Critic’s notebook: Recap of December performances features ‘Violins of Hope,’ Soli Deo Gloria, Tower Quartet, CMT’s ‘Descendants’ and Coro Piccolo
Here are some of the notable events I attended in December:
‘Violins of Hope,’ Fresno State Symphony Orchestra (Dec. 4, Fresno State Concert Hall)
Not many orchestra concerts start with a rabbi lighting the menorah for the seventh night of Hanukkah. But the religious ceremony, which included conductor Thomas Loewenheim and his two young children singing the traditional prayers, along with Fresno rabbi Rabbi Rick Weiner, was a fitting beginning to a memorable evening focusing on works by Jewish composers. More than just a theme concert, however, the “Violins of Hope” program became an emotional journey for the audience.
The stars of the show were 11 restored instruments (10 violins and one cello) used by Jewish inmates in German concentration camps during World War II. They are part of a traveling program from Violins of Hope Los Angeles County. Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom are famed Israeli instrument restorers whose push to tell the world about these remarkable strings is both a physical rehabilitation – some of the instruments are 300 years old – and a psychological cleansing, as new generations confront the terrors of the Holocaust.
The orchestra did not sound as solid and confident as I’ve heard in years past. (No doubt the lost Covid year had an impact.) There were still some terrific musical moments, however.
Two highlights from the concert:
• Fresno State violin professor and soloist Limor Toren-Immerman offered an especially lovely third movement from John Williams’ cinematic score for “Schindler’s List.”
• I was intrigued by the tumble and nuance of Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” symphony, with its brightly assertive and complicated first movement and the more pensive second movement. Based on images from a large altarpiece showcasing religious sculptures and paintings from the Renaissance, there is a historical feel to the symphony, and I could sense a parallel to the political situation in Germany in the 1930s leading up to full-scale Nazi atrocities. In the second movement, an ominous undercurrent reminded me of a fog bank slowly rolling in over Europe. (Is that me reading too much historically into things after the fact?) In the third and final movement, the music turns sharply aggressive, with punctuations of menace (explosions?) that reminded me of those old films of German tanks blitzkrieging across the Polish border.
Honora Chapman, dean of Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities, mentioned in her introductory remarks how these violins came to Fresno “at a very important time.” She’s right. The concert came in the same week as the revelations that Henry Madden, for whom the campus library is named, was a Nazi sympathizer. Following Chapman, we heard from Susanne Reyto, chairman of the L.A. Violins of Hope chapter. I liked best what she had to say about how you can hold a violin close to your heart and perhaps even feel the vibrations and connection to the people who played it before. “These instruments have endured,” she said. “They are the storytellers.”
Indeed. It’s a story we can’t afford to forget.
‘Christmas Voices,’ Soli Deo Gloria (Dec. 10, University Presbyterian Church)
What a pleasure to welcome Soli Deo Gloria, the acclaimed local women’s chorale, back to live performance. In the charming concert “Christmas Voices,” Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” took up a good chunk of the program, and the procession at the beginning and recession at the end put us in the round with the singers, always a way to feel immersed in a concert. (Guest soloist Laura Porter on harp was stunning.) I loved the variety of this piece and the compelling musical textures, with the soloists (Heidi Orender, Ellen Salazar, Nancy Holly, Laura Ramirez and Haley Aldape) each delicately soaring over the music with confidence.
Other highlights included “Coventry Carol” (arranged by a local, Greg Lapp), which offered a lot of holiday pep and bounce; two enticing versions of “Jingle Bells”; a sly “Santa Baby” (perhaps as sexy as it’s ever gotten in University Presbyterian Church; and a thoroughly inspiring “Go Where I Send Thee!” Music director Julie Carter coaxed an impressive, balanced sound from the ensemble. “We have missed singing,” she told the audience, and I could tell she meant it.
