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In final digital concert of the season, the Fresno Philharmonic soars in a way it’s never done before

Back in the dark, early days of the pandemic, when the majority of my time writing for The Munro Review was spent chronicling the cascading cancellations of local performances, some voices in the classical-music community nationwide began pushing for a drastic response:

We should just shut our orchestras down until we can perform live again.

I am so glad the Fresno Philharmonic got creative instead.

Pictured above: The final Digital Masterworks concert features drone photography of the Blossom Trail. Photo: Fresno Philharmonic

If not, we wouldn’t have been able to experience the orchestra’s remarkable Digital Masterworks series. Our community (and, with internet reach, the world) ended up with four outstanding digital concerts, the last of which premieres today (5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 17) and will be streaming on demand thereafter. (If you watch the “live” premiere, you can chat with Maestro Rei Hotoda during the performance.)

What’s more, these four concerts weren’t just staid replications of the “regular” performances that would have been held in a “regular” season on the stage of the Saroyan Theatre. They were significant creative expressions in their own right. Hotoda and video producer Tal Skloot’s Tritone Media worked within the pandemic parameters forced upon them — the requirement for a limited number of musicians on the smaller stage of Shaghoian Hall, the need for strict social distancing, the lack of a live audience — to craft a series of moving performances.

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The title of the latest concert, “Bach to the Future,” is more than just a marketing movie pun connecting to a prominent piece on the program. (The beloved Brandenberg Concerto No. 3 is the finale). Hotoda is passionate about how J.S. Bach — known for his mathematical precision, linear exactitude and contrapuntal precision — becomes an extended metaphor not just for the concert itself but also her programming philosophy.

“It’s evoking the whole span, encapsulating what we’ve been doing throughout our past season and this season,” she says of the Bach connection. “We’re looking at the pieces from the past and tying them to the future.”

The oldest piece on the program, the Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzona per Sonare No. 2, was written 500 years ago. The newest piece, the world premiere of the young Black composer Kevin Day’s “(loco)motion,” is just a few years old.

More than that, music isn’t written in a vacuum. It is a product of its time, place and viewpoint of the composer. For Hotoda, one of her fiercest enthusiasms in her tenure so far as music director has been to broaden the diversity of the composers represented in her programs.

“Social issues are very important to us, and we want to continue to grow awareness of that in the arts,” she says.

To that end, Hotoda includes not only Day’s piece (which Hotoda talks about at length in a YouTube interview with him), but a composition by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a prominent contemporary Native American composer from the Chickasaw Nation. (Hotoda will conduct a YouTube interview with him about the work on April 24.)

Tate’s “Chokfi’ “ is what he playfully calls a “Sarcasm for String Orchestra and Percussion.” The title is the Chickasaw word for rabbit, an important trickster legend within Southeast American Indian cultures. It incorporates native tribal church hymns.

Hotoda is intrigued with how the composer weaves the Native American musical style into a Western structure. And while the audience might not realize it, the piece is quite mischievous in its complexity, including a mixed meter of rapidly changing time signatures.

“It’s really complicated, but when you hear it, it doesn’t sound complicated,” Hotoda says.

Also on the program is Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, which infuses Brazilian folk music in the style of Bach.

In the third Masterworks concert, Hotoda and Skloot (the video producer) offered a wonderful visual surprise for the audience. In this fourth and final concert, there are striking visuals as well — this time in the form of soaring aerial photography of the Blossom Trail.

Hotoda was inspired by the Villa-Lobos piece to match it to those visuals. Most striking are images taken by drone far above the blossoms, views most of us don’t usually get to see.

“I think of Bach as being so linear, but when you hear the piece as a whole, it’s not so horizontal,” she says. “The sound is vertical.”

The precise lines of the trees remind her, in particular, of the fugue section of the Villa-Lobs piece — the way that the cellos, say, pick up the line of the music, followed by the basses, for example.

You hear the lines. And you see the lines. It’s a glorious juxtaposition.

Finally, to wrap up the concert, we get to the Brandenburg Concerto itself. Hotoda, also a concert pianist, has one more special thing to share: She plays the harpsichord as she conducts. (She thanks David Fox for the loan of his instrument.)

“I think it’s been 14 years since I touched the harpsichord,” she says. “It’s so much fun.”


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One other twist: the second movement usually is done with a very brief improvisation by the harpsichord over two chords. Hotoda decided to insert an Andante written by Bach for another piece (a trio of harpsichord, violin and viola).

Looking back on the digital season, I’m struck by what a different relationship I feel like I have with the Fresno Philharmonic afterward. When you listen to a full orchestra playing a grand work live, the experience can be powerful — but also monolithic. Because of the distance a live audience sits from the orchestra, our view is out of necessity a wide one. But with a filmed concert, especially one done as well as this one, the perspective shifts. All those intense close-ups make me feel like I’ve grown closer to the musicians. (Particularly the brass players. They always feel so far away on stage.) The music becomes more intimate.

The same thing has happened with Hotoda. She’s grown closer to the musicians, too, she says.

“I am so grateful for that. We are working together. We’re trying to find ways to navigate through this in a positive way. I am grateful that the community is supporting us.”

And if all goes well, the next time we hear the Fresno Philharmonic in full next season, it will be live. The details, I’m happy to say, are to come.

 


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

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