Celena Shafer spills the beans

Celena Shafer is a Utah-born soprano who has wowed audiences with her countless roles with Utah Opera—and most recently with us—on our recording of Mahler No. 8. She will be performing in our upcoming concert Mozart’s Great Mass

You have a long history with the Utah Symphony—what was it like singing with the Utah Symphony for the first time?

I was 17 when I sang with the Utah Symphony for the first time. And, coincidentally, it was Mozart that I sang! I had auditioned through Salute to Youth and was chosen as one of the soloists. Joseph Silverstein was musical director at the time, and he was so gracious to me. I was so nervous and excited! It was a humongous, momentous event for me.

What is it like to sing in Abravanel Hall?

Singing in Abravanel Hall is deceptive. When you step out onto stage, you are overwhelmed by the size of the hall. But, once you start to sing, you can tell that the acoustics are such that you will be heard even on the very back rows.

My favorite thing about singing at Abravanel Hall is that it means I am singing for my home crowd, for people I know and love.

What are your fondest memories of singing in Abravanel Hall?

A concert hall is a place where we experience feelings from the music presented. Those feelings can vary from the deeply religious to the extremely profane, depending on the music and where we are in our life’s journey. I have had some deeply spiritual moments in Abravanel Hall. Most memorable to me was the last minutes of Mahler No. 2 (Resurrection), “Aufersteh’n, ja, aufersteh’n: Wirst du!” (Yes! You will rise again!) I had tears streaming down my face. The easiest thing to do as a singer is to not fight the tears, otherwise the throat seizes up… so I just let the tears stream.

When I sang a New Year’s concert a few years back, Thierry Fischer, just as a gag, had me conduct the orchestra for a bar or two… whew! That’s a biggie—giving a downbeat for the Utah Symphony!

I have so many fond memories of the orchestra players in Abravanel Hall, both onstage and backstage. They have always been so tremendously supportive and kind. That kind of environment helps musicians achieve their best.

What do you find particularly beautiful or moving about Mozart’s Mass in C Minor?

I love the way the credo is set. Mozart moves the text and music of the credo along nicely, but comes to an absolute halt for the text: “God became incarnate through Mary, and was made flesh.”

He gives this line of text a whole aria, emphasizing the absolute wonder that God would I am amazed and awed to think that God would be one of us, to have our human experiences, to feel the pain and beauty of being human. WOW.

A Russian, a Michiganian and a Salt Lake native

It sounds like the punchline to a joke but Utah Symphony’s three new violins really do hail from vastly different places. Director of Communications Renée Huang (who herself comes from Toronto, Canada) sat down with the newest members of the violin section to learn about the journeys that brought them to Salt Lake City.

Evgenia Zharazhavskaya, Assistant Principal Second Violin

BACKGROUND: I was born and spent most of my life in St. Petersburg, Russia. I started my musical education playing piano at a very early age and then switched to violin when I was 6. I entered the Rimsky-Korsakov School of music the same year and later continued my studies at the St. Petersburg state conservatory where I got my Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. While still at the conservatory I won a position with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. I also took part in numerous music festivals including Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany, Verbier Festival in Switzerland, Gustav Mahler Academy in Italy and Miyazaki Festival in Japan. I moved to Florida in 2010 to study with Elmar Oliveira at Lynn University Conservatory of Music. In 2014 I won full-time substitute position with Houston symphony where I played for three full seasons and in April of 2017, I won my Assistant Principal Second position in Utah Symphony. I am currently 34 years old and don’t have any siblings.

WHY UTAH SYMPHONY? I was drawn to the distinguished sound of the orchestra, great community, and beauty of Utah.

HOBBIES: I like nature very much so I am very happy to have an excellent opportunity to explore the unbelievable beauty of Utah. I like baking, biking, hiking, reading, dancing salsa, learning self-defense with Krav Maga and spending time with my dear husband and friends.

Bonnie Terry, Section First Violin

BACKGROUND: I was born and raised here in Salt Lake City. I started violin when I was six and studied with Kris Palmer and Hiroko Primrose. When I was ten, I had the opportunity to solo with the Utah Symphony under the direction of Joseph Silverstein on the annual Salute to Youth Concert. I left home at age 12 to study violin at the Preucil School of Music in Iowa City and then attended high school in Michigan where I graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy. I did, however, spend one year of HS here at West High (Go, Panthers!) where I sang in the Chorale and A Capella, and studied violin with Gerald Elias, then associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony. I received my Bachelor’s degree and Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY where I studied with William Preucil (concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and a former concertmaster of the Utah Symphony), and Master’s Degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music where I was also a Preucil student. Following grad school, I spent a year as a fellow with the New World Symphony in Florida. From there I moved to Tucson, Arizona for three years where I was the concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and taught violin at the University of Arizona. I also spent a year in Charlottesville, VA teaching at the University of Virginia. For the last ten years, I have lived in San Antonio, TX as the Associate Concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony. I have spent the last fourteen summers in Chicago playing with the Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra.

