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Utah Symphony: Heavenly playing, through Mahler's 'most perfect' symphony

Published March 30, 2012 5:01 pm

Music • Fischer conducts as percussionist Keith Guernsey strikes his last notes — after 51 years.
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Playing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 this week will provide an oasis of late-Romantic lyricism in a season dominated by the driving accents of Beethoven symphonies, said Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer.

Fischer admires his late predecessor Maurice Abravanel, whose seminal Mahler recordings brought global fame to the orchestra in the 1960s. Though it was the Abravanel/Mahler connection that first sparked Fischer's interest in the Utah Symphony, he says he's conducting Mahler's Fourth Symphony for his own reasons, and not as any sort of rite of passage.

"I want to show the first results of the hard work the orchestra has been doing with the Beethoven symphonies in pieces with radically opposing styles," Fischer said.

Last February's performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 was one of those season landmarks, and next week's Mahler performance will be another. "Mahler's Fourth Symphony, for me, is the most perfect symphony," he said. "I love the contact with the human voice, and we have this fantastic soprano Lisa Milne, who has just done it with the New York Philharmonic — I went to the concert in New York."

Mahler's Fourth is immediately recognizable for the sound of sleigh bells that opens the symphony, and is unusual for the soprano solo that graces its fourth movement. The text is from the German folk poem collection "Des Knaben Wunderhorn."

The words invoke a child's naive view of heaven — a place where children can eat all the delicious fruits and vegetables they want, and where incomparable music fills the air.

The Scottish soprano has been featured in starring roles at the Metropolitan Opera and other great opera houses of the world. She loves performing symphonic works equally well and has a special fondness for Mahler's Fourth.

"For me, one of the most difficult things about performing the piece is waiting until the last movement to come out," Milne said. "I sit through the amazing third movement, which always has me in tears."

Milne finds beauty in the description of heaven as seen through childish eyes. "It's an extremely powerful piece of writing, and Mahler marries it so beautifully with the music," she said. "It's refreshing for the audience as well. At the end of the symphony, it's as though the clouds are parting, and sunshine enters the stage."

The concert marks Milne's first trip to Utah and first collaboration with Fischer, but she won't be without a friend. Utah Symphony harpist Louise Vickerman, also from Scotland, is a college "buddy," and Milne looks forward to seeing her.

As Fischer takes on his first Mahler performance with the Utah Symphony, percussionist Keith Guernsey will be playing his last. Guernsey was an 18-year-old student at Olympus High School the first time he played Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and the youngest player in Abravanel's orchestra at the time. The year was 1961 or 1962, and Guernsey was given the all-important sleigh-bell part. "It was very exciting," he said. "I fell in love immediately."

Guernsey will retire at the end of this season after 51 years with the Utah Symphony. He can't imagine what his life would have been if he hadn't discovered the joy of playing in an orchestra.

He expects that Fischer's Mahler 4 interpretation will be "very, very good," and said the work Fischer has done on Beethoven symphonies this season is part of the reason.

"He is very masterful at allowing the orchestra to be transparent. It will be very poised. He has been so meticulous about the preparation of the Beethoven symphonies, making sure all the lines were heard."

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It's Mahler time

Thierry Fischer leads the Utah Symphony in Mahler's Symphony No. 4, Haydn's Symphony No. 2 and Richard Strauss' Four Songs, Op. 27. Soprano Lisa Milne is the soloist in the Mahler and Strauss.

When • Friday and Saturday, April 6 and 7, 8 p.m.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $17-$51, student discounts available (all tickets $5 more day of the show), at 801-355-ARTS or www.usuo.org. Season ticket holders and those desiring group discounts should call 801-533-NOTE.

Learn more • The orchestra's preconcert lectures, in which vice president of symphony artistic planning Toby Tolokan chats with the evening's conductor, have outgrown Abravanel Hall's First Tier Room. Beginning this week, the free chats will begin at 7 p.m. on the orchestra level of the concert hall.






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