If all you know of Camille Saint-Saëns is “Carnival of the Animals” and that tune from the movie “Babe,” Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony are about to give you a crash course. The next two weekends of concerts will be devoted to music of the French composer.
Fischer and the orchestra are recording all five of Saint-Saëns’ symphonies for the Hyperion label — a first for an American orchestra. This coming week brings Symphony No. 3, which is easily the composer’s most popular and recognizable symphony thanks to its prominent use of the organ and that unforgettable tune. The soloist will be American organist Paul Jacobs, chairman of the organ department at the Juilliard School in New York, enthusiastic advocate of organ music old and new, and the only organist to win a Grammy Award.
“He’s the organist’s organist,” said Richard Elliott, principal organist at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Performing in all 50 U.S. states, playing a “Tiny Desk” concert for NPR and giving a 9-hour recital of Olivier Messiaen’s notoriously challenging organ music — from memory — aren’t just headline-grabbing stunts, Elliott added. “He’s really got the goods. … He is one of the legendary organists of his generation.”
Jacobs, 40, appeared on the Eccles Organ Festival at Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine 14 years ago. This will be his first appearance with the Utah Symphony. (“I don’t know him personally, but I’m not worried,” Fischer quipped in a phone chat from backstage at Paris’ Opéra Comique.)
The organist will arrive in Salt Lake City at least a day before the first rehearsal with the orchestra to “spend time discovering the instrument’s strengths,” he said by phone from Juilliard. “Organists have to be enormously adaptable in that no two instruments are alike. … We travel to meet our instruments.”
The organ part in the Third Symphony is not highly virtuosic, but it’s memorable enough to have given the symphony its nickname. “The skills required of an organist aren’t merely how fast he or she can play,” Jacobs explained. “There’s also a sensitivity to registration — the artful use of the individual sounds available on the instrument.” Saint-Saëns didn’t give explicit instructions on which sets of pipes to use, so “the organist has to fill in the blanks, hopefully in a sensitive and effective way.”
“Nothing is entirely simple when playing the organ,” he added.
One more thing: Mindful of the brevity of the organ solo, and eager to give organ fans their money’s worth, Jacobs said he has an encore tucked up his sleeve. He’ll decide exactly what that will be after he gets to know the electronic instrument being set up in Abravanel Hall, but “it will certainly be something to excite listeners and reveal the virtuosic side of organ playing.”
The other two works on the concerts Friday and Saturday, the “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson et Dalila” and three symphonic tableaus arranged from his incidental music for Eugène Brieux’s play “La Foi (Faith),” are also part of the recording.
“Hyperion has more music by Saint-Saëns in its catalog than almost any other,” Hyperion director Simon Perry said in an email, adding that this project presents “the right opportunity to move one step closer to having the complete music by this composer in its catalog.” Having already made 14 recordings with Fischer, he added that the label expects this to be “a first-class recording of Saint-Saëns’ well-known symphonic works together with some of the lesser-known.”
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do a Saint-Saëns festival, just to push the name of the composer and show different sides’ of his music,” Fischer said. Only one of next week’s pieces — “Urbs Roma,” Saint-Saëns’ longest symphony (though he didn’t label it a symphony) — will be recorded. But it’s sharing the bill with two of the composer’s most popular works, “Carnival of the Animals” and Piano Concerto No. 2.
Canadian pianist Louis Lortie will be the soloist. “He’s been a regular in Utah, with a bit of an interruption,” Fischer said. “He was eager to come even sooner.” Finally, schedules have lined up and Lortie will be back in Abravanel Hall after nearly a decade. He has a long professional history with Fischer, whom he praised for his “incredible dynamism, incredible energy. I find him always amazingly enthusiastic.”
He suspects Concerto No. 2 is Saint-Saëns’ most popular because of its quirks. Quoting an old music joke, he said, “’It starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach,’ which is to say it’s both very serious and very frivolous, like a lot of French music.” It also has an unusual structure: a slow movement followed by two faster ones.
Lortie said he loves to stick around and listen to the rest of the concert after his part is over. He said he’s inspired by the presence of so many young people in the crowd at Abravanel Hall as well as by the orchestra’s performance. Likewise, he likes to immerse himself in the cities where he performs. He regrets that he won’t have time to visit the canyons of southern Utah this time, but he hopes to hike in City Creek and perhaps rent a bicycle. He’s renting an older home near downtown for the week and plans to explore the local coffee shops and restaurants. “I try to make it as little impersonal as possible,” he said.
In an earlier interview, Fischer spoke of a side benefit of scheduling so many live recording sessions during the season. “It’s a very natural challenge, but a nonstop one. Every several weeks, we will have the necessity to be our best, all through the season. This is motivating and it pushes all of us to our boundaries, which is a fundamental artistic necessity.”
The Utah Symphony will dedicate two weekends of concerts to the music of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
With • Conductor Thierry Fischer, organist Paul Jacobs (Dec. 1-2) and pianist Louis Lortie (Dec. 8-9)
When • Dec. 1-2 and 8-9, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$83; utahsymphony.org