The origins of Saint Valentine and the lovers' holiday associated with him are debated but some believe Valentine was an Italian martyr and the first mention of Valentine's Day appeared in a Geoffrey Chaucer poem.
With that European ancestry, it's surprising to learn that according to Thierry Fischer, the Utah Symphony's Swiss music director, Europe doesn't celebrate Valentine's Day with American-style intensity.
Fischer said orchestra administrators advised him to select a romance-themed program in February. (Toby Tolokan, the symphony's vice president of artistic planning, added that he worked with Fischer on programs for Thanksgiving.) He received the message, designing a "Romeo & Juliet" program for the weekend of Feb. 15-16, with a rare third concert added on Feb. 14.
Which leads to a gift suggestion from symphony CEO and president Melia Tourangeau: "You can't get more romantic than 'Romeo and Juliet,' " Tourangeau said. "If any man wants to please his lady…"
The program will feature Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy Overture and selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." Also on the program is Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto featuring Nicholas Angelich, the 1994 gold-medal winner of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition in Salt Lake City.
Shakespeare's familiar 1597 tragedy of star-cross'd and death-mark'd lovers, "Romeo and Juliet," is set in fair Verona, and tells the story about duels among the Montague and Capulet families. Spoiler alert: Juliet, before being forced to marry another man, takes a drug that puts her into a deathlike coma for "two and forty hours."
When she lapses into a coma, Romeo thinks she is dead and drinks poison after killing the man Juliet was supposed to marry. Juliet then awakens and, finding Romeo dead, stabs herself with his dagger. (Why do people think that bloodbaths are romantic?)
Regardless, Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" score was written in 1935 for the Kirov Ballet and included a happy ending (which ultimately changed), and Tolokan said it contains his "favorite ballet music of all time."
Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy Overture is a symphonic poem in sonata form and contains one of the most recognizable love themes in history. (That is, until "Titanic"and Celine Dion came along.)
But the most hauntingly beautiful composition of the evening is Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto. Fischer termed the work a "love letter" from the tortured Robert Schumann to his beloved wife, Clara. (After an attempted suicide, he spent the last couple of years of his life committed at his request to an insane asylum.)
"It is passionate, genuine, noble," said Fischer of Schumann's composition. "He is putting respect, adoration and passion above all else."
At the piano will be Angelich, who has worked with Fischer in Europe for years but hasn't performed in Utah for about two decades. "It's taken a while to get him back," Tolokan said.
Fischer called Angelich's playing nothing short of "phenomenal." Angelich returned the compliment in a phone interview, calling Fischer a great friend whom he looks forward to working with again.
Since winning the Bachauer, Angelich has gone on to an acclaimed career but is more well-known in Europe than America, Fischer said. Angelich made his debut at New York's Lincoln Center in 2003 with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, and in 2004 toured Japan with Masur and the Orchestre National de France. He has great interest in chamber music, and Angelich's discography shows a long affinity for Brahms, whose mentors were, coincidentally, Robert and Clara Schumann.
"They mutually inspired one another," Angelich said about Brahms and the Schumanns. Angelich has been playing Schumann's Piano Concerto frequently this season, including during a three-night gig with the The Seattle Symphony that concludes today.
Angelich remembered clearly performing the technically challenging Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 during the Bachauer competition, and then returning to Utah a year after his win to perform Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Utah Symphony, a famous composition that Chopin himself performed in one of his last concerts in his native Poland before he became a member of the Polish Great Emigration. Angelich said he regrets not returning to Utah for two decades, and recalled the "nice quality of attitudes" of Utahns he met. "I made a lot of friends I have not seen in a while," he said. "Hopefully I can see them again."
As for Valentine's Day concerts, Fischer is showing that he has the knack for programming compositions that celebrate love. Earlier this week, he announced the orchestra's schedule for the 2013-14 season and was keen to highlight his choices for Valentine's weekend in 2014, with no fewer than eight works to be performed, including Cage's "Amores," Mahler's "Blumine (Bouquet of Flowers)," Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" from "The Nutcracker," and Mendelssohn's "Wedding March."
When asked about date nights with his wife, Catherine, Fischer answered diplomatically: "Valentine's Day is every day. That is what love is all about."
Pressed on what he did for his anniversary on Jan. 19, he admitted, "I was not in Geneva," adding that his wife was in Geneva. Oops.
Looks like somebody needs to buy his wife some flowers and chocolates. On Valentine's Day, when in America, do as the Americans do.
Utah Symphony: Retelling the story of 'Romeo and Juliet'
The Utah Symphony performs Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy Overture and selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." Also on the program is Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto.
With • Conductor Thierry Fischer and pianist Nicholas Angelich.
When • Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 14-16, 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18-$85 for Feb. 14 and $18 to $67 for Feb. 15-16 ($5 more on performance day), at 801-355-ARTS (2787), the box office or www.utahsymphony.org.
Learn more • Fischer and Toby Tolokan, vice president of artistic planning, present a free chat onstage one hour before the concert Friday and Saturday.