Fresno Philharmonic gallops to glory with Hotoda at the reins
Forgive me in advance for the likely overwrought equine metaphor, but here’s what the Fresno Philharmonic made me think of after Sunday’s lively concert:
A tall, powerful, spirited and stately thoroughbred horse, one displaying a graceful rhythm and palpable sense of energy to its gait.
Holding the reins, of course, was Rei Hotoda, the orchestra’s new music director and conductor, who is infusing her first season with a passion and vitality that feels infectious. The orchestra looks happy. The audience looks happy. Attending a performance is like a day at the races when your bet pays off.
The orchestra overall sounded wonderful. Do I think the concert was perfect? No. (Read on.) But I think I’m in the minority.
Here’s a quick rundown:
The scene: A very good crowd in the Saroyan Theatre, gathered for an intriguing program consisting of a piece by Fresno composer Kenneth Froelich, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest artist Awadagin Pratt, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
The Froelich: Titled “Spinning Yarns,” this 8-minute work by the Fresno State composition professor was inspired by the jazz tradition of “trading fours,” referring to a point in which the horns and drummer improvise four-bars of music at a time. The fun thing about this piece — and that’s the operative word I’d use to describe it, fun — is that the “Yarns” of the title refers to obviously boisterous stories being swapped by the musicians. The effect is that of a series of spirited conversations unfolding in a crowded noisy room, perhaps a beer joint. Though the music has a driving, pounding quality to it — it’s quite a workout for the percussion — there’s also something familiar and even relaxing about its impact, the way the din of a dozen conversations can seem warm and friendly. I thought it was grand.
The Beethoven: Pratt wowed the audience with his virtuosity at the keyboard. The piece’s often subdued, reflective quality was a nice contrast to the opening number (and the Tchaikovsky to come), and some of my favorite moments came when Pratt played his delicate trills in the upper registers, the notes almost floating, like quick little bird tiptoes. (I’m stuck on animal comparisons for this concert.) Usually it’s the pyrotechnics of a piece that impress, but in this case it was the softer, most hushed moments that had the greatest impct. Just exquisite.
The Tchaikovsky: I loved the first three of the four movements, especially the Scherzo’s ostentatious display of pizzicato, or plucking of the strings. But the Finale? I’m not sure. I would argue that Hotoda brought such a brisk exuberance to the podium that — to let loose my literary pretensions once again (but for the last time, I promise) — it felt like the horse was in danger of jumping the fence around the corral and tearing away on a joyride. The tempo was just too fast for me — by far the speediest I’ve ever heard it played. Sure, this movement is supposed to zip by, but the impressive runs spit out by the strings got a little mushy for me, the notes piling up on one another like a rush-hour chain collision. How fast was the movement? It felt frenzied, not joyful. Heck, I half expected the friction of the furiously sawing bows to spark a fire or two.
The takeaway: But others in the audience seemed to eat up this “let’s go to the races” Tchaikvosky. The standing ovation was long and sustained. And I thrilled to the excitement in the hall. With Hotoda on the podium, it’s a lot harder for this crowd to fall asleep.
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