WHY UTAH SYMPHONY? I moved here to be closer to my family and because I grew up watching the Utah Symphony play! I couldn’t be happier to be back in the Motherland! My parents, older brother, and younger sister also live and grew up here. My sister plays the violin and is a dance teacher, and my brother plays piano and trumpet.

HOBBIES: I love to sing, dance (danced as a member of the Children’s Dance Theater from age 4-17), attend SLAC plays, RDT and Ririe Woodbury concerts, hang out with friends and family.

Hannah Linz, Section Second Violin

BACKGROUND: I grew up in a musical family as the youngest of four children in Okemos, Michigan. I began playing the violin at age 3 and the piano at age 5. After having won competitions for solo playing and chamber music, as well as attending summer music programs, I went on to pursue a degree in violin performance at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, studying privately with Ik-Hwan Bae, Jorja Fleezanis, and Alexander Kerr.

WHY UTAH SYMPHONY? I am joining the Utah Symphony after having performed with the Dallas Symphony for two seasons as a Jaap van Zweden Scholar, and as a substitute member of The Philadelphia Orchestra. I am thrilled to join the Utah Symphony not only because it is a great orchestra with a fantastic music director, but I also enjoy the incredible natural beauty that this state has to offer. I am excited to get to know Utah and explore this gorgeous state.

HOBBIES: In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, and watching movies.

The author, Renee Huang is the Director of Public Relations.

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.

Pre-concert Rituals: William Hagen

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. Here is what violinist and Utah native William Hagen had to say about his.

William Hagen, violin

My first instinct, when asked about a pre-concert ritual or routine, is to say that I have none, or that I’m still working on figuring out what mine is. However, I realize that there are two things that I do very consistently on concert days; the first is to make sure that I have reasonably good blood sugar when I walk on stage. I have Type 1 Diabetes, so I have to be aware of what’s going on with my body before a concert. To lower the risk of high or low blood sugar, I try to stick to low-carb food and I try not to eat 3-4 hours before a concert—this simplifies things and makes my blood sugar more stable and predictable. The second part of my routine is to make sure that I have no wardrobe malfunctions – there are many components of a tux that can go awry. Actually, there are many components of any kind of concert garb that can go (and have gone) awry. I’ve heard stories about people walking on stage in a suave tux, everything in order, only to look down for a moment to find that they are wearing white sneakers. What a performer is wearing really doesn’t matter too much to me, because the main focus should be the music, but a wardrobe malfunction can turn into a major distraction. It’s hard to take someone completely seriously when their fly’s down.

See William Hagen in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances November 3-4, 2017 here.

Pre-concert Rituals: Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Patricia Kopatchinskaja Photo: Marco Borggreve

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. Here is what Patricia Kopatchinskaja who will perform with us in Fischer conducts Beethoven’s Fifth had to say about her pre-concert ritual.

The performing artist has to present a work of art. Her duty is to give this work the maximum of impact. To achieve this, the performer has to channel all her energies, all her talents, power, and personality into this performance. One could say that the performer has somehow to ‘become’ the piece.

Of course, the performer has to know the piece: its score, its history. She has to have the technique ready, which is the task of a lifetime. But most important is to carry in her heart and mind — her very personal and unrepeatable vision of the piece.

On performance day I try to avoid any distraction: no telephones, no visits, no interviews, no photo sessions, no bad news. On a nice day after breakfast I might jog outside for half an hour and then I might practice perhaps for half an hour, but one never should expend too much energy because it will be needed in the evening. The most important is the nap in the afternoon. There will perhaps be a stage or a microphone rehearsal but normally I just stay in the artist room and concentrate. I cannot eat before concerts, but I need half a banana and something to drink. And then I am ready for battle…

See what else Patricia had to say about her work here.

Four divas. One stage.

Is there room on stage for more than one diva? In our opinion, the more the merrier! Our Broadway Divas concert will be one to remember because four incredibly talented women will share the stage October 27 and 28.

Get to know more about these incredible vocalists and hear previews of their music in the videos below.


