Review: A solid opening for the Fresno Philharmonic, though it lacked a strong emotional connection for me
‘Opening day” at the Fresno Philharmonic isn’t quite the ritual-laden experience you’d find at Royal Ascot racecourse or the peppy feel at an MLB first home game of the season. But there’s excitement, nonetheless. Audience members haven’t heard the orchestra for a few months. There are new season ads in the program to look at. (Well, I looked, at least, because The Munro Review has one in color this season.) There’s a buzz in the lobby beforehand as friends who mostly see each other at concerts reconnect.
It’s always exciting to sit down to a new season of music.
Sunday’s first Masterworks performance of the season was titled “Curtain Up: Bernstein & Strauss,” and it was a vigorous musical afternoon. Conductor Rei Hotoda brought her customary high energy and strong presence to the podium. The concert was a fast-paced and often virtuosic ride, and it was often stirring, but in the end, the program wasn’t as strong of an emotional experience for me as many other Fresno Phil outings.
Bernstein’s “Candide” was too fast for me. It felt like day-at-the-races. (Perhaps that’s why the Ascot analogy from above floated into my mind.) The woodwinds often felt like they were just a tiny bit behind the beat, persistently scrambling to keep up. (I kept thinking about the farthest-from-the-pivot-point player in a swiveling marching band line having to take giant steps to keep up.) The flurry of notes overwhelmed.
Guest artist Cecile Licad played up a storm in the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2. This was my favorite piece on the program. Licad brought a brisk economy of motion to the task at the keyboard, eschewing showy flourishes. She pounded out the end of the first movement like a professional carpenter taking care of a nail in three forceful taps. The second and third movements, which range from plaintive to strenuous, had powerful moments. In the third, it seemed as if the stage rattled from Licad’s intensity. When Hotoda was in the full frenzy of the piece, her conducting reminded me of a jostled commuter standing on a train that hits a really rough stretch of track.
Hotoda continues her commitment to new music. Vivan Fung’s “Earworms” was a cerebral and delicate piece that suggested the stirrings of an agitated mind. A wonderful thing about this presentation was that the composer herself was able to introduce the piece. Fung, who teaches at Santa Clara University, explained to the audience that the frenzy of having a toddler in the house sometimes affected her ability to write music, and that “Earworms” was a reflection of that. “Don’t be afraid,” she said of the piece, “it’s really just my mind reeling at 3 a.m.”
At its most impactful, the piece managed to feel both ethereal and substantial, like a swarm of locusts. Honestly, however, I never connected with the “earworm” theme. Fung told us beforehand there was a five-second allusion in the piece to a famous childhood tune, “The Wheels on the Bus,” but I never caught it. Overall, I found it harder to latch onto this new piece of music than others that Hotoda has introduced us to in the past. Still, while I think this was a tough sell to the audience, it was made a lot less tough by having the composer there. That personal touch gave the audience an extra bank of goodwill toward a difficult piece.
VIEWS FROM INTERMISSION
“Der Rosenkavalier” was stirring. (I just love that name, and I love spelling that name.) This famed suite of the Strauss opera delivered the sway of the waltz in grand style. I thought the orchestra sounded quite good, though I didn’t sense the same crisp, all-of-one-mind musical togetherness that I’ve experienced in many previous concerts.
What was that infernal beeping? Did anyone else hear it during the Strauss? The tinny, incessant sound persisted from somewhere in the audience. It reminded me of the beep you’d get from a cheap, tiny analog alarm clock. The odd thing to my ear was that the beep was almost in tune and in tempo with the orchestra, making me wonder for a while if it was a percussion instrument. Then I thought it might be a hearing aid. And, at one point, when a patron sitting near the front of the orchestra section left to take a phone call, I thought perhaps that would solve the problem. But no. The sound continued, and, alas, I found my concentration totally broken during the Strauss. It just goes to show that one person in an audience of thousands can have a profound impact on a performance. It’s a reminder that live music is a responsibility as well as a pleasure.