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.

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!

Staff Picks: Hillary Hahn and Jeff Counts

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 Hillary Hahn and Jeff Counts’ picks for the upcoming months.

What do you both do?

We are the Senior Director of Institutional Gifts and the General Manager. Hillary works with Corporations, Foundations, and Government organizations to support all the wonderful programs that USUO offers. She also plays the violin, and you’ll occasionally see her playing in the orchestra as a substitute musician! Jeff runs the day-to-day operations of the symphony, and he and his team are responsible for the effortless-feeling performances.

Which performance are you most looking forward to and why?

The Hilary Hahn plays Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, of course! We’ll bring ‘our’ Hillary Hahn’s violin students with us. We always try to invite them to see the great soloists that perform with the orchestra. Augustin Hadelich and Will Hagen were already highlights for them and we know Hilary will be too. As former educators ourselves, we have always appreciated how committed Hilary is to interacting with young people and advocating for the arts in every community she visits.

What do you recommend doing before or after the show?

We don’t always get to see each other before or after concerts because our jobs here are so different, but, if we were patrons, we would definitely go out for a drink and a bite afterward. Salt Lake continues to add interesting post-concert options around Abravanel Hall (this wasn’t always the case!) and our favorites include BTG, Lake Effect, Under Current, Squatters…the list is getting longer each year! Before the show, we enjoy getting sushi at Happy Sumo, grabbing some pasta at Caffé Molise or working our way down Main Street to try the many new great places there. Downtown starts to quiet down a bit after the holidays so it’s nice to take a walk if it isn’t too cold!

20 questions with Conner Gray Covington

The Utah Symphony orchestra is like a family—so naturally, we want to know everything we can when we get a new addition. Conner Gray Covington is our new Assistant Conductor, and it’s his first season with us. He took the time to answer a flurry of questions—here’s what he had to tell us:

What instrument do you play?

Violin and a little bit of piano.

Where did you study?

The University of Texas at Arlington, the Eastman School of Music, and the Curtis Institute of Music.

Who’s your favorite composer?

I can never choose one, but a few are Mozart, Dvorak, and Richard Strauss (and I’m still leaving off SO many).

What’s your favorite movie?

I really like Shine with Geoffrey Rush. Also, To Kill a Mockingbird is a real classic. Gregory Peck was amazing.

What music are you listening to currently?

It changes constantly. However, the past year or so, I’ve been very interested in old recordings of standard orchestral and operatic repertoire. For instance, I was listening to several recordings the other day of the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin. I came across some great performances conducted by Abbado, Furtwängler, and Maazel. They were all very different but very beautiful in their own way.

What’s your favorite color?

Growing up it was always blue, but somedays I feel like I prefer green. I guess it depends on my mood.

Favorite thing to do on the weekend?

I love sleeping in and having a big breakfast.

Cat person or dog person?

I love all animals, but I’m more of a dog person.

Favorite thing about Utah?

The mountains! And of course, skiing in them.

Favorite place to eat in Utah?

I haven’t been to too many places yet, but the Red Iguana is pretty incredible. I lived in Texas for 6 years, so I feel like I have very high standards for good Mexican food. The Red Iguana definitely meets and surpasses those standards.

What are you most excited to conduct this year?

I’m excited about a lot of programs, but I might be most excited about the Messiah Sing-in. This will be my first opportunity to conduct the whole piece, and it is such a masterpiece!

Biggest pet peeve?

Definitely wasted time or when I feel like someone is wasting other peoples’ time because of a lack of preparation

What do you miss the most about your hometown?

Probably the mountains. I grew up in east Tennessee near the Smokey Mountains. They are definitely not as imposing or striking as the Rockies, but there is a real peacefulness to them.

 What is one thing that you can’t live without?

The opportunity to spend time outdoors and in nature.

If you had to play a different instrument, what would it be?

Definitely the cello. If I could go back, that’s the instrument I would pick.

If you could have any other non-musical job in the world, what would it be?

I would probably be a lawyer. I think I would find Constitutional law particularly fascinating. Also, I love to argue!

Do you have any hidden talents?

I’m actually a pretty decent cook. I grew up watching the Food Network a lot.

You can only eat one food for the rest of your life—what is it?

Probably potato chips.

You’re stranded indefinitely on a desert island and you can only bring three books to keep you entertained—what are they?

The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and something by Shakespeare (perhaps Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet).

If you were to win an Olympic gold medal, which sport would it be for?

