From the physical to the celestial, the Fresno Philharmonic reaches for the sky

“I love the title ‘Of Heaven & Earth’ for this concert,” Rei Hotoda tells me. “It touches on the physical realm of where we are on this Earth, but also on the spiritual world of the heavens.”

As I’ve gotten to know Hotoda, who is finishing up her first season as music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, I can count on her to exude enthusiasm when talking about upcoming programs. (“Every time I get on an airplane to Fresno, I get so excited,” she says.) But I can tell there’s something extra special about Sunday’s (April 15) concert, the last Masterworks offering of the season, which will be performed at 3 p.m. at the Saroyan Theatre.

phil heaven and earth

For one thing, it includes several pieces that Hotoda is just wild about. Of Debussy’s “La Mer,” for example, she says: “I can’t say how much I love this piece. It’s one of the most incredible symphonic works ever written. If I could eat a piece, this would be the piece I would eat.”

Win two tickets to the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Of Heaven & Earth” concert. To enter this giveaway, leave a comment on this post telling us if you’ve ever let your cell phone go off in a concert or theater event and how you reacted. (Or, if you don’t want to ‘fess up, just say why you want to attend Sunday’s concert.) Deadline to enter is midnight today (Friday, April 13). Two pairs of tickets will be given away. The winners will be picked at random and notified by email.

She’s excited, too, about the diversity of the program: There are two living composers (Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” and Tan Dun’s “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” are featured), and two of the pieces (“La Mer” and “Passacaglia”) are examples of Asian-influenced music, one of Hotoda’s passions. Poulenc’s choral work “Gloria” is a remarkable version of the traditional Latin Mass.


And then there’s the spiritual theme that ties the program together.

“Each piece combines some sort of mysticism,” she says.

Sunday’s concert isn’t the only opportunity to take in a Fresno Philharmonic performance this weekend. On Saturday evening, Hotoda will emcee a chamber music concert featuring orchestra members at Bitwise South Stadium — a new venue for the ensemble. More on that in a moment. First, some more background about “Heaven and Earth”:

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Jennifer Higdon / Photo by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“blue cathedral” has an intense story behind it. Higdon wrote the piece in memory of her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, who died of skin cancer in 1998. For the composer, it was a cathartic experience. Hotoda says one important thing to know is that Higdon plays the flute, and her brother was a clarinetist. The piece features solos for both instruments. The flute plays first (as the older sister), the two instruments play together, and, finally, the clarinet continues by itself, progressing onward and upward in a shimmering burst of sound.

“Gloria” features powerhouse vocals. The orchestra is joined by the Fresno Master Chorale, under the direction of Anna Hamre, and Grammy Award-winning soprano Jessica Rivera, in Poulenc’s celebrated composition. First performed in 1961, the piece is both an homage (in Latin) to the traditional Mass, but also a rebellion against it, mirroring his own conflicted views toward Catholicism. Think of it as a mix of the sacred and profane, as Hotoda describes it. “There are moments of extreme emotion and darkness and searching,” she says, “yet the music is so uplifting and so fun — that’s the only way I can describe it. It’s unlike any other sacred music.”

Yes, bring your cell phones. “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” asks for audience participation. To be a part of it, before the second half of the concert, you need to access a special audio file via a QR code (using your phone’s camera or QR reader) or by clicking this link. At the beginning of the piece, Hotoda will cue audience members to play the file, which features bird calls created by original Chinese instruments. She is delighted by the contrast between the modernity of the cell phone and the ancient sounds it can play. “It’s this incredible mix of so many different things. The idea is that the sounds are coming from the audience, not just from the stage. To feel all this happening as an audience member is incredible.”

Rei Hotoda Portraits

Rei Hotoda, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic

“La Mer,” meanwhile, is so lush and impressionistic you’ll swear you can smell the tang of the sea. “It’s gorgeous, riveting, powerful … you feel like you’re in the music with this piece,” Hotoda says. When Debussy’s piece was premiered in 1905, some critics said they couldn’t “hear” waves crashing against a coastline, which she can’t understand. “How could you not?” she asks.

Throughout the concert, the mystical/spiritual theme is represented in various ways. From the sacred underpinnings of the Poulenc piece to the power of the sublime in nature that is represented in the Tan Dun and Debussy offerings, there’s what you might call a broad range of transcendence. In that regard, the theme is about different paths and inclusion. There’s no one right way to seek grace.

There’s a sense of polarity at work here, too. The Debussy and Poulenc pieces, though both written by Frenchmen, come from very different musical points of view. (In fact, Poulenc was a member of Les Six, a group of six young French composers who rebelled against some giants, such as Wagner and, you guessed it, Debussy.) Hotoda likes that there’s a bit of tension between those selections. And we’ve already mentioned the play between the old and the new in the Tan Dun piece.

Consider the conductor’s personal connection to the program. Finally, “La Mer” is special to Hotoda not only because it’s powerful and profound. “It really does have an exotic, mystical, Eastern sound sometimes, which I’m drawn to,” she says. Debussy was fascinated with the music of Java and Bali — which features the gamelan, an ensemble of mostly percussive instruments — and incorporated that style into “La Mer.” As an undergraduate listening to the piece, Hotoda was entranced. “For me, it was the beginning of my journey exploring the music of Asian cultures,” she says.

Details: The concert is 3 p.m. Sunday, April 15, at the Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $25-$79.

Chamber music at Bitwise

Area fans of chamber music have had a very good month. Last weekend the Alexander String Quartet performed at Fresno State (and I was swept away by the ensemble’s fierce and buoyant rendition of Shostakovich’s String Quartet in B-flat Minor, especially that violent hairpin crescendo in the final bar).

Now, on Saturday, April 14, the Fresno Philharmonic offers a chamber concert in a vibrant downtown space: the John W. Dodson Theatre at Bitwise South Stadium. Hotoda will act as host, guiding the audience through the hour-long program. Players are Janette Erickson, flute; Caitlin McSherry and Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, violins; Meredith Kufchak, viola; and Gerald Miller, cello. They’ll play music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy and others in combinations of solos, duos and quartets.

“This is a wonderful way for the Fresno Philharmonic to get out of the Saroyan and into the community,” Hotoda says.

Details: Lobby doors open at 6:30 p.m. Performance is 7:30 p.m. A full bar with drinks for purchase will be available in the lobby, and Mabel’s Kitchen will be open for food. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 at the door; you can buy them online at

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (6)

  • Nina

    Would love to see and hear our new conductor for the first time.

  • Jasmin Kloos

    I’m a teacher and obsessively keep my phone on silent, it’s so annoying to hear a ring during classes! This concert sounds incredible, would especially love to hear the Debussy and Poulenc.

  • Yes, I have forgotten to turn my cell phone or put it on silent mode. Would love to go on Sunday.

  • Sheri Lee

    I enjoyed reading about this concert, especially Rei Hotoda’s connection and enthusiasm for the piece. Her excitement is contagious, and she makes me want to experience it as well!

  • Jennifer Neer

    I haven’t left my phone on during a concert or theater performance, but I have accidentally left it on during a church service. And I’m in the choir! I panicked and silenced it, then snuck out as quietly as possible. So embarrassing!

  • Linda Ramirez

    Haven’t been to the Phil this year. Would love to go.


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