Vital Signs | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Vital Signs 

The Utah Symphony brings living, breathing composers to audiences with Out of the West.

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As a youngster growing up in Southern California, Edwin Outwater didn’t expect that the kind of music we generally call “classical” would be a center of his professional life. His dad worked in the rock music business for Warner Bros. Records; his early passions leaned toward The Residents, not Rachmaninoff. But at the age of 14, he heard composer John Adams’ contemporary opera Nixon in China. “All of the sudden I heard [influences] like Talking Heads, things I’d been hearing in contemporary music,” recalls Outwater, speaking by phone from San Francisco, where he serves as resident conductor for the San Francisco Symphony. “It just kind of blew my mind'this was music for orchestra like the kind I’d been listening to as a kid.”


When he takes up the baton for the Utah Symphony’s New Music at the Rose program Out of the West, he hopes to facilitate for his audience a similar opening'and blowing'of the mind. He’s aware that many listeners are locked into an impression of orchestral music as something of the past rather than part of a vital, ongoing tradition. That’s why he’s excited about conducting a program made up entirely of works by living composers based in the western United States: John Adams’ “Chamber Symphony”; Five Images After Sappho, by Los Angeles Philharmonic artistic director Esa-Pekka Salonen; and Plum Blossoms for String Orchestra by Shih-Hui Chen, assistant professor of composition and theory at Rice University.


The three selections are personal favorites of Outwater, representative of a shift in post-1945 orchestral music from a tendency toward, in his words, “academic, noncommunicative works” to a more audience-friendly style. He also sees them as “entry points” for appreciating how diverse orchestral music has become, and how many different influences have been incorporated by modern composers. Chen’s Plum Blossoms includes themes from her native Taiwan; Adams has described his “Chamber Symphony” as incorporating both Schönberg and American cartoon music into its jazzy, up-tempo production. “You hear electronica, you hear James Brown,” Outwater says of contemporary compositions. “I think people who go to hear Radiohead and Björk would be equally likely to enjoy this music as people who go out to listen to Bach and Stravinsky.”


Still, there’s often reluctance on the part of audiences to engage new compositions'a phenomenon even a composer like Chen can understand. “We are living in a time when history has not filtered the good music yet,” she said by phone from her office in Houston. “We don’t know who is today’s Stravinsky … yet.”


That makes a program like this one something of a risk, since it introduces audiences to lesser-known works in a manner different from what Chen calls the “sandwich approach”: programming a less familiar work between two safe, familiar pieces. But it’s also a way of shaking up the notion that symphony performances are staid, conservative affairs. “It’s not the uptightness of the symphony that’s the issue; it’s the sense by the audience about what the symphony has normally been,” says Outwater. “Symphonies used to be Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence-type events for society. Now I think it’s more about people coming to listen to the music.”


It’s also about engaging with orchestral compositions as something more than auditory museum pieces. Chen will be attending the Salt Lake City performance, because she feels it’s important to lend a face to the sounds the audience will hear. “As soon as they see me up there,” Chen says, “they realize, ‘Wait a minute, this is an alive-and-kicking person! And she is a woman! And she’s Asian!’ And that really breaks preconceptions.


“They can’t talk to Beethoven, and they can’t talk to Bach,” she adds, “but they can talk to me.” In so doing, maybe those listeners will discover a musical tradition that continues to evolve beyond a world of powdered wigs and tails. Utah Symphony


Rose Wagner Center
138 W. 300 South
Thursday, Oct. 12
8 p.m.

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