music that has been around for centuries and will be around for centuries more. Everyone should know what the classics are. Taking my children to these types of events also helps them to understand how to act differently, if you will, more appropriately during such events. Helps them know what is respect and how to show it.

Would you ever take them to the symphony again?

Yes, we would take our kids to the symphony again! Because they are all taking music from a teacher, this just gives them one more opportunity to learn more about music and how it affects our lives.

If your idea of fun is a night out at the symphony, learn more about Family Nights and our special family pricing here!

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Pre-concert rituals: Conrad Tao

Professional musicians often spend much of their lives on the road performing in concert venues around the globe. Amid the hectic travel schedules, rehearsals, practice time and adjustments to a different time zone, culture and climate, regular routine is sacrificed. We ask our guest artists to share what pre-concert rituals help keep them grounded. Pianist and all-around creative genius, Conrad Tao, tells us about his pre-concert rituals in the best way he knows how: with poetry.

I’m still figuring out my pre-concert ritual.

#1

Are you frightened of
Ninety minutes
Three varieties
Lots of water
green room coffee and the
archetypal banana

#2

Last fall I got stuck in an elevator. This was in Ottawa, on a show day with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, a matinee on which I was performing two concerti, one by Schumann and one by Beethoven (the Emperor), and this was just past noon, after morning rehearsal and a mediocre lunch from a place whose name I don’t recall and this is all to say that I was looking forward to getting a half hour or so of silence in my hotel room, before changing into concert dress. The hotel elevator was about a half of a floor away from my floor when it kachunked into stillness. I loved every one of the fifty minutes I spent in that elevator. I was glad I was alone. I was so thoroughly tickled by this less-orthodox iteration of my usual preconcert enforcement of silence. I would not have been good company for someone with claustrophobia.

#3

As an apology the hotel brought me a fruit basket

This story will I be remembering slightly with a position of “this is why,” perceived

origin perhaps, because I don’t like going through the motions, that much is true

But I mourn the absence of ritual in my life at the risk of careless romanticizing

and sometimes I wonder if I don’t have enough discipline

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Everything you need to know about taking your kids to the symphony

There’s no better feeling than being your kid’s hero—and you can cement your coolness for years to come by taking them to the symphony! Live, classical music can be a wonderful and moving way to bond with your children, and it will give them a memorable experience.

Feeling uncertain about taking your family to the symphony? It’s easier than you think! Here’s what you need to know and how you can make going to the symphony an experience your children will never forget:

Kids 5-18 can come to Utah Symphony performances!

Children as young as FIVE can enjoy our Masterworks symphonies, Entertainment concerts, and our new Films in Concert series. Our Family matinee concerts are still open to everyone (including babies).

You might think taking your kids to our world-class symphonies would be pretty daunting financially. But we are now offering special pricing for families. Look for designated “Family Nights” which offer a $30 Family Pass (for a family of four with a max of two adults). You can add up to six additional youth tickets onto your pass for $5 each.

Prepare for the piece you’re going to see

Classical music is always more exciting when you know everything about it! Take some time to look up articles and YouTube videos about the repertoire with your kids before you go. You can even download a playlist and play it while you’re taking your kids to school in the morning so they are more familiar with the work.

Music was meant to be fun! Try dancing or singing to the piece before you attend. You can also make a game of it by listening to the different instruments and pointing out what animals the music sounds like, or what story the music would tell if it could talk.

We suggest doing some research ahead of time to decide if a particular concert is something you’re comfortable taking your kids to. You can also call our ticket office at 801-533-6683 for more information on what to expect at any given concert.

Practice “going to the symphony” with your children

Sometimes taking your kids out of the house can be stressful. Will they sit still? Will they want to talk the whole time or kick the chair in front of them? These are all valid concerns, but you can definitely get some peace of mind if you practice the concert-going experience beforehand.

Try practicing what it’s like going to the concert hall—standing in line, taking tickets, finding your seat, knowing when to clap. You can cast family members to be ticket-takers, orchestra members, and ushers to make it more fun. This is an entertaining way to prepare your family for going to the concert hall for the first time, and it will minimize surprises when you get there.

Make a plan

A night out with the kids should be a memorable, enjoyable experience! To reduce potential stress, make a plan for your concert experience.  Of course you’ll want to pick out what you want to wear (you can go in whatever you were already wearing or dress up if you want) or where you want to eat beforehand (you can see some suggestions here), but you’ll also want to know the ins and outs of Abravanel Hall and the concert.

All of our regular concerts have a 20-minute intermission in the performance. This is a great time to take a bathroom break, grab a snack at the concession stand, or just walk around to get the wiggles out before settling back into your seat. Sometimes a full-length symphony is simply too much for a young, sleepy child to get through. If you need to leave for any reason, the intermission would be the best option to call it a night.

