January 10, 2011
Alta • Music brought Thierry Fischer to Utah. Skiing might help keep him here.
The Utah Symphony music director, fit and trim at age 53, has skied since he was 6 or 7. Some of his fondest memories as a family man include ski outings in his Swiss homeland with his wife, Catherine, and their three now-grown sons.
So he felt right at home Monday at Alta Ski Area, negotiating its intermediate slopes with little effort on his Swiss-made Stöckli skis, knees together, weaving rhythmically back and forth as he carved turns behind his guide, Alta ambassador and one-time U.S. Ski Team racer Alan Engen.
Fischer clearly could have taken on the resort’s signature steep slopes — as sons Mathieu and Basile did, smiling broadly after a run down the legendary Alf’s High Rustler — but he had to be cautious. Work comes first. Rehearsals started Tuesday for this weekend’s orchestra performances, and he couldn’t run the risk of getting hurt.
Still, just being on a snow-covered mountain, beneath a bright blue sky, carving turns out of muscle memory, was enough to trigger those little bursts of inspiration that can be translated into creative productivity later.
Skiing helps fuel “the instincts you need to react,” Fischer said. “You can get that outdoors. You miss something in your personality without it.”
Cultural karma • With Fischer’s dual passion for music and skiing, his arrival for this Utah trip couldn’t have come at a better time for Visit Salt Lake President and CEO Scott Beck, a participant in Monday’s skiing excursion in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
His organization, until recently known as the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, is in the midst of a new marketing campaign. It emphasizes the cultural opportunities Salt Lake City has to offer that other ski towns don’t.
Since the 2002 Olympics, “our theme has been accessibility and the quality of snow,” Beck said. “While we’re not walking away from that message, we’re augmenting it with ‘Après Ski Redefined.’ The symphony represents this redefinition of après ski.”
Unlike well-known but small ski towns such as Vail or Sun Valley, Salt Lake City has a symphony orchestra, opera and ballet companies, theaters and an NBA team — all within an hour of the slopes, a claim Denver can’t match.
“This passion Thierry has for the outdoors and skiing is such karma that it has come together with our message,” Beck said. “You can’t really plan for those things. But when they happen, you have to embrace them.”
Fischer can understand that thinking. Through his music, Fischer wants audiences to feel “everything is possible in that moment,” he has said.
As a classical music industry veteran, Fischer is fully aware of how important it is for conductors to market themselves and their orchestras to the community that supports them.
That’s part of the reason he and his family participated in the ski outing, set up by the advertising firm Riester, which represents the orchestra and Alta Ski Area. It gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with Engen, whose last name is iconic in Utah skiing circles, as well as with other Alta employees such as general manager Onno Wieringa and chef extraordinaire Jude Rubadue.
She served Fischer and his wife a lunch of poached Utah trout (they later shared a warm chocolate brownie) and made extra points by noting that she was a symphony season ticket holder whose husband, Roy Johnson, was a flute player in the orchestra when the late Maurice Abravanel was maestro.
Ah yes, Abravanel.
Still mining Abravanel’s legacy • When Fischer was first approached about the possibility of working with the Utah Symphony, he knew very little about the Beehive State.
He was well acquainted with the Olympics, of course, later reveling in the sight of the Utah Olympic Park ski jumps where his countryman, Simon Ammann, shocked the sports world with two gold medals in 2002.
Other than that, all he knew was that Utah was about as far as one could get geographically from his other positions as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan.
But then he became aware that the Utah Symphony was Abravanel’s legacy. His interest piqued. The more he talked to Utah Symphony | Utah Opera CEO Melia Tourangeau and other search committee members, the more he realized how much culture Salt Lake City had to offer.
“The ballet, the opera, I couldn’t believe it was all here,” Fischer said. It became clear that the state’s support for the arts will underscore “the imagination and energy to develop my concepts.”
He added: “I saw phenomenal potential and a great willingness [by the orchestra] to work hard and to be the best. That’s a tremendous motivation for a conductor.”
There was great skiing, too, and opportunities for summer recreation, something that appealed to his family.
Like a good powder day • Thierry and Catherine, who met at age 14, started their boys skiing when they were 2½. “Swiss boys can ski before they can walk,” Fischer joked.
So with Mathieu now 24, Basile 22 and Benjamin 20, the family have spent many days together on the slopes of Les Portes du Soleil, a group of 13 resorts between Mont Blanc in France and Switzerland’s Lake Geneva.
That region is home to Didier Défago, who won the gold medal in the downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, making him a favorite of the Fischer clan. The new conductor also is a fan of Swiss skier Didier Cuche, the reigning World Cup downhill champion and a silver medalist at the ’98 Nagano Games. And, naturally, he also closely follows the exploits of Swiss tennis star Roger Federer. Traveling as much as he does between Geneva, Wales, Japan and now Utah, he often communicates with his sons through e-mail and text messages about the performances of one athlete or another.
With the purchase of a home between downtown Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, Fischer believes he may even be able to spend more time with his boys — knowing they will be attracted to skiing here in the winter and mountain biking and hiking in other seasons. Those opportunities became abundantly clear to the family when they traveled in September to Zion National Park.
The new Salt Lake City home also makes it convenient for Catherine Fischer to pursue her craft as a restorer of frescoes and murals. She recently signed on to put that talent to work at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “I will help with pleasure,” she said.
All in all, the Fischers’ introduction to Utah is blossoming like a good powder day.
“The more we come here,” he said, “the more we feel at home.”