The Tower Quartet (Dec. 11, University Presbyterian Church)
Yet another pleasurable return to live performance! The Tower Quartet (Lianna Elmore, Erin Adams, Kelvin Diaz Inoa and Matthew Smoke) has carved out a reputation for innovative programming, zesty delivery and an inclusive, youthful vibe that blows every bit of dust off the words “chamber music.” This return-from-Covid concert (which was repeated the night earlier in Selma), titled “The Eternal Question,” was by turn exhilarating, dynamic, athletic and incredibly tender. The program included a commissioned piece by Fresno State professor Bryce Cannell. His “Ash Tree Sketches,” or “Bocetos de fresno,” was individually crafted for the quartet, featuring “four rearrangeable sketches that illustrate the predilections and personalities of each member.”
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The Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3 included an ending so soft, supple and delicate that it could make you weep. And the Brahms Piano Quintet, featuring guest artist Drew Quiring, affected me profoundly. This classic piece, with its interludes of folk-music inspired buoyancy, is uplifting. But there are also passages of melancholy, ache and sorrow. I loved the way the piano and the strings seemed to feed off each other, each allowing the other to swell and recede.
It all felt rather complicated and grown-up, the way you can be walking down a street thinking about the day and flash through several moods in quick succession: dreamy speculation, a pit of resignation, tentative hope, unbridled joy (like when I think of my dog, Tillie, at home waiting to welcome me). Life is complicated. Brahms is complicated.
‘Descendants,’ Children’s Musical Theaterworks (Dec. 12, Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium)
Gotta be honest: The sound at the performance I attended of “Disney’s Descendants” was really muffled in the first act, and that heavily impacted my viewing experience. I hate to ding a show for being extra safe and having its performers wear masks, but the result was mushy lyrics that were often, to me, not understandable. I do know that the sound seemed to improve in the second act; I don’t know if it was because my hearing had become more attuned to the environment, but things definitely seemed to be making more sense for me, lyrics-wise.
Director Rachel Hibler staged some very nice moments. And I could tell throughout that the cast was energetic and obviously connected with the material. Among my favorites: Alexis Shelton, as Evie, daughter of the Evil Queen. And the number “Chilliin’ Like a Villain” had some particularly fine dance moves.
A big shout-out to scenic designer Rebecca Krantz, a Fresno City College student, for her clever set. Her design won a Fresno City College contest. I liked the way the two large pieces of the set deftly swung around to create smooth transitions between the upright world of the Disney heroes and the graffiti-slathered tumult of the villains. (Idea for a thought piece that I could write one day: “Descendants” has a distinct anti-urban, pro-suburban/rural bias, but, then again, so does the U.S. Constitution.) It was fun to see something new and obviously so current for the kids. To have young people think of theater as fun is one of the most important things of all.
‘And Suddenly With the Angels,’ Coro Piccolo (Dec. 12, Willow Avenue Mennonite Church)
First, I’d like to acknowledge Alan Peters, a veteran narrator for the Fresno Community Chorus, for his tremendous presence as a narrator. Peters guided us through a spiritually themed program by Coro Piccolo (a smaller choir under the umbrella of FCC) that included inspiring versions of “Divinum Mysterium,” the delightful “Patapan” (adapted from a Burgundian Carol), and some choice excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, all conducted by Anna Hamre and accompanied by collaborative pianist Joungmin Sur and a first-rate instrumental ensemble.
Among my favorites were two charming movements from Saint-Saens’ “Oratorio de Noel. In terms of sheer gorgeousness per square inch, Ola Gjeilo’s “Ecce Novum” soared into a stratosphere of lushness – and featured a stellar “Amen” by the tenor section.
Then there was Morten Luridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” a fitting finale for a concert devoted to the mysteries of Christianity. Throughout, Hamre led the ensemble with a precision and depth of feeling that made it sound both meticulously prepared and emotionally spontaneous.
With his narration, Peters tied all this together. He reminded us that the spoken human voice can also be musical. And that music itself is what humans need.