In season’s most moving Masterworks concert, Fresno Philharmonic offers music for the soul


I can now say I’ve played with the Fresno Philharmonic. Just call me 2nd Cellphone, 143rd Chair.

At Sunday’s concert in the Saroyan Theatre, I held my “instrument” aloft during composer Tan Dun’s spirited “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds.” For 54 seconds, as my phone chirped and sang with noises that sounded like an aviary at feeding time, I became part of the orchestra.

tan dun

Was it just a gimmick? I can see how some might feel that way. But in the context of Tan Dun’s buoyant piece, whose bevy of sound effects includes clapping, snapping and cooing by the musicians (and not just the percussionists), the audience participation felt like an integral part of the experience. In those 54 seconds, that usually unbridgeable gap between the orchestra and audience disappeared. We were in this together.

It was wonderful.

Sunday’s concert, titled “Heaven & Earth,” had a theme of mysticism and spirituality. It wasn’t just about religious or “sacred” music, mind you, though Poulenc’s “Gloria” falls into that category.


Instead, music director Rei Hotoda crafted a program that was catholic in the true sense of the “small c” version of the word. It felt encompassing. It resonated both intellectually and emotionally. It was, for me, the most moving concert I heard all season. I’m still thinking about it days later.

The concert opened with Jennifer Higdon’s sad and uplifting “blue cathedral,” written in memory of the composer’s brother. At times, this piece feels big and as overwhelming as the way the Aurora Borealis dominates the sky. At others, it seems almost tiny, as we follow the gentle interplay between the flute (which is the composer’s instrument) and the clarinet (which her brother, who died of cancer, played). At one point, the musicians all pick up Chinese reflex balls and roll them in their hands, producing a bright, bell-like sound. The composer offers the expected “soar toward the heavens” swell, near the ending, but, for me, what really gives the piece its power are the final moments. After that luminous wall of sound, the orchestra dissipates to an eerie nothing. It’s a reminder that with all the faith, hope, belief, skepticism, searching and angst about life after death that permeate our very existence, the final result is still unknown.

The Poulenc piece, which featured the Fresno Master Chorale (under the direction of Anna Hamre), might be based on the Latin Mass, but it’s far from traditional. Several of the movements have a jaunty and bawdy feel (the “Laudamus Te” reminded me of a bustling downtown strip teeming with nightlife), while others convey a more plaintive sense. Guest soprano Jessica Rivera soared in her solo moments. While the choir’s words sounded a little mushy in the opening movement, the acoustics cleared up for me afterward, and I found myself entranced.

The Tan Dun piece came next. We’ll save that for last.


JMW Turner’s “Slave Ship.”

The final offering of the concert was Debussy’s monumental “La Mer,” which was a shimmering, impressionistic experience. In the first movement, “From Dawn Till Noon on the Sea,” I thought of the dark black of the night lightening, almost imperceptibly at first, as the sun begins its ascent, then layering one warm and rosy color on top of another. The second movement, “Play of the Waves,” made me think of a Turner painting in all its glory, with the choppy surface of the water reflecting the expanse of sky. And the third, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” brought to mind the saltwater tang that fills your nostrils at the beach. I loved the way Hotoda shaped the musical phrases through the piece as if they were big, languid waves. The orchestra’s brass section soared.

As for that Tan Dun piece, the third in the program — the one where I became a cellphone star? What fun. Hotoda cued the audience, which had been told to prep for the occasion by using a QR code or opening a special link. The funny thing was that it took a good 30 or 45 seconds for some people to actually hit the play button, which meant that the cacophony of bird and wind sounds continued long past the time when the audience was supposed to stop chirping. Hotoda had to turn from the podium and try to cut it off, but once you get something like that started, it’s hard to stop. Still, the moment gave even more of a spontaneous and human feel to the piece.

I also thought it was amusing to watch the audience during the cellphone interlude. I was sitting in Row S, and as I looked ahead, people sitting in the seats near the front — which presumably include more season-ticket holders, a demographic that might skew older — were less likely to be holding their phones aloft. But as you moved back in the auditorium toward the cheaper seats, there were more participants.

As for the piece itself: Just as she pulled out a wild, show-stopper of a composition out of her hat in her Fresno Philharmonic audition concert last year (Zhou Long’s fierce and pulse-pounding “The Rhyme of Taigu”), Hotoda delivered a mesmerizing musical interlude to mark the final Masterworks concert of her first season. “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” romped from beginning to end. When some of the orchestra members started to sing (!), I found myself leaning forward in my seat, not even aware I was doing it, completely entranced, as if I wanted to get even closer to the action. That’s the first time in a long while that I can remember having a kinetic reaction to an offering by the orchestra.

Perhaps that’s what made this concert so meaningful. The themes of mysticism and spiritualism — whether a nod to organized religion, the contemplation of mortality, or an immersion in the beauty (and menace) of nature — were all components of a metaphysical discussion. That was the “Heaven” part of things. But there’s something to be said for the “Earth” part as well — and that includes the simple social act of gathering in a group and listening to music, surely one of the oldest human endeavors. I’ll treasure those 54 seconds.

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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.

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