From France with love: Fresno Philharmonic gets a little absurd in new digital Masterworks concert
Paris might be locked down again, but the idea of France remains wide open. That’s one reason Fresno Philharmonic music director Rei Hotoda wanted to devote one of the orchestra’s MasterWorks digital concerts this season to works by French composers.
“There’s so much energy and brightness to all these pieces — with maybe a little bit of mystery,” Hotoda says. “All these pieces restore energy. We really need that right now.”
The concert, titled “Vive la France: Ibert Divertissement,” premieres at 5:30 p.m. p.m. Saturday, March 20, and will be available for streaming thereafter. All concerts this season are digital; they were filmed under strict social-distancing protocols at Shaghoian Hall.
The video presentation will be available for free on demand streaming on the Fresno Philharmonic’s website and YouTube channel. If you watch the premiere on YouTube, you can live-chat with Hotoda during the concert. (Imagine trying to do that during a live performance!)
Before we get into a discussion of the individual pieces on the program, it’s worth noting a couple of things: Hotoda got into the spirit of the concert by filming the song introductions at CRU Winery (how could you hold a French-themed concert without mentioning wine?); and it is essential that you watch the concert through to the end of the last piece. Trust me.
Anyway, here’s a rundown:
Fanfare pour precede “La Peri” (Paul Dukas, composer): The orchestra starts off the concert with this brass lovers’ delight, which introduced Dukas’ ballet. “It evokes youthfulness and nature,” Hotoda says. “It’s very popular among brass ensembles.”
“Petite Symphonie” (Charles Gounod, composer): Hotoda describes the piece as a cross between chamber music and a wind symphony. You could call this work a “players’ choice.” In a Zoom meeting in the early days of the pandemic, Hotoda asked the orchestra’s musicians what pieces with small instrumentation they would like to perform, and this one was a favorite.
“Starburst” (Jessie Montgomery, composer): This is the only piece by a non-French composer on the program. It continues Hotoda’s season-long effort to feature works by African-American composers. Montgomery is a young violinist and composer who is making a splash these days in the classical music world. “I discovered this piece a few years ago,” Hotoda says. “I was really trying to figure out a way to program it. This piece is so brilliantly written for the orchestra.”
“D’un vieux jardin” (Lili Boulanger, composer): Another reason why Hotoda wanted to include the Montgomery piece was so she could align it with this century-old piano solo by Boulanger, a French composer who died in 1918 at the tender age of 24. Once again, Hotoda trades the conductor’s podium for the piano bench in a solo performance. In just eight years of a composing career, Boulanger — who came from a famous French musical family — wrote some amazing music. It also was an opportunity for Hotoda, who started her own career as a concert pianist, to work on that skill set during a time in which she wasn’t able to conduct the Fresno Philharmonic and guest conduct other orchestras.
“This was one of my COVID projects at home,” she says.
The piece has a melancholy feel to it, and there’s sadness at the end, especially when you connect it to the fact that its composer died so young.
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“Divertissement” (Jacques Ibert, composer): The final piece on the program is the longest — and silliest — by far. With six short movements, this romp of a musical experience, written in 1930, is meant to be, well, a diversion.
“I think this is all a play on the absurd,” Hotoda says.
The first movement starts as a comic-opera overture, followed by a second movement meant to be a funeral procession, but which turns into a romp.
There are more surprises throughout the piece. Really and truly. You must watch through to the end, Hotoda emphasizes.
One of the happy byproducts of a pandemic-driven season has been the chance to perform smaller works, which was necessary because of social distancing. It’s also the opportunity to feature instruments that sometimes don’t get much playing time, such as the trombones, who get a lot of spotlighted playing time in this concert.
The piece, and the concert, offers a break from a world in which all has not gone according to plan over the past year. “It’s about the flip side of what reality is,” Hotoda says of the music.
You could call it a gift from France.