Utah Symphony

One of Thierry Fischer’s goals when he became the Utah Symphony’s new music director was to program more music by American composers. And hopefully that just won’t mean Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. God knows we had enough of their music under the symphony’s previous music director. However, it does look like Fischer is taking a different approach than his predecessor, and he’s already making good on his promise. Last month, the orchestra played Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 under guest conductor Hugh Wolff. And this weekend, Fischer returns to the podium in Abravanel Hall to lead the symphony in John Adams’ Mahlerian proportioned “Harmonielehre.”

The work was written in 1985 for the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart, who also premiered it. Scored for a large orchestra, the three-movement work runs right around 40 minutes in length. Adams has since revised the ending, but the piece is basically the same. It’s a demanding and rhythmically challenging score that puts the orchestra through its paces.

The title “Harmonielehre” comes from a book Arnold Schoenberg wrote about a century ago detailing his thoughts on composition and how he believed that traditional ideas of tonality were dead. The ideas he expressed in his book would eventually lead him to develop the 12-tone technique of structuring the 12 notes of the chromatic scale into some clearly defined and logical (and, by extension, mathematical) order.

While Adams’ “Harmonielehre” doesn’t have anything tangible in common with Schoenberg’s, there is a thread connecting the two composers, nevertheless. One of Adams’ teachers, Leon Kirchner, was a student of Schoenberg’s in Los Angeles in the 1940s. And taking the thread a little further, Adams’ acceptance and use of minimalist technique put a new and different perspective on tonality, just as Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique did. It might be a bit tenuous, but there definitely is a link between the two.

I have to admit that I have never been a great admirer of Adams’ music. His early minimalist works are good – and I certainly believe that “Harmonielehre” is one of his best works, along with his opera “Nixon in China” – but I feel there are other minimalists who are much better. One of them is Philip Glass, who still manages to bring something new to his music and make it exciting. And then there is the grandfather of minimalism, Terry Riley. He is without doubt still the master. His more recent works, for example “The Cusp of Magic” and “Sun Rings,” are still as vibrant and effective and potent as his seminal “In C.” Both he and Glass have shown, to a greater extent than Adams has, that there still is some life left in minimalism.

But no matter what you think of Adams’ music or of minimalism, this weekend’s concerts will be worth your time. Fischer and the orchestra will also play Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s First Symphony, K. 16, written when he was about 8, and Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Robert McDuffie as soloist.

Tickets range from $15-$50 and are available through ArtTix and online at

This entry was posted in Concert Previews by Edward Reichel. Bookmark the permalink.

About Edward Reichel

Edward Reichel, author, writer and composer, has been covering the classical music scene in Utah since 1997. For many years he served as the primary music critic for the Deseret News. He has also written for a number of publications, including Chamber Music Magazine, OPERA Magazine, 15 Bytes, Park City Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He can be reached at Reichel Recommends is also on Twitter @ReichelArts.


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