Probably the 5,000-meter run. I used to be a pretty decent distance runner in middle school and high school. Either that or downhill skiing.

PREVIEW: Louis Lortie performs Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2

If you come to our upcoming concerts of Louis Lortie performs Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, you won’t be able to deny that our soloist has a flurry of flair on the piano. His nimble-fingered finesse will leave you awestruck—and if you don’t believe us, take a look at this video of him playing Chopin here:

In this concert he will be performing Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Preview the music in this video.

You won’t want to miss Louis Lortie and his magical mastery of the piano. Get your tickets for Louis Lortie performs Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 here.

REVIEW: Mahler Symphony No. 8

The Christian Review published a list of “Eight Recordings for Christmas” in which they give our Mahler Symphony No. 8 a glowing review:

Mahler 8th Symphony, conducted by Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and soloists, is exceptional, among the best 8ths I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard most of them. The soloists are first class, especially the tenor, Barry Banks, meeting all the challenges of the score. One expects the [Mormon Tabernacle Choir] to be great but here they surpass themselves, heaped greatly by the RR engineers. Thierry Fischer has a marvelous feel for Mahler and delivers at every step of the way. The finale is appropriately overwhelming, but few recordings actually pack the kind of punch the composer imagined. Repeated hearings may lead me to say this is the best of all.” (Read the entire review here)

The recording is available now and will make a perfect present for the music lover in your life. Order it through us here.

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.

PREVIEW: Mahler Symphony No. 8

Our long-awaited recording of Mahler Symphony No. 8 comes out this Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. We teamed up with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Madeline Choir School,  and some incredible vocalists (including Celena Shafer) to do this monumental recording. See what the Deseret News has to say about it:

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Symphony will release the complete recordings of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, also known as “Symphony of a Thousand,” on Friday, Nov. 17.

“Not many orchestras are fortunate enough to record Mahler (No.) 8 ever,” said Thierry Fischer, music director and conductor of the Utah Symphony, in a news release. “But thanks to Maurice Abravanel and the tradition he started 50 years ago, it has happened here in Utah twice!”

Featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Madeleine Choir School, the release marks the end of a Utah Symphony tour that included all 10 of Mahler’s symphonies performed over the last three years.

“I marvel at the depth of local talent and the willingness of musicians to come together in a unique collaboration to perform this musical tour de force,” said Ron Jarrett, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in the news release. “It is a testament of hope and optimism that does justice to Mahler’s vision.”

Read the rest of this story here.

Pre-order the CD before Friday and get $5 off list price.

Everything you need to know about the “Messiah Sing-in”

What could possibly be better than listening to the Utah Symphony? Singing with us of course! For those of you who can’t sit still in your seats when you come to one of our concerts, the Messiah Sing-in is the concert for you. While the orchestra plays, you can sing-along to the inspired score by George Frideric Handel.

For some people, this performance—with its majestic and spiritual choruses—this is a long-standing tradition. If it’s your first time to this performance, here is everything you need to know:

What is Handel’s Messiah?

It is an English-language oratorio which was composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel with the Libretto based on scriptural text by Charles Jennens. The text is largely based on the King James Bible’s accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. (It also includes sections of the Book of Common Prayer.)

The music is stirring and filled with rapturous choruses—including the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Want to know more? Just take a look at this video from our performance of the Messiah from a few years ago:

Why is this piece so notable?

Like many notable works, Handel’s Messiah caused quite a stir. Many people initially considered it blasphemous. Despite some people’s original sentiments, this work has become an incredibly popular and beloved tradition for the Christmas season (although it was originally composed for the Easter season).

One could point to many reasons as to why it’s so iconic. Its choruses are vibrant and the subject matter is moving. But perhaps one of the most notable things is that Handel composed it in record time. He finished the 260-page score in just 24 days—with relatively few revisions too.

Whatever the reasons for its popularity, the Messiah is here to stay!

What should I expect when I come to the concert?

This is not your typical Utah Symphony concert. Instead of sitting quietly in your seat, you will be singing along during the big choral numbers. Unless you have the libretto (the words to an opera or oratorio) to the Messiah memorized, we recommend bringing one with you. Keep in mind that there is no one definitive version, but we’ll be using the Bärenreiter edition, which will be available for sale in the lobby before the show. Not sure when to start singing? Don’t worry! The conductor will indicate when you should sing.

Whether you’re a classically trained soprano or you’re completely tone-deaf baritone, this program is built for everyone. So belt it out at the top of your lungs and enjoy the show!

Get your tickets for Handel’s Messiah here.

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.