The symphony was written in 1840 to commemorate one of the favorite moments in the history of journalism the 400th anniversary of the printing press, invented by the German Johannes Gutenberg. Rather than literally chronicling the development of the press involving elements such as movable type, innovations in casting, hand molds, lead and tin alloys Mendelssohn composed the symphony using the press, and its 42-line Latin Bible, as symbolic representation of enlightenment. Texts were cribbed from the books of Psalms and Isaiah and two epistles of St. Paul. He even turned in his score with a quotation from Luther notated at the top: "I would happily see all the arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them."
Mendelssohn's "gorgeous" Second Symphony can be compared favorably with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with a chorus amplifying the theme of entering a brave, new world, Fischer said. Beethoven's Ninth opened last season's cycle, so it's no coincidence that the Mendelssohn cycle will begin with Mendelssohn's Second.
Also not a coincidence is that the introduction to Mendelssohn will be paired with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, as well as Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks," which Stravinsky said was greatly inspired by Brandenburg No. 3.
"It was a total conscious decision," Fischer said. Mendelssohn's greatest influence was Bach especially the cantatas so the "Hymn of Praise" has strict divisions with chorus, recitative, aria and duet, much like Bach's cantatas written for a church setting.
Approximately half of the symphony is performed by the orchestra alone, then it comes time for the Utah Symphony Chorus to come in, prepared by chorus master Susanne Sheston, who recently wrapped up her fifth summer as chorus master of the internationally acclaimed Santa Fe Opera.
About 105 members of the chorus will be featured in the evening's performance, Sheston said, and the members have been preparing since before Memorial Day. Sheston led four rehearsals for the chorus in May before the chorus went on hiatus for the summer. This will be Sheston's first time leading a chorus through Mendelssohn's Second Symphony, which she likened to a challenging, "very complex puzzle" that excites her with the fugues where two or more voices build on a theme that's first introduced, then repeated at different pitches throughout the composition. Bach was a pioneer in the development of fugues.
"There is a lot of joyous music," Sheston said of this symphony. "The text mirrors the [celebration of the] printing press, the coming out of darkness."
Priti Gandhi, one of two soprano soloists, will be visiting Utah for the first time. A native of Mumbai, India, Gandhi has recently been featured in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's "Carmina Burana," as the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro" with the San Antonio Opera, and as the Fourth Maid in "Elektra" with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The composition features a relatively rare duet by the sopranos. Until several years ago, Gandhi was a mezzo-soprano, so singing as the second soprano in this composition will not be unnatural for her, she said.
It's also the first time she has ever sung a Mendelssohn symphony, as she mostly performs in the opera world. She is well-versed in Mozart and Rossini, while her experience with the operas of Wagner and Strauss gives her a good handle on the diction and phrasing in German.
Gandhi has been preparing for this performance since the day she was hired earlier this year. "You want to be in the mindset of why it was written," she said. "It informs how you sing."
The combination of darkness and lightness is what attract her to the piece. "You can't have one without the other," she said. "Our lives are so up and down, and an artist is a vehicle to [portray] the suffering and the joy."
Other soloists are soprano Twyla Robinson, also making her Utah Symphony debut, and tenor Colin Balzer, a native of British Columbia who made his Utah Symphony debut in April in Mozart's Requiem.
With the chorus and soloists prepared, it will be interesting to see what approach Fischer will take with the Mendelssohn cycle. He admitted that he thought the orchestra's execution of the Beethoven cycle was "not perfect," but said the season-opening concert of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 was better because the orchestra had been through all of Beethoven's nine symphonies. And that heartens him.
"I'm here to build excellence," he said.
Utah SymphonyThe orchestra kicks off its Mendelssohn symphony cycle.With • Conductor Thierry Fischer, sopranos Twyla Robinson and Priti Gandhi, tenor Colin Balzer and the Utah Symphony ChorusWhen • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28-29, 8 p.m.Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake CityLearn more • Fischer and Toby Tolokan, Utah Symphony vice president of artistic planning, present a preconcert chat onstage at 7 p.m.Tickets • $18-$53 (student discounts available); 801-355-2787, or www.utahsymphony; prices increase $5 on concert day.