There is no challenge this Bronx, NY native won’t take on. Her diverse repertoire covers 11 languages and about every musical genre you can think of. We think this rendition of “I Feel Pretty” from Bernstein’s West Side Story is particularly electrifying!

Christina DeCicco

Christina DeCicco is no stranger to the stage. She has recently performed in Broadway classics such as Evita and Wicked and is now coming to serenade us. We couldn’t resist this video of her performing Cabaret in a cabaret.

Christina Bianco

Move over Barbara Streisand because there’s a new Funny Girl in town. Not only does she have an enviable singing voice, but she can do hilariously accurate impressions of other singers—just take a look at her guest appearance on Ellen.

Kristen Plumley

Kristen Plumley can do it all. She has performed in operas as well as in pops classics such as Oklahoma! and Brigadoon. It’s never too early for the holidays, so watch this clip of one of her holiday concerts from a few years ago.

You won’t want to miss Broadway Divas! Get your tickets here.

What Would Your Favorite Movie Sound Like Without a Score?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to watch your favorite movie without its iconic soundtrack? Romantic scenes would be less moving. Action scenes would be less gripping. And don’t get us started on what would happen to musicals!

One of the best parts of performing films in concert is the music brings the story to life and helps narrate the movie in a way that even the best dialogue cannot.

In honor of our Films in Concert series, here are some of the best reasons why we need music in our movies:

Some movies would be PAINFULLY awkward without music

Who doesn’t love a movie where the heroes come off triumphant in the end? Those moments deserve some sort of fanfare to set the mood.

A great example is the throne room scene from Star Wars’ “A New Hope.” But you never realize how long of a walk it is for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo to receive their medals when the room is awkwardly silent. Chewbacca’s blood-curdling screams put the cherry on top of a less-than-triumphant moment in a music-less scene.

For reference, here’s what it sounds like with John Williams’ genius score:

 Movies (and life) are boring without a soundtrack

Have you ever gone to the gym and had forgotten your headphones? You probably didn’t feel as motivated to exercise. You know who can relate? Rocky.

When you take the iconic music out of this scene, his exercise routine becomes tedious and even makes you feel exhausted. Music makes a huge difference even for mundane moments like driving to work or writing a paper.

A good soundtrack sets the mood of the scene

An epic adventure needs an epic score. Just ask the people who worked on Lord of the Rings. This award-winning score by Howard Shore makes you feel as if you are on a grand adventure with these beloved characters.

But what would it sound like if the music were different? This video shows how humorous it would really be:

In the end, music makes the movie what we know and love. Don’t miss our Films in Concert series! Get your tickets here.

Social Snapshot

There’s no rest for the weary! After the Great American Road Trip, we wasted no time getting back into Abravanel Hall to start off our season. We kicked things off with Raiders of the Lost Ark from our Films in Concert series, helped celebrate the Utah Opera’s 40th Anniversary Gala, and started our Masterworks series on a high note with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Here are the best moments from these performances:


Memories of the Great American Road Trip

After six days, seven concerts, and over 1,200 miles, we can finally take a deep breath! The Great American Road Trip was, in fact, great because we got to see the beauties of our state, interact with incredible people, and make memories at local schools.

Some of the greatest highlights were our incredible concert venues in Springdale, Bluff, and Vernal as well as our guest artists like Brent Michael Davids. But what made the trip most memorable was the people who came to our concerts. While we were all abuzz with the Duo de la mouche, our audience was all aflutter with tweets and snaps about the concerts. Here are the best comments about #UtahSymphonyRoadTrip:


Q&A with Composer Brent Michael Davids

The Great American Road Trip is bound to be unforgettable—and one of the biggest reasons why is because composer Brent Michael Davids will join us to perform some of his work! Davids has had an exciting career scoring work for orchestras and films, and he has a unique style in which he combines orchestral music with unique instruments of his own creation.

Naturally, we are excited to have him on the tour, so we asked him a few questions about his work:

What was the inspiration for the two works, “Spirit Woman Song” and “Fluting Around, II” featured on this tour?

Guest artist and composer Brent Michael Davids

Jean-Philippe Rameau saw some Illiniwek (Native Americans) dancing in Paris and got the idea to compose a dance-opera. It utilized harpsichord and sounded nothing like Native American music. It was basically a Harlequin

romance novel set to the music of his time period, with an old chief, his pretty daughter, and two opposing suitors. There are Native composers that have written for orchestra, such as Zitkala Sa (“Red Bird”) who wrote the first grand opera in 1913, even winning “opera of the year” from the New York Opera Guild in 1938. Her studies at the Boston Conservatory of Music enabled her to fuse Dakota culture with Western European composition.

