As soon as the visiting orchestra ended its resounding performance of a Richard Strauss showpiece, the Charlotte music lover leaned over to his neighbor in the Belk Theater. “That,” he said, “is the kind of sound this hall was meant for.”
Thierry Fischer, who molded that sound in January 2007 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, returns this week to guest-conduct the Charlotte Symphony. Deep in a search for a music director, Charlotte's orchestra lists Fischer among the candidates. He offers a polite correction.
“I'm not sure,” Fischer said in an interview.
He has had “very little” experience with American orchestras, he explains, and he has never conducted the Charlotte Symphony. Yet he's open enough to the opportunity to go through the meetings, receptions and events set up to scrutinize each candidate.
Note what he says about the experience he has had with American groups. “What I like,” Fischer says, “is to be put into something different from what I'm used to.”
Fischer, 51, has adapted to fresh situations across continents and cultures his entire life – beginning with his childhood in Zambia, where his parents were missionaries.
“In Zambia, we were living in a very small village without electricity or running water. It was amazing. It gave me a sense of balance in life. We had such a simple life. So I knew quite early how to appreciate nice things – how to do the best with nothing.”
When Fischer was about 9 years old, the family moved to his parents' native Switzerland. The boy who had lived in the humblest surroundings was dropped into one of the world's most elegant cities: Geneva.
“As a kid,” he recalled, “you get used to new things very easily. It was more a surprise and a wonder than a shock.” Though his parents weren't musicians, they put their children into music lessons. Young Thierry studied the recorder.
“I loved it from the first minute. I can remember the effect it made on me to play the recorder – how happy it made me. Without being able to put words to it, I could feel very strongly how sounds can change our way of thinking, our perceptions, our emotions. I noticed that sound has a real energy – in all the good and bad ways. It touched me very deeply inside.”
A happy life
Fischer moved on to the flute. By the time he was 16, his dream was to play in orchestras. After studying in Germany, that's just what he did. Stints with groups in Germany and Switzerland led to a decade in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which performed across the continent and recorded extensively.
“When you're the first flute in an orchestra, you're very involved – you can really be part of the music-making. You can push the woodwind section and create sounds together. I was completely fulfilled musically. I was playing in a great orchestra. I was very much involved in the orchestra's life. I was on the (leadership) committee. I was organizing projects. It was a very happy life.”
Thus far in the Charlotte Symphony's parade of potential music directors – assuming that Fischer is one – his years as a full-time orchestral musician make Fischer unique. Until he was in his 30s, he had no plan to go into conducting. Then he filled in for a sick choir conductor in Geneva.
“I loved it. Three weeks later, he was still sick, and they asked me if I could do the concert. I couldn't, because I had a Chamber Orchestra of Europe tour. So I didn't hesitate at all. I canceled the tour with the orchestra, and I did the concert.”
The dangers of ballet
Chamber orchestras gave Fischer some of his first opportunities. Yet he gained some of his most valuable experience not on the stage but in the pit – leading a ballet orchestra in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. He took the job against the advice of friends.
“Many people said to me, ‘Don't go into there. You will be stuck in the ballet world.' I have the kind of character that, whenever everybody says no, I just say to myself, ‘I'll do it.' And I did it. I knew it would be dangerous, but I did it. It was a unique occasion to learn some big pieces. I did Stravinsky's ‘Rite of Spring' 18 times in the pit. And I loved being in the theater.”
Fischer didn't get stuck in the ballet world. After four years, he left to take the helm of the Ulster Orchestra, a group that's well-regarded far beyond its home in Northern Ireland.
Since 2006, he has led the BBC's Welsh orchestra, which played an imposing concert in Charlotte last year. Fischer and his group performed “Don Juan,” Richard Strauss' depiction of the legendary womanizer, with a storyteller's vividness. In the famous slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, they brought out a passion that many performers miss.
With careful work in rehearsal as the foundation, Fischer says, he tries “to motivate the players to listen to our intuition – to escape reality and to go to what's possible.”
“You can create moments that personally allow me to have a healthy approach to life. Now I'm absolutely obsessed by conducting. It came to me gradually, this need. It's something I really, honestly could not live without.”