Thierry Fischer of the Utah Symphony Orchestra: An irresistible attraction to music

Published: Monday, Dec. 16 2013 7:07 a.m. MST

Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducts a practice at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Thierry Fischer, music director and conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, can remember the exact moment music claimed him. He was 7 and his mother insisted that he take music lessons. At the outset of his first lesson on the recorder, he put the instrument in his mouth, and, well, let him tell you the rest.

“I played one note — one note, that’s all — and I can still remember this moment,” he recalls. “It opened a door. I can remember the pure sound, and the physical impact it had on me — the vibration as it passed through my body. I can tell you the taste of the wood in my mouth, what I was wearing, who was sitting by me.”

As fate would have it, he also possessed the dexterity to play the instrument, and just like that he found his calling. No one had to pester Fischer to practice.

“It became an irresistible attraction in my life,” he says. “I was playing and playing, nonstop. It was like an addiction.”

Now 56, Fischer says he still has the same passion — the “capacity of wonder,” as he calls it — for music he experienced as a boy. In the interim he has made music all over the world, first as a flutist and then later as a conductor. Raised largely in Switzerland, he has pursued his music far and wide. He was principal flute in Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, then principal flute of the Zürich Opera Orchestra, and later principal flute of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

He began his conducting career as chief conductor of the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, then principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, and later principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales while also serving as chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra. Then came the recruiting calls from the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

“I did hesitate a lot before taking the job,” he says. “I did a lot of research.”

A three-person entourage representing the symphony flew to Europe to woo Fischer. In July 2009, he and his wife, Catherine, flew to Salt Lake City to see for themselves. His hosts wanted to fill their schedule with events and meetings, but Fischer declined, telling them they wanted to get a feel for the place on their own.

“We wandered the city, we hiked Cottonwood Canyon, we discovered restaurants, we visited a few places and met a lot of people,” he recalls. “We decided it had all the ingredients and we could feel happy here. If you are happy, you have the energy and determination to make things happen.”

That is precisely what the symphony board wants.

They hired Fischer to rebuild the orchestra, which rose to prominence under the legendary Maurice Abravanel, another European conductor who guided the symphony from 1947 to 1979. At the time, the Utah Symphony was considered one of the best in the United States.

“When I was approached to take this job, the clear mandate from the board was they wanted this orchestra to go back to the way it was at the end of Abravanel’s time,” says Fischer

When Fischer arrived, there was “a natural turnover” that occurs when a new conductor is hired. Roughly one-third of the musicians left, enabling Fischer to bring in new blood.

“It is fascinating to be involved with the players, the staff and the board, as well as the community leaders, in developing a vision for the coming years for this orchestra,” he says, as he begins his fourth season with the Utah Symphony.

Fischer was born in Zambia. His father was a Swiss engineer who “gave his life for Christianity.” He put his engineering skills to use for a Christian organization in Africa. He moved the family to Geneva when Thierry was 6 years old, then to Ivory Coast four years later before finally settling in Geneva to work for the World Council of Churches.

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