Utah Symphony hires new music director

Music » Thierry Fischer replaces Keith Lockhart, who served as head for 11 years.
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Utah Symphony | Utah Opera on Thursday named Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer as the seventh music director in the 70-year history of the orchestra. The completion of the search marks a new chapter for the state's largest performing-arts organization, which used the announcement to introduce its new slogan: " Musique d'energie. "

"His vision ... matches seamlessly with our goals of service and relevancy to the community," US | UO president and CEO Melia Tourangeau said at the morning news conference in Abravanel Hall. Tourangeau said the 12-member search committee selected Fischer "unanimously, joyfully and without reservation."

Tourangeau, who was tight-lipped last month about the conductor search, had said the search would last at least three years. But after the second time Fischer conducted the orchestra, in January, she received such an "overwhelming" positive response from the musicians and audiences that "I knew we had at least one leading candidate."

"In this very competitive, rarefied world of symphony orchestras, [Fischer] is a gold mine," said Craig Jessop, head of the Utah State University music department and a member of the search committee. "Not only were we impressed with his formidable talent as a conductor, we were impressed with the character of his soul."

Fischer, who turns 52 on Monday, began his tenure Sept. 1. He replaces Keith Lockhart, whose 11-year Utah Symphony music directorship ended in May. Fischer's initial contract is for four years, with the option to renew for an additional three.

Tourangeau refused to name Fischer's salary. (A public records request was filed with US | UO.) Lockhart's salary in 2006 was $285,000.

Fischer currently is principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and intends to continue there; his contract as chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic in Japan ends in February 2011. He will conduct only one pair of concerts in Abravanel Hall this season -- an already-scheduled program of Brahms and Shostakovich in January -- and five in 2010-11; he will conduct a minimum of 12 classical Masterworks programs in each subsequent season of his contract.

At Thursday's news conference, he said he wants to be "a normal Salt Lake City citizen," buying a house, hiking, skiing, checking out the city's other arts organizations and visiting the Saturday farmer's market. He plans to reside in Salt Lake City about four months out of the year and said each visit will last at least three or four weeks, "whether I'm conducting or not." His wife, Catherine Orange Fischer, will accompany him whenever he's in town; he also expects their three adult sons to tag along frequently for the skiing.

The main reason he sought out and accepted the job, Fischer said, was the warm people, including the musicians, whom he has met each time he has visited.

"When I come to Salt Lake, I want to feel like it's home, sweet home," he said.

Fischer will immediately begin programming responsibilities for the 2010-11 season, and he said he loves French music, as well as classical masterworks by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms.

Lockhart announced in November 2006 that he would not renew his contract after the conclusion of the 2008-09 season. A search committee -- three members of the board of trustees, one community representative, two representatives of the organization's management and six members of the orchestra -- operated with a "secrecy the CIA would envy," US | UO board chairwoman Pat Richards said, before unanimously selecting Fischer.

Richards said Fischer's first appearance with the Utah Symphony -- when he led the orchestra in Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" in October 2007 -- won rave reviews from orchestra and audience members, so he was invited back to conduct a program of Schubert, Stravinsky and Mendelssohn in January 2009. "The second time, it was so overwhelmingly obvious; the orchestra responded so well to him. At that point, we started to talk a little bit," Richards said. She and two other search-committee members flew to Geneva in May to visit with Fischer; he and his wife came to Utah in June. "The rapport we built in those visits was just wonderful," Richards said. "We all felt totally in tune with one another."

Jerry Fenn, head of the search committee, said Fischer met all four symbolic legs of a chair he was looking for: great ability and talent as a conductor; the ability to lead the organization; a commitment to the community with enthusiasm; and ability to "pass the newspaper test," in that he was a person of integrity who wouldn't some morning appear on the front page in a scandal.

Members of the orchestra were pleased to be so well-represented on the search committee; during the last music-director search, the committee included only two musicians versus six this time. "He's a good guy, and that goes a long way [with] me," said principal trumpeter Nick Norton, a member of the committee. "He seems really right for the community." Principal clarinetist Tad Calcara said Fischer's experience as an orchestra musician is another big point in his favor.

Musicians milling backstage after Thursday morning's rehearsal buzzed with enthusiasm. "He's the right guy for this moment in time," said principal violist and search-committee member Brant Bayless, who beamed throughout the half-hour news conference. "He's a consummate artist. He has great honesty as a person, as a boss and as a musician. ... We're all excited."

Lockhart e-mailed The Tribune with his response to his replacement: "I congratulate Maestro Thierry Fischer and join with my colleagues and our audience in welcoming him to the Utah Symphony family. I know that the search process was a thorough one, and I am confident that, in Maestro Fischer, the musicians, board and management have selected someone with the leadership, musical and personal skills necessary to successfully lead a great orchestra like the Utah Symphony. From my new vantage point as laureate conductor, I look forward to working with Maestro Fischer and celebrating the orchestra's continued artistic success."

Fischer began his music career playing the flute and was principal flute in Hamburg and at the Zurich Opera. He began conducting while in his 30s with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Many of his performances have been recorded by Hyperion, ASV, Chandos and Deutsche Grammophon.

"I'm excited beyond words," said Janet Cox of Farmington, a symphony subscriber since 1980 and chorus member since 1988. She hopes the community will rally behind the new music director. "Live music is still where it's at," she said. "We have to be in the concert hall. You can't buy recordings or watch on YouTube or do any of those things and get the same electric impact you get in the concert hall."

During a question-and-answer session with the public during the news conference, someone in the audience asked Fischer what his favorite symphony was.

Without missing a beat, Fischer responded with a smile: "The Utah Symphony."

Meet Thierry Fischer

Born » Sept. 28, 1957; spent the first six years of his life in Zambia, where his parents were missionaries.

Home and family » Fischer lives in Geneva, Switzerland, with his wife, art restorer Catherine Orange Fischer, and their sons: Mathieu, 23; Basile, 21; and Benjamin, 19.

Experience » Fischer started his musical career as a flutist, studying scores with renowned conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and began conducting in his 30s. He has been principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales since 2006 and chief conductor of Japan's Nagoya Philharmonic since 2008; his contract there ends in February 2011.

Fun facts » Catherine Orange Fischer had been an au pair in Denver and was pleasantly surprised that Salt Lake City resembled the best parts of Denver. The entire family enjoys skiing in the Alps, and the sons are pressuring their parents to buy a house soon so they can easily visit Utah ski resorts.