It is tradition for the Utah Symphony to open its new season with Beethoven, and this year is no different. Beethoven's Triple Concerto is the centerpiece of the two weekend performances.
But the program also is an orchestral version of "The Avengers," offering powerful compositions by nearly superhuman composers and performed by masterful musicians:
• The Triple Concerto features the high-powered trio of cellist David Finckel with his wife, pianist Wu Han, and former Emerson String Quartet colleague, violinist Philip Setzer.
• Music director Thierry Fischer launches a seasonlong Carl Nielsen symphony cycle with the Danish composer's first symphony.
• "Forest Murmurs" is an orchestral excerpt from "Siegfried," the third opera in Richard Wagner's mammoth "Ring" Cycle.
• Fischer has added "The Swan," the beloved selection from Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" in which the cello plays a starring role, as a tribute to recently deceased Utah Symphony principal cellist Ryan Selberg.
• And because just one piece from Beethoven is never enough, the orchestra also will perform the overture to "Egmont," which became the unofficial anthem of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.
Triple threat • This week's concerts mark the first time the three soloists will play the Beethoven Triple together though they've played and recorded as a trio for years and the first time they'll play with the Utah Symphony. In an interview, Setzer said this is his first time performing the notoriously difficult piece.
"It's a famous piece for the cello, and one of the most challenging for cello, and a wonderful challenge for the violin," said Setzer, who had a one-week residency at the University of Utah's Chamber Music Workshop in June.
Finckel shared Setzer's respect for the concerto. "Any cellist who loses enthusiasm for the Triple Concerto should have their instrument confiscated," he said.
Based at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, The Emerson String Quartet was formed by Setzer in 1976, and since has released more than 30 albums and won nine Grammy Awards. Finckel left amicably at the end of the 2012-13 season.
"We go so far back," Setzer said. "Somehow we find that we play well together. When he left the quartet, he didn't leave our friendship."
Wu Han, Finckel and Setzer all shared the back-story of the nearly 40-minute concerto, the only concerto Beethoven wrote for more than one solo instrument. They said it was written for one of Beethoven's students, the Archduke Rudolf, and did not premiere until 1808. When published, it bore a dedication to someone else, Prince Lobkowitz.
"The more you know about a composer's life, the closer you feel to the music," Setzer said.
"Part of the evolution of an artist is to learn more and more of back stories," Finckel said. "It enhances our performances and strengthens our convictions. It's a genuine way of interpretation, rather than imitation."
"David has a saying, if you understand the rules of baseball, you'll enjoy the game so much more," Wu Han said.
Director's notes • Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer said in a telephone interview from his home in Geneva, Switzerland, that even though he has never worked with Wu Han, Finckel and Setzer, "I feel like I know them. … It's fantastic for us to have them."
As for the rest of the program, Fischer is excited about beginning the Nielsen symphony cycle, after completing the symphony cycles of Beethoven and Mendelssohn in the past two seasons.
He was effusive in his praise for Nielsen and the composer's first symphony. Nielsen wrote it when he was 27 so young that when it premiered in 1894 in a performance by the Royal Danish Orchestra, he was seated among the second violins, not at the conductor's podium.
Fischer described the symphony as "a world of wonders without any restrictions," written "by a very courageous man, logical in his values, but illogical in his choices. … He is escaping the norms."
Nielsen wrote many essays about the influence Wagner's music had on him, so Fischer decided to pair Nielsen with Wagner in the program. Fischer noted that 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth.
"It is the perfect start of the season," he said.
Thierry Fischer conducts the orchestra in Beethoven's Triple Concerto and "Egmont" Overture, "The Swan" from Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals," "Forest Murmurs" from Wagner's "Siegfried" and Nielsen's Symphony No. 1.
With • Cellist David Finckel, pianist Wu Han and violinist Philip Setzer
When • Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18-$69 at ArtTix.org
Extra • Free Masterworks lecture symposium featuring Thierry Fischer and local Carl Nielsen scholar Mogens Mogensen on Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at first tier room of Abravanel Hall.