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Review: A walk on the wild (and inspiring) side with the Fresno Philharmonic

CONCERT REVIEW

Five things to like about Sunday’s “Grand Promenade” concert by the Fresno Philharmonic:

1. Rei Hotoda’s sly grin as she and the members of the orchestra walked off the stage at the beginning of John Corigliano’s “Promenade Overture.” After all, she’d just walked on to lead the orchestra and audience in the national anthem. But this was all part of the fun. Hotoda quickly returned to a mostly empty stage, and then her players trickled back in small and relaxed little groups: the piccolo, followed by the flutes and low strings, with the violins, violas and woodwinds not far behind, until everyone was back. Corigliano’s piece bopped about with bits of melody sprinkled in, and the music often had a shimmering, fairy-dust, “Tinkerbell” quality to it.

2. Principal tuba player Scott Choate’s “late” entrance to the piece was a great comic moment as he sauntered across the stage in the last moments carrying a Starbucks coffee, then settled in to play the final notes on his tenor tuba. What I liked most about the Corigliano piece, besides the amusing premise, was the chance to see the musicians on their feet as they played. (Shades of marching band, anyone?) We’re so used to seeing orchestral musicians firmly planted to the floor. “Promenade Overture” got the blood pumping, so to speak. It was a fun way to open a concert.

3. Jon Nakamatsu’s rousing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Hotoda took the piece at a brisk tempo. I liked that, especially at the opening, which if played too slowly can remind you of one of those ridiculously large jumbo jets that just keep going down the runway until finally, laboriously, lifting off. Other times, the tempo seemed a little too fast for me, but maybe that’s my preconceived notion. My favorite parts of Nakamatsu’s excellent performance — this is a Van Cliburn gold medalist, after all — were those quiet times in the second movement when he settled into just a wisp of a trill. For all the big, crashing chords and frantic runs in this monumental concerto, Nakamatsu’s control in those nearly still moments is what stood out for me.

4. The “pictures” in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” I’ve heard the piece many times, but this was the first time I did so while really thinking about the titles of the 10 musical vignettes. “The Gnome” made me think of a gnarled figure skulking through the countryside, staying out of sight but ready to make mischief. In “The Castle,” first the bassoon and then the alto sax brought to mind a building covered with ancient, tangled vines. And “The Marketplace of Limoges” conjured an image in my mind of all those chattering women at the market, as the painting on which it’s based presents, but it was quickly overtaken by a Black Friday melee at Wal-Mart.

5. The glorious “Gate.” I was surprised how emotional my reaction was to “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the final vignette. I really felt for Mussorgsky and his mourning for the artist friend he lost. Yet there’s something triumphant and celebratory about the piece — a hopeful sense that death might be the end but also, possibly, a grand and significant beginning. It was a fitting end to an inspiring concert. This “Grand Promenade” made me want to get up and march in celebration.

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Related story: AS FIRST MASTERWORKS CONCERT APPROACHES, A ‘PROMENADE’ WITH REI HOTODA

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.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (3)

  • Janet Baker

    Good review, Don. One thing I found humorous was that Nakematsu dusted the piano when he sat down. Also, in a piece that required so much physicality, apparently his jacket was buttoned, because he unbuttoned it and opened it up between the second and third movements. His playing was inspiring. It was delightful to hear and see two familiar pieces performed, and the Promenade was a perfect accompaniment to the repertoire. I was sorry more children were not in the audience because the Pictures at an Exhibition and the Promenade gave a great opportunity to experience instruments. I could imagine Leonard Bernstein giving a wonderful Young People’s Concert about the Promenade.

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  • Emily A

    No comment about the encore piano number?

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