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When conductors ask about the concert halls where the Utah Symphony performs on their national park tours, Music Director Thierry Fischer loves to watch their response.
Outdoors, he tells them. The Utah Symphony performs outdoors. No concert halls. Just outdoors in nature on a portable stage.
For the Utah Symphony's Forever Mighty tour in August, the orchestra will once again perform in unconventional, stunning locations, performances staged after years of detailed planning, all designed around the view. "I want the orchestra to be seen at the same time as the landscape," said David Green, senior vice president and chief operations officer.
The tour will begin with a preview concert Aug. 4 in Abravanel Hall, the Symphony's home base. Then the traveling begins with a concert in a Cache Valley meadow at the foot of northern Utah's steep Wellsville Mountains. It continues on Helper's historic Main Street, the rim of Bryce Canyon and in a natural stone theater in Kanab. The tour will end at a Springdale amphitheater facing the dramatic red rock cliffs of Zion National Park.
It's a privilege to connect two beautiful forms of art, the sounds of a professional orchestra, Fischer said, "with the best art ever — the sky."
Magic truly happens when the Symphony plays in such scenic Utah locations, said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox as he announced the Aug. 10–14 tour, planned to showcase and celebrate rural communities.
The tour is the orchestra's third outdoor series in seven years, following the wildly successful Mighty Five Tour in 2014, and the Great American Road Trip in 2017. As of press time, free tickets are available for tour events (except the Springdale and Kanab concerts) at https://utahsymphony.org/forever-mighty-tour.
Preserving Utah's wonders, note by note
The concerts aim to amplify the message of the Utah Office of Tourism's Forever Mighty initiative, which promotes educating visitors and responsible, sustainable travel, said Vicki Varela, managing director of the tourism office.
"As residents, we experience how exquisite Utah is — from our landscapes to our communities and cultures, there is no other place like it in the world," Varela said. "The Forever Mighty Symphony Tour will celebrate our pride in place, engage with the surrounding landscapes through music and build local communities by supporting local businesses."
The tour is also part of the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement's Thrive125 events, a year-long celebration of Utah's statehood. It's one of a series of reopening performances encouraging arts lovers to return, safely, to outdoor concerts.
The concerts showcase Utah's investment in the arts, said Jill Remington Love, executive director of the state's cultural department. "We have exceptional performers and musicians in Utah, and it's important for everyone to have the opportunity to experience them live," she said.
The tour will alternate between full orchestra performances (in Wellsville at the American West Heritage Center on Aug. 10 and on the rim of Bryce Canyon at Ruby's Inn on Aug. 12) and chamber concerts (in Helper Aug. 11, and at Kanab's Angels Landing at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary on Aug. 13). The last orchestra concert will be at Springdale's O.C. Tanner Amphitheater on Aug. 14 inside Zion National Park.
Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman said the town will close Main Street to host the orchestra's stage. The concert will kick off a month of arts events in the Central Utah railroad-town-turned-arts hub. "My hope is always when we bring these cultural events to our small, rural community that it exposes our schoolchildren and our community to art forms they may not have access to otherwise."
Music to match the mountains
For the concerts, Fischer selected music with themes about nature and the skies to underscore the state's efforts to create the world's most accredited dark sky places. Yet he says the most important elements will be the concert-goers. "Whatever we're going to play, you will just enjoy and be inspired by the connection between sounds and the nature," the conductor said.
"Imagine listening to Rachmaninoff as the sun sets over Bryce Canyon or hearing Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in the natural rock amphitheater of Kanab's Angels Landing," Fischer said, adding: "I'm counting the days" until the tour.
In memory of coronavirus losses, Fischer will conduct "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," and to mark the Beehive State's birthday, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee."
Also on the program: Tchaikovsky's crowd-pleasing 1812 Overture — "without the cannons, it's too expensive to travel with them," Fischer said — and "Jupiter" from Hoist's "The Planets" and John Williams' main theme from "Star Wars."
Joining the orchestra for the Wellsville, Bryce and Springdale concerts will be violinist Aubree Oliverson, 22, a Utah native with an international career who made her solo debut with the Utah Symphony at age 11.
The tour's backstage story
Organizing Utah Symphony tours takes years of planning, anchored around finding the right setup for the stage in each location, said Green, the symphony's senior vice president and chief operations officer.
That means considering the angle of the sun, and what time the sun sets in each location. And it means preparing to protect instruments and musicians from changing weather conditions, as well as packing plenty of bug spray. "Wind is primarily the worst, then the rain, and then cold after that," Green said. "We can manage through cold, and we can manage through rain, as long as it's coming straight down."
Tour planning means figuring out the logistics of transporting and housing 85 musicians for orchestra concerts, and 50 musicians for chamber concerts, as well as a staff of some 20 people and additional sound technicians and stage crews. It means calculating the time it takes to set up (and break down) the stage. And it means working with local organizations to coordinate crews of volunteers, and finding the right community collaborations.
Celebrating Utah, one town at a time
In each town, the symphony offers educational workshops, such as a program focusing on a string quartet. "It's a pleasure to experience people's delight in this unique outdoor concert experience with a symphony that bears their name," said Paula Fowler, director of education and community outreach.
In addition, the tour will collaborate with the Natural History Museum of Utah to promote a road-trip adventure outlining natural history wonders in each of Utah's 29 counties.
For state officials, the tours offer a chance to celebrate local communities, as well as the landscape. "I've said this so many times," Cox said as he announced the tour. "When God created Utah, he was just showing off."
Or perhaps it's this way, Varela added: In creating Utah, Mother Nature tag-teamed with divinity to play favorites all around.