The violinist Jennifer Koh returned after more than 20 years to perform on Sunday with the Fresno Philharmonic. Back in 1996 she was a young college student bursting with talent; today she is seasoned veteran of the classical-music scene known not only for her virtuosic playing but also her initiatives to promote contemporary composers. A few thoughts on the concert:
Salute to American composers: All three composers on the program were American, and knowing that going in, it definitely colored my perception. In the first piece, John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” I found myself thinking of bustling cities and bright prospects. Instead of latching onto much of a melody, thanks to the minimalism of the score, my listening experience was guided by the precise jackhammer tempo and the sharp sense of building something. In fact, I thought of buildings, and in a weirdly specific way: I got this image of tall, graceful skyscrapers under construction, the hard-hatted workers nonchalantly sitting on high steel beams taking a lunch break, the wind whipping amiably past as they ate sandwiches and chugged hot coffee from heavy-duty thermoses. I thought of vast American cities taking shape. The percussion section got a workout, as it has several times this season, and the precision and driving energy of conductor Rei Hotoda’s baton gave the experience a crisp vitality.
Salute to Bernstein: The highlight of the concert was the 100th birthday salute to Leonard Bernstein, the American composer and conductor who made great contributions both to this country’s classical music and musical theater canons. His “Serenade,” featuring solo violin, can be a tough piece on first listen, especially for a more casual music fan, but Koh turned out to be a dynamic ambassador for Bernstein’s complicated musicality. As the five movements unfolded, I alternated between contemplating the complexity of the violin part — flurries of intricate runs and sharp, piercing double stops alternating with moments of husky softness — and Koh’s demeanor on stage. (She has a tendency to shake her head rapidly, almost in a blur, as she furiously moves the bow; the Los Angeles Times took a photo of her in 2013 that I think perfectly captures the experience. See below.) By the final movement, which is infused with a jazzy, “New World” essence, I felt I could pick out strains of “West Side Story” in a sort of “Something’s Coming” preview, laying the groundwork for the Sharks and Jets to rumble. My enjoyment of the piece increased exponentially as we moved from the first movement to the last.
Copland’s Symphony No. 3: My favorite moment in this great American symphony comes in the third movement, with the brass blowing and strings sawing with great enthusiasm, and all of sudden everything stops. The hushed section that follows is a dainty frolic that made me think of small children blowing on dandelions in a spring meadow. What came to mind was a contrast between the great urban vitality of this nation and the abundance of natural resources. Perhaps I’m the only one to have ever come to this conclusion, but that’s the beauty of music, isn’t it, that it allows you to paint your own mental images?
Not my favorite: All that said, the Copland sounded a little mushy in places to me. In several of the numerous fanfares, it seemed to my ears that both the brass and strings felt just slightly out of sync in terms of intonation and attack. Not anything as serious as wrong notes, but more like chords that just didn’t sound as organically whole as they could be, if that makes any sense. Or perhaps it was the acoustics of where I was sitting in the hall, or a general grumpiness by that point with Copland, or certain expectations from listening to the music in recorded form beforehand. But that was my honest reaction.
The takeaway: I loved the first two pieces on the program. And the Copland was nice. More than anything, the three together infused me with a buoyant, celebratory feeling that proclaimed: Anything is possible. Which is the best kind of American optimism, musical or otherwise. Let’s keep it coming.
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