Dennis Lythgoe: An appreciation to the Utah Symphony

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Conductor Thierry Fischer leads a rehearsal of Beethoven's 5th by the Utah Symphony Orchestra, Thursday, September 10, 2015.

During the pandemic, we are continually reminded to “Escape the virus. Be safe. Stay home.” The science is correct, and I agree with it. But when I learned from KSL-TV that University of Utah acoustical experts had examined the airflow at Abravanel Hall before the Utah Symphony’s concert last weekend, I had a change of heart. I was tired of staying home. I wanted to go!

These experts assisted conductor Thierry Fischer in blocking out the stage for a socially distanced evening with musicians, including the floor with the number of attendees allowed in the audience. Using unusual ingenuity, they planned the concert to suit the pandemic.

The decision? Start slowly, with the strings. Then, if it works, add brass, woodwinds and percussion. Perhaps additional audience members.

The orchestra’s gifted string players presented a compelling classical concert for an admittedly small crowd. For those who longed for brass and woodwinds, there was a screen at the end showing those missing musicians practicing at home. (This was an unstated assurance that fans of the missing musicians would be rewarded next time with the players in the flesh — with actual trumpets, French horns, clarinets and drums.)

The mood of the audience was reverential. When Fischer took the podium, his presence was enthusiastically applauded by the few attendees, but it sounded a little flat in the cavernous hall. We prefer the back balcony, where we saw the attendees down on the floor socially distanced and looking sparse.

And as hard as my wife and I clapped throughout the program, we never thought we had convincingly shown our gratitude for the impressive artistry of the evening. Each instrument sounded surprisingly resonant, equal to the task, despite the imposed distance from other musicians. We had the unmistakable feeling that this was music at its best and that we were among the “chosen few.”

Plus, Fischer was in rare form. He was very much the maestro, waving his arms with rhythm, force and enthusiasm — effectively inspiring the musicians. At times, he bent down for special emphasis. We loved it all.

The audience members strenuously stood to indicate their cheerful approval after each number. Occasionally, some people accidentally started their applause too soon, before the completion of a movement. But I think they were sorry. Most symphony patrons pride themselves on being able to sense when a movement is complete. In fact, when Fischer paused to announce the remaining numbers in a hushed voice and his elegant French accent, one audience member screamed out, “Thank you!”

For those of us who had sorely missed attending an evening of live classical music, it was deeply appreciated. Here we were in a marvelous building dedicated to fine music, yet the pandemic had prevented the building’s life blood, the symphony members, from resuming their work. Still, these resolute, talented musicians proceeded with incredible expertise. Fischer drew up a plan that went beyond the extra mile to present a veritable musical banquet for these selective patrons of the arts.

The arrangement of the string players worked — and it felt safe.

Nothing during these months of sequestration has thrilled us so much as this generous outpouring of delightful music, delivered with such grace. On with the brass! And the woodwinds! Kudos to the impressive Utah Symphony.

Dennis Lythgoe

Dennis Lythgoe, who lives in Salt Lake City, is professor emeritus of history, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Mass.