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.

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.  

LEGACY OF A CARNIVAL

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-SAЁNS RECORDING CYCLE

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.