Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer is guest-conducting the Nashville Symphony this week in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Fischer took the time to answer six questions about the piece, and the career of conducting.
Thierry Fischer’s path to conducting began at the last minute, as he stepped in to replace an ailing colleague. He eventually directed the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, making appearances at no less than six years of BBC Proms. He will conduct the Utah Symphony until 2022, and in 2020 will begin directing the Sao Paulo Symphony.
What drew you from your instrument into conducting?
Early in my career when I was a professional flutist, I was always fascinated by the complex task of what conductors have to deliver in rehearsals and concerts, so when I first had the chance to step on to the podium, it was a real surprise to me how natural it felt. It was a paradoxical feeling—the stimulation of leading an orchestra for the first time, combined with the natural calm I felt while doing it. I had been asked to fill in for another conductor, and within five minutes at the podium I knew that I had to do whatever was necessary to become a conductor. I was happy as a flutist; I had the honor of playing with immensely talented colleagues under some of the greatest conductors of our time—Boulez, Solti, Harnoncourt, and so forth—but I felt this irresistible attraction to conducting, and I had to follow that instinct.
When you’re in the role of guest conductor, how do you quickly build the trust and cameraderie needed for music making?
Well, if there were a simple recipe to follow, it would be known and widely used. In reality there are no special tricks, and it’s not something I consider consciously. My only goal is to get the best of what we can achieve together. I make sure to arrive at the first rehearsal very prepared with particular ideas and points of emphasis I want us to address, and fortunately orchestras have risen to an overall very high level and tend to be very well prepared, too. From there it’s just a matter of showing the musicians who you are, what your interpretive ideas are, absorbing their mood and energy, and channeling that into a meaningful musical performance.
A lot has changed in the nearly 200 years since Symphonie Fantastique premiered. The artist’s fixation would likely be seen as toxic by today’s standards. How do you approach a work like this with those changes in mind?
(ed. note: Berlioz became obessed with an actress named Harriet Smithson and engaged in behavior that would now be categorized as stalking. When she refused his advances, he wrote the Symphonie Fantastique to tell the story of a man who, after being spurned by the woman he loves, kills her. After the work’s premiere, Smithson did agree to meet Berlioz. The pair ended up marrying, although the marriage was, by all accounts, an unhappy one.)
Honestly I believe the work has lost none of its relevance. It’s true that our culture has changed greatly since 1830, when the piece was written, and it’s for the better that we recognize how unhealthy Berlioz’s fixation was, assuming you mean his obsessive infatuation with Harriet Smithson, which inspired the emotions expressed in this symphony. But really this work functions as an emotional diary of a man in his mid-20s who has recently left his provincial home and is now in the city discovering life with all its feelings of struggle, failure, solitude, loneliness. It’s a vivid account of these universal human emotions as experienced by a young man in 1830, and one reason I love Berlioz’s music so much is because he expresses himself so directly, with no ambiguity about the fears and hopes that are driving his thought. His feelings seem to flow straight from his heart to the musical page, and the end result is a work that feels as timeless as the emotions that inspired it.
What do you want the audience to take away from the Nashville Symphony’s performance of Symphonie Fantastique?
My hope is simply that what Berlioz composed into the piece comes through in our performance—the passion and intellect, colors and contrasts. I don’t attempt—nor do I think it’s possible—to dictate any particular response of the audience to the music. That’s the beauty of arts like architecture, cuisine, and so forth; everyone sees or tastes in their own way, everyone takes from it what they can. I just expect of myself and the orchestra that we do the best we can to bring Berlioz’s musical imagination to life in the concert hall. That said, Berlioz did famously write a program to accompany Symphonie fantastique, and reading it is an indispensable part of understanding the drama of the piece. I hope that audience members will be able to read this and have it in their minds as they listen.
Which composer’s work would you like to see more often on symphony orchestra programs?
Any composer in any style who enriches the experience of life today. I can’t pick only one; I just try to conduct music that helps us all better understand who we are, where we are, and how we can go forward with more optimism and determination. I know that notes, harmonies, and rhythms can do a lot to put our minds in a place to gain that understanding, so as a musician I try to create art that can help, that’s important to people living their lives today.
What advice would you offer a young, aspiring conductor?
Observe. Respect the experience of your mentors, but find your own way and don’t try to be loved. Be determined to be respected and trusted.