Concert preview: Composer Carl Nielsen’s symphonies ‘an unexpected pleasure’

Published: Sunday, Sept. 8 2013 3:15 p.m. MDT

Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony.

Jeremy Hall, Great Projects, LLC

“Music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable,” said Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

“The essence of what you feel when you listen to music will always go on and continue,” Thierry Fischer responded to the quote. “Music creates moments of escape that we couldn’t believe would be possible. The whole notion of art is that you can be suddenly taken away and uplifted without expecting it beforehand. And Nielsen is the composer who best surprises you that way, in part because he is not so well-known.”

As music director of the Utah Symphony, Fisher will conduct Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1, the first in this year’s masterwork series of the composer’s characterful six symphonies.

While a contemporary of Mahler and Sibelius with a “blazing individuality” to his works, Nielsen is not a well-known composer and has no firm place in the international repertory. He is a somewhat marginal figure in the history of classical music, though he is seen as a vital precursor to classical modernism.

Fischer is puzzled that Nielsen is not more widely recognized as his masterful compositions would otherwise indicate and is hard-pressed to explain why his works remain a tough sell.

“He hasn’t had his time because, for one reason, ‘name’ conductors haven’t programmed his compositions on a regular basis in concert seasons,” Fischer said. “Other than that, I cannot give you a rational explanation. I can only say that as a conductor, I have a strong conviction — because I love all six symphonies so much — that if audiences forget that they don’t know the composer, they, too, will love his music.”

Biographer Daniel M. Grimley wrote that Nielsen’s “is one of the most playful, life-affirming and awkward voices in 20 th-century music. His work resists easy stylistic categorization or containment, yet its melodic richness and harmonic vitality are immediately appealing and engaging.”

This bold, idiosyncratic style pleases the conductor, and he is anticipating an enthusiastic embrace from Utah Symphony concertgoers and a recognition that Nielsen is one of the distinctive geniuses of latter-day symphonic writing.

“If with the orchestra I can bring an unexpected pleasure, that’s something I very much look for,” Fischer said. “And I do trust, with the genius of this composer, this unexpected pleasure will arrive each of the six times when Nielsen’s six symphonies are performed.”

Nielsen is ubiquitous in his homeland, where he holds the place of national composer and beloved musical hero. His songs are an integral part of the country’s national heritage.

Utahn Mogens Mogensen is also Danish-born and, like Fischer, has a strong interest in Nielsen’s body of works.

“Carl Nielsen grew up in a musical family. I personally grew up in a very structured family, where music was a main part of family home,” Mogensen said. “I’ve enjoyed his music for these many years and remember bicycling with my father near his birthplace as a young child. We were both born on Funen,” Denmark’s second-largest island.

A nine-year veteran member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Mogensen has extensively researched the composer while traveling through Europe and interviewed Nielsen family members and associates, culminating in self-published scholarly books and a biography.

Mogensen will share his enjoyment of “the diversity of Nielsen’s artistry” at a free symposium with Fischer on Tuesday, Sept. 10, in Abravanel Hall’s First Tier Room from 5:30-6:30 p.m.

“Be very flexible and open-minded before you go to a concert with Carl Nielsen’s music,” Mogensen recommended. “You will always be surprised.”

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