Concert review: Fresno Philharmonic goes live, and it’s much more impressive than Memorex
The setting: It’s the Fresno Philharmonic’s first live performance in 18 months, and on this Sunday afternoon at Shaghoian Hall, I know there’s no way I can be a dispassionate critic. It’ll be too much of an emotional moment for me. Once those first few notes are unleashed on the world, I’m going to lose all objectivity.
The weight of the moment: In terms of programming, Listz’s fiery 1st Piano Concerto is a heavy hitter. So is the featured soloist. Conductor Rei Hotoda arranged the concert order so that piano virtuoso Joyce Yang, who has wowed audiences in previous engagements with the Fresno Philharmonic, is featured in the first work performed by the orchestra in the post-vaccine age. It makes for an auspicious beginning.
Speaking of those first few notes: Slow and plaintive, Yang’s initial interaction with the piano sets a magical tone. From there she smoothly hurdles through Listz’s thundering opening. With the piece’s difficult keyboard pyrotechnics thrown at the player at the beginning, it’s as if the composer is an exclusive nightclub bouncer who only lets the cream of the crop into his establishment; Yang slips right in as if she owns the place.
The emotional factor: Just as I expect, I feel as if the music encompasses me. By the second movement, my eyes tear up. One drop dribbles down the interior architecture of my white KN95 mask, which is much more annoying than it sounds. I’ve been listening to the Liszt No. 1 repeatedly since I got the chance to interview Yang a week ago, but nothing — not the close confines of over-the-ear headphones, not the best stereo speaker — is a substitute for a real pianist in a real orchestra. It’s lovely.
Up next: Hotoda follows the emotional wallop of the Liszt with African-American composer George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” a 1946 piece that feels both rousing and poignant. Walker dedicated the piece to his grandmother, who died the year before he wrote it. While listening, I was struck by the thought that all songs die a tiny death when they end — the music ceases to live, and the best you can do to continue is to replay it — but this piece’s intense, shimmering finale seems a far more literal interpretation of departing this world. I am, once again, utterly absorbed.
Finally: Rounding out the program is Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”), which builds slowly to a sense of vigor and optimism. Throughout, Hotoda is a powerhouse on the podium. After so many hours of making music on Zoom or in front of video cameras, she obviously relishes the chance to conduct for a live audience. Her players, too, look and sound invigorated. At the end, as they’re taking bows, I can swear I see them smiling behind their masks.