Beethoven Boot Camp is over. Apparently it's been a commercial success for the Utah Symphony: Ticket revenue is up, and orchestra officials give music director Thierry Fischer's seasonlong Beethoven symphony cycle some of the credit. More important for longtime listeners, the particular rigors of Beethoven have yielded improved playing in the music of the Classical period music that received less emphasis under the previous music director.
Fischer chose to run the cycle in reverse because Beethoven's earlier music presents special demands, such as greater orchestral transparency, and he knew it would take some time to achieve the sound he wanted. The Utah Symphony's performance of the composer's Symphony No. 1 on Friday bustled with energy, but also gave evidence of the musicians' improved articulation. The Abravanel Hall audience cheered the pre-intermission performance of this symphony with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
After tributes to the orchestra members who are retiring this season including violinist Frances Darger, who has been with the Utah Symphony for 70 years, taking only one season off in a brief bid for stardom in California and recognition for numerous musicians marking 10, 15, 20 or more years of service, Fischer and crew got down to the evening's major order of business, Richard Strauss' "Alpine Symphony."
The Strauss work isn't technically a symphony, but an hourlong tone poem divided into nearly two dozen vividly drawn episodes. The Abravanel Hall stage was packed with musicians, including 17 extras whose fees were covered by Fischer himself, so committed was he to the performance of this work.
Titles projected on a small screen above the stage provided a helpful road map not that the audience really needed much help identifying when the piece's protagonist encountered cattle, a sudden downpour and other adventures. Strauss' boldly colored orchestration takes the listener on a journey through Swiss Alpine scenery, starting in predawn darkness and ending at nightfall. In between come stops at a forest, a glacier, a waterfall and a pasture (marked by genuine Swiss cowbells), plus one of the best musical thunderstorms this side of a Rossini opera. The view from the summit was almost blindingly bright, but soon enough the composer was leading us safely home just in time for sunset.
Friday's concert opened with the comical "St. Vitus in the Kettle" by British composer Simon Holt, whom Fischer has commissioned to write a new piece for the Utah Symphony next season.
Utah Symphony season finale
Music of Simon Holt, Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Strauss.
With • Conductor Thierry Fischer.
When • Reviewed Friday; repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
Running time • Two hours, including intermission.
Tickets • $22 to $56. Call 801-355-2787(ARTS), or visit the ticket office or utahsymphony.org.
Learn more • Fischer and Utah Symphony VP Toby Tolokan will chat about the music onstage at 7 p.m.