For the Fresno Philharmonic, a world premiere of a piece inspired by Fresno
The Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday offers the world premiere of Dinuk Wijeratne’s “Between Figure and Ground,” a piece co-commissioned by the orchestra and inspired by Fresno. Here’s a rundown on the concert, which also includes Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and guest artist Zhang Zou performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Who is the composer?
Wijeratne was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Dubai. Most recently he served for three years as conductor-in-residence with Symphony Nova Scotia. His music integrates a great many non-Western influences, according to his bio, and “seeks to explore the boundary between composition and improvisation.” He trained at the Royal Northern College of Music in the United Kingdom and was later invited by John Corigliano to join his studio at New York’s Juilliard School.
How did Wijeratne end up writing a piece for the Fresno Philharmonic?
Conductor Rei Hotoda was key. The two are good friends, having met each other crossing paths in the orchestra world.
“I did this because I wanted to work with Rei,” the composer tells me in a phone interview. “She’s a wonderful personality and very collaborative. When I agree to do a project, it’s very much about the humans you work with and how you resonate with them.”
The piece is co-commissioned by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
“We thought this would be a great way to end the second season,” Hotoda tells me.
How did Fresno itself become an inspiration for the piece?
Once the commission was locked in, Hotoda invited Wijeratne to Fresno. He came in September and got the chance to tour different parts of the community. He spent a memorable evening at the famed Masumoto family farm in Sanger, which he describes as “an amazing, almost spiritual, evening. I was so humbled by this example of the relationship of human to nature.”
In his program notes for “Between Figure and Ground,” Wijeratne writes:
In his heartfelt book “Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm,” David Mas Masumoto writes: “All good farmers become connoisseurs of dirt and dust.” When I was in his company, talking about the intersections of music and farming (the latter of which I know nothing), I was struck by how he described his work as an artistic endeavuor.
Wijeratne found himself returning to that them when he wrote the 10-minute piece. It’s about both the land and the people who use it.
“It’s a piece about human resilience, but it’s also the fact that the land has a similar resilience,” he says.
What else inspired the piece?
Hotoda, never one to pass up a good taco, gave him a culinary tour. The diversity of the food scene reminds Wijeratne of Toronto, where he now lives. So does Fresno’s cultural diversity, for that matter.
“In my music, the idea of diversity is ever-present,” he says. “I totally resonate with this vibe.”
He also got to talk with other famous Fresnans, including the artist Robert Ogata. Wijeratne took the name of the piece — “Between Figure and Ground” from one of Ogata’s works. In the language of art, that phrase refers to the relationship between the subject and background in a painting or photograph. But Wijeratne likes the way the words, when taken a different way, capture the relationship between people and the land.
Does the piece “sound” like Fresno?
Hotoda thinks so. “It’s very lush,” she says. “It’s very percussive. I think it does reflect Fresno. There are definitely elements of Asian culture in it. It’s a piece that is harmonically recognizable — it’s not atonal — but there are elements that are different and unique to Dinuk’s compositional language. I think it’s very accessible.”
Does he get to hear the world premiere?
You bet. Wijeratne was here for rehearsals with the orchestra and will be in the audience on Sunday. Afterward, you can ask him which part was about the taco.