Fresno Philharmonic delivers the world premiere of ‘Landscape Greeting’

The Fresno Philharmonic’s “Proxima: Music for the Next Century” concert on March 12 came this close to happening. The program — featuring a small, chamber-ensemble-sized group of musicians — was fully rehearsed. The venue — in the lobby of the Fresno Art Museum, not the usual choice for the orchestra — was ready. The VIP guest list — which included some of the local composers whose original works were to be performed — was set. The conductor — Rei Hotoda, a vocal proponent of new orchestral works — was excited.

Then came the shutdown.

Pictured above: Images from the Fresno Art Museum’s exhibition ‘Gifted’ inspired ‘Landscape Greeting.’ Photo: Fresno Philharmonic

We’ve been in quarantine/lockdown so long that sometimes it’s hard to remember the upheaval when the coronavirus started sweeping across the nation. In a space of a few days, one Fresno-area major arts organization after another announced the cancellation of upcoming events. “Proxima” was one of the first. A few hours before the concert, I received a call from Stephen Wilson, executive director of the Fresno Philharmonic. “Proxima” was off.

Now, “Proxima” is back on — or, at least, a part of it. At noon Wednesday, June 3, the orchestra, in collaboration with the Fresno Art Museum, presents a YouTube Live performance of the world premiere of Robert Morris’ “Landscape Greeting.” While the original concert was limited to just 100 patrons because of space limitations, the YouTube performance is open to all on the orchestra’s YouTube channel.

“We are so pleased to present the premiere in this way,” Hotoda says in a news release. “After hearing the work at our dress rehearsal, it was so painful for the musicians and me to cancel the concert when the COVID 19 pandemic hit.”


The performance is made possible in part by a gift from Orpheus Fresno.

I emailed her in Illinois, where she’s been stuck during quarantine, to find out a little more about the YouTube premiere.

The composer is on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music (Hotoda’s alma mater). Heather Gardner, violist in the Fresno Philharmonic and co-curator of the “Proxima” series, knows Morris, and asked him to compose the work for the orchestra.

Morris has composed over 140 works for a wide variety of musical forms and media, including computer and improvisational music.

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For this piece, the orchestra wanted a tie to the “Gifted: “GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956,” the current exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum. The traveling exhibition, which has been to several other museums, takes up almost the entire museum. Its emphasis is on early California impressionist paintings.

Hotoda explains:

“Since we commissioned this piece for our performance at the Fresno Art Museum, Bob used the images on display as inspiration for this piece. There are long moments of drone-like pitches that reflect the landscapes and feelings of being in the landscape rather than being a part of the landscape. The piece reflects not just the feeling of the landscape but at times IS the landscape.”

Composer Robert Morris.

The musicians are Pamela Ellzey (flute), Laura Porter (harp), Caitlin McSherry (violin), Heather Gardner (viola), Alicja Blanquart (cello), Elisha Wells and Richard Hembree (horns). They each recorded their individual part on video while under shelter-in-place orders.

Hotoda and her husband, conductor Brian Dollinger, put some of their quarantine time to good use editing the parts together and integrating photographs of some of the exhibition landscapes. The piece itself is about 11 minutes in length, and the video with artwork credits is 14 minutes.

“Our hope is that when you see the premiere with the artwork embedded in the performance, you will sense that the integration of music and art is seamless and effortless. Since I had conducted the rehearsals and the dress rehearsal of this piece in Fresno, I felt very close to the work. I had a clear vision of how I wanted it to look in this production.Thank goodness my husband trusted my vision and was able to make it come to life in this video.”

I joke that Hotoda has spent this time becoming a computer wiz, a notion she immediately puts to rest. (“I still freak out when my laptop freezes for no reason!”) But she has learned a lot. And she thinks that the technology involved in putting together musical asynchronous performances is getting better. It’s a question I ask because of the trend in classical music toward putting more remotely recorded songs online during the pandemic.

Yet it will take time and money to adapt, she says.

“We were challenged in working with the different files from the musicians from their own devices and platforms. The technology is out there, but I think we as musicians (including myself) need to be more flexible and adaptable to learn the technology faster. This requires money being spent on equipment and educating ourselves in a whole new field.”

Anxious to be back

In the meantime, Hotoda is looking forward to getting back to Fresno and an orchestra and community she’s grown to love.

Things are getting better in terms of being cooped up: This past weekend, she was camping in the family pop-up camper at a local state park that just opened up. She and her family were happy to get out of the house and go kayaking.

I ask how she’s been spending the rest of her time sheltering. She gives a two-part answer:

• My family is such a blessing and I have really loved being home with them. We’ve been exploring the outdoors a lot, taking family hikes and discovering new trails near our home. Being in nature calms me and has brought me lots of solace.

• For me, the Fresno Philharmonic has been my fuel during this time. I have been so inspired by the community, the musicians and the staff in the past three seasons that now more than ever I want to do everything in my power to sustain and propel us forward through this time away from live performances in the Saroyan Theatre I want Fresno to know how important the Fresno Philharmonic is to me and to this community. I feel very strongly that we need to keep moving forward and persevere. When we are able to perform in Saroyan again, I cannot wait to celebrate with this community, stronger and better than ever! This keeps me going through this time!

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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