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Utah Symphony: David Yavornitzky and end of Mendelssohn cycle
First Published Feb 21 2013 02:21 pm • Last Updated Feb 21 2013 02:22 pm

At a recent news conference, Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer said the orchestra’s principal double bassist, who was to be featured in concerts Feb. 22-23, was "working like a horse" in preparation.

"I don’t know if he put a spy camera in my room," David Yavornitzky joked.

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Yavornitzky will be performing a 1966 concerto for double bass by Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) in the midst of two symphonies (No. 1 and No. 5) by Felix Mendelssohn that will complete the orchestra’s seasonlong Mendelssohn symphony cycle.

While the Mendelssohn finale would be reason enough to attend, perhaps the real reason to see the orchestra on those dates is to hear Yavornitzky perform a concerto that’s so difficult, and so rarely performed, that he said it hasn’t been played by a major orchestra in the United States since the Chicago Symphony premiered it in 1967.

"I have a lot of respect for this piece," Yavornitzky said. "No one ever plays it" because it’s so hard, he added.

What Yavornitzky likes about the 25-minute piece is its unusual composition, including use of 12-tone technique (all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded equally often, preventing the emphasis of any one note), atonality, a difficult rhythm and what he interprets as a "spooky, sci-fi sound."

"It uses the entire range of the bass with many different colors," Yavornitzky said.

When Fischer and the Utah Symphony’s administration were programming the 2012-13 season, they wanted to celebrate Yavornitzky’s 25th anniversary as principal bassist by selecting a showpiece he could perform. "I knew Fischer was really into contemporary music," Yavornitzky said, and his double-bass peers around the country declare Henze’s 1966 Concerto per contrabbasso one of the most intimidating and challenging pieces — if not the most challenging — in the instrument’s repertoire.

"It means so much to him," Fischer said.

Yavornitzky attended Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory in Ohio, where he earned degrees in musical performance and theoretical physics. His double-bass teachers include the late Anthony Knight of the Cleveland Orchestra and Edwin Barker, principal bass of the Boston Symphony. He’s an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center Fellowship program and was awarded its C.D. Jackson prize for outstanding achievement. He also holds the position of professor of double bass at the University of Utah and has conducted several Utah premieres of contemporary works with the Nova Chamber Music Series.


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The rest of the program will feature Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and Symphony No. 5 in D Major ("Reformation").

Fischer said he always prefers to pair those two symphonies in the same program to illustrate the diversity of Mendelssohn’s gifts. The first symphony, he said, is "a river of fire. … I can’t believe he wrote it when he was only 15."

Then again, Fischer added, there’s an electricity and energy to the 32-minute, four-movement piece that only could have been written by a teenager with ambitious and passionate ideas on the brink of adulthood. The symphony was written in 1824, the same year Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered. While Mendelssohn’s composition shows evidence of his training steeped in studying Mozart and Bach (especially in regards to counterpoint), there are also flashes of Romantic-era ideals paired with the discipline of a Classicist.

In contrast, No. 5 is a religious composition that is much more "peaceful" in its nature, Fischer said. The composition is actually the second symphony Mendelssohn wrote, but is called the Fifth because it was published last. It was written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the The Augsburg Confession of 1530, one of the most important documents of the Lutheran Reformation — hence the name of the symphony — serving as a response to the Holy Roman Emperor, who called on Protestants to explain their religious convictions. Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the symphony, which is why it wasn’t published until nearly two decades after his death, Fischer said. Now, it’s regarded as a masterpiece. "No. 5 is inspiring," Fischer said. "It is darker but hopeful as well."

After this weekend, with his second symphony cycle completed, Fischer’s eyes will be set on the cycle of the recently announced 2013-14 season, focused on the late Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

Nielsen, like Henze, isn’t a household name but is an important artist in 20th-century music. Fischer said he wouldn’t have programmed a Nielsen cycle for the orchestra musicians two years ago, but he believes they are now ready to tackle these unconventional works.

Perhaps Fischer has installed a spy camera in all of his musicians’ homes.

Utah Symphony’s Mendelssohn cycle ends

Thierry Fischer’s Mendelssohn symphony cycle concludes. Principal bassist David Yavornitzky also will be featured in a concerto by Hans Werner Henze.

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