Today there have been others trail-blazing Native American orchestral music, such as Dr. Louis Wayne Ballard, a longtime dear friend of mine. He was a Quapaw-Cherokee composer of great accomplishment, a lifetime educator, and he mentored me for nearly 30 years. There are others too, such as Odawa composer Barbara Croall, Choctaw composer George Quincey, Navajo composer Raven Chacon, a wonderful young O’otham composer Tonya Wind Singer, and forays into orchestral composition by many performer-composers and pianist-composers. In fact, Tonya’s premiering a new work with Cape Symphony this Friday (August 25, 2017) for a Wampanoag singer and orchestra called “First Light.”

For almost 41 years now, it has been my mission to create a hybrid between Native American song traditions, and orchestral concert music. The two works featured on the tour are recent examples of this longtime effort!

In your work, you use a lot of instruments that are not common to traditional orchestras. What are some of these instruments and why did you pick them?

The instruments are often my own designs and in collaboration with others. I’ve had several composer “periods” I suppose, and one of them was electronic music. I started composing for concert band 1976, then for small chamber avant-garde ensembles using extended instrumental techniques by creating sounds not normally produced on those instruments, and then a period of electronic compositions, tape manipulation, and “music concrete.”

What I learned in electronic music is the creation of wild sounds are often not reproducible on standardized acoustic instruments. I loved exploring new sounds, but I wasn’t enjoying electronic music so much. When leaving that medium, and going toward orchestral music, I wanted to find ways of creating wilder sounds for acoustic instruments. I started building instruments at that point, out of all sorts of materials, woods, plastics, metals, and even quartz crystal, and I had help from fabricators and even scientists. Many of the acoustic principles of the newly made instruments are ideas gleaned from traditional Native Americans ones.
Who and/or what inspired you most to become a musician?

My parents were the most influential, encouraging me to become musically literate. And I was greatly inspired by composer George Crumb. I first heard his work for electric string quartet called “Black Angels” and was awe-struck by it. It was the first instance where I heard music that sounded exactly like the title of the work; “Night of the Electric Insects” was a section of the work and it evoked exactly that, electric insects. I’d never heard anything like that before, and it drove me to learn more and to start composing myself. Later I learned that violinist David Harrington was also inspired by this work, prompting him to found the renown Kronos Quartet, for whom I have composed.

Your work appears to tell a story. Do you have a narrative in mind when you compose?

Always. In my view, any competent composers can create an acceptable work, passable by any nominal orchestration and composition standards. What excites me, however, are the works that tell something vital. Music works are like grand conversations really, with a beginning, middle, and ending. They are naturally story-like, evocative events occurring through time. But not all stories are alike, and not all stories are good ones. So I try my utmost to create adventures in my music, dynamic and striking tales in sound that have extra musical meaning. I want to tell good stories, and music composing is my best voice.

Besides composing, what other projects are you working on?

I’m composing a large requiem about the founding of the country, called “Requiem for America,” that relates the American Indian perspective of the original founding events in our shared American history. I’m composing an hour-long,  secular ‘anti-Requiem,’ spinning the traditional Christian Death Mass on its head to give voice to America’s invisible people: the American Indians.

I’m continuing to score several films, as well, including “Lake of Betrayal” which airs nationally on PBS this November, and several indie films. I am excited by a scoring project not for film though, but for fashion. I’ve been hired to score the runway show of designer Patricia Michaels for the International Fashion Week in Paris at the Louvre (18 Nov 2017). France’s top youth chorus, Mikrokosmos, has signed on to perform the work! Desert blooms, gentle rain, wind, and birds are musically portrayed by France’s most celebrated youth chorus. Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone voices warble, chirp, trill, and hum an environment of sounds for Michaels’ desert-inspired fashions.

I just finished composing a new choral work, available soon via See-A-Dot music publishing, called “Singing for Water” giving choirs everywhere an opportunity to sing the message of the Native American Water Protectors, with all proceeds going to Winona LaDuke’s Honor The Earth organization. It’s going to be an exciting fall!

Since this is a road trip – tell us about the best road trip you’ve ever been on.

I could weave together a great story about running through NASA security to stow away onboard a space shuttle into orbit, but my most exciting road trip is probably that time I stubbed my toe on a tree root that was obviously trying to knock me over because it did! I did drive to Zion National Park years ago to perform a small concert with a few others, most notably frame-drummer extraordinaire Glen Velez. But with an orchestra?! I’m super excited about appearing with the exceptional Utah Symphony!