If your child has never attended an orchestra performance before and you are concerned about your child sitting through the concert without disrupting others, ask to be seated near a door or towards the back of the venue when you purchase your tickets so you can make a quick exit to the lobby if needed. There are large video screens that broadcast the performance in the lobby if you would prefer to view it out there.

We recommend arriving 30 minutes before the start of the performance. Sometimes traffic is heavy around Abravanel Hall (especially during the holiday season or a large convention), so you might consider leaving earlier than you think you need to. The best place to park is City Creek Center, or you can take the TRAX train to the “Temple Square” stop, which lets you off in front of the Abravanel Hall ticket office.

Ask them what they liked about the performance afterward

The symphony can be an enchanting experience for a kid! Don’t miss a single, magical moment of their experience—ask them what their favorite part of the concert was or what instrument they liked most. You’ll be amazed at how much they enjoyed it—they may even ask to come again!

Be sure to get your tickets to a Family Night! You can see our upcoming shows here.

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RECAP: Carnival of the Animals

Who knew classical music could get so wild? Camille Saint-Saëns had a gift for telling narratives through music, and if you went to Louis Lortie performs Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, you probably noticed the jungle of sounds from Carnival of the Animals.

We slithered into the rehearsal of this lush work to capture some of the best moments! Listen to each one to see if you can hear these incredible beasts.

There’s something fishy about this glittery piece of music! Which animal does this remind you of?

Cuckoo! Which bird does this song remind you of?

Is there anything more romantic than this swan song?

Which beautiful lumbering beast do you think this elegant waltz was written for?

This song tickles our funny bone! You can hear the musical tapping of bones in this piece about fossils.

Can you imagine turtles doing the cancan? Camille Saint-Saëns could!

No musical menagerie would be complete without an aviary.

BONUS VIDEO: During this rehearsal, we caught a glimpse of Saint-Saëns’ regal Symphony in F Major. Take a look at it here.

 

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Weekend review: Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony

We don’t expect this weekend to be boring. In addition to performing (and recording!) Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony, we have an incredible guest appearance by Paul Jacobs, the only organ player to date to ever receive a Grammy Award for his work.

Prepare for this weekend by listening to this Classical 89 broadcast:

You can also learn more about Paul Jacobs and this performance from this article from the Deseret News:

It’s been 17 years since Paul Jacobs expressed his passion for the organ through an unparalleled feat: playing nonstop for 18 hours.

Well, he did take a few minutes here and there to drink some water and eat a cup of chocolate pudding.

But the remaining 17 hours and change were devoted to performing the complete organ works of J.S. Bach — Jacobs’ way of commemorating the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The event took place the summer following his last year as an undergraduate student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where all students are accepted on full scholarship. Of his own will, Jacobs tirelessly performed a concert that kicked off at 6 a.m. and ended shortly after midnight.

“I think anybody would think it was crazy, and I’m not sure I would ever attempt this again, but I’m so glad when I was that age that I decided to proceed with the idea because the music was the sustenance carrying me through the day,” Jacobs said in a recent interview. “Scores of people were introduced to the organ music of Bach. … It gave me the energy and resilience so much so that I was unaware of any fatigue until the conclusion of the performance. The spiritual force of the music sustained me.”

Get your tickets for this weekend’s concert here.

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Staff Picks: Rachel Campbell

Not sure what symphony performance you want to see next? Take a look at what shows our staff—the people who live and die by classical music—would recommend for you! You’ll even get an idea of how to make a night of going to the symphony. This week we’re featuring Rachel Campbell’s picks for the upcoming months. She has a passion for all things Broadway, and loves our entertainment series.

What do you do?

I’m Rachel Campbell, the Patron Loyalty Marketing Manager. I’m in charge of building relationships with our patrons and sending them emails and communication of upcoming shows that might interest them.

Which performance are you most looking forward to and why?

I’m so excited for Dancing & Romancing! I grew up watching all the classic dance movies with my mom and grandma. The dance scenes were always epic… the guy and girl were always in the best costumes, the music started up and there was no need for talking because the music and the dancing said it all.  So, of course, my date to the show will be my mom because she introduced me to all the classics like Funny Face, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris.

This is part of our Entertainment Series (to which you can buy a subscription here) which is great for anyone who loves Broadway musicals! We’ve had a lot of fun concerts this year like Broadway Divas, and we have some others coming up like A Broadway Christmas with Brian Stokes Mitchell.

What do you recommend doing before or after the show?

I love to go to dinner before the show, that way I can catch up with the person I’m going with. There are so many restaurants in the downtown area, I like to try a new one each week. But my go-to favorite restaurant to go to is Sawadee or Blue Lemon if I’m short on time. After we’ve filled up, all I have to do sit back and enjoy the show!

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