First Masterworks concert of the season: Fresno Philharmonic decides it’s time to dance
Shall we dance? With its opening concert of the season on Sept. 25, the Fresno Philharmonic extended an elegant arm and swept its audience onto the dance floor, at least in their heads. Conductor and music director Rei Hotoda is never far from dancing on the podium anyway, and with Sunday’s outing at Saroyan Theatre, she and the orchestra offered a rousing, kinetic experience. Here’s a rundown:
The scene: It seemed to me a stubbornly smaller crowd in the theater. I don’t think it’s fear of Covid anymore that is keeping audiences at home. My guess is that people have gotten so accustomed to sinking deep into their sofas and communing with their ever larger TVs that it’s much harder these days to lure them out on the town. It’s too bad, because live music – especially with a large and accomplished roster of musicians like you find in the Fresno Philharmonic – is everything that streaming is not: It’s in the moment, charged with uncertainty and suffused with that kind of cracking energy that only comes from witnessing a moment that will never be repeated in quite the same way again. Here’s hoping that as people get their concert legs back, audiences will increase.
The premiere: He isn’t quite local, but composer Juan Pablo Contreras is certainly an honorary Fresno adoptee. (The week before the concert, he even recorded a Facebook video message encouraging people to attend.) He was in the audience and introduced the commissioned piece, titled “MeChicano,” his first as a Mexican-American composer. (He recently became an American citizen.) “I was inspired by Fresno so I’m super excited to share it with you,” he said.
“MeChicano”: It’s pronounced “Meh,” as in Mexican, instead of “Me.” Contreras points to a number of influences for the piece, including Los Tigres de Norte, Selena and Richie Valens. One inspiration was Beto Garcia y Sus GGs, a dance-style “orquesta” based in Fresno that played in dance-club settings. The piece felt bright and rhythmic, with a sweeping, cinematic quality, almost like the overture for a musical. What I liked best was how it set a scene in my mind. I could feel a late-summer Saturday night: the faint heat radiating from the street after a toasty afternoon, with the streetlights outside the club kicking on as the sun sets. Men with slick, combed hair and cleaned, pressed shirts escorting women in colorful dresses, hair and makeup just so. The couples strut into the club and its vibrant, welcoming sound. There is talking, and laughter, and the sense that the hard work of the week is left behind as the dancing takes hold.
My take: While I really like “MeChicano’s” vibrant style and sense of place, this isn’t my favorite Contreras piece. The transitions between the musical styles seemed too abrupt – again, reminding me of a Broadway overture – and the sound sometimes cluttered and messy. Still, there is a great physicality and movement to the piece, and the audience rewarded it with robust applause.
The soloist: The famed South Korean violinist Chee-Yun brought a glittery, celebratory air to the Fresno Philharmonic’s dance party, delivering the five-movement “Symphonie espagnole” with numerous virtuosic moments of incredible music. I loved the connection that Hotoda, on the podium, seemed to have with Chee-Yun, both of them in sync in a syncopation of movement and dance. In the fourth movement, the piece calls for a violin run of enormous speed and range. She did it so smoothly and gracefully it was like watching a firefighter sliding down the world’s longest fire pole. For that, I invented on the spot a term with an unwieldy acronym: ICBAHCMASLT. Which stands for I Can’t Believe a Human Can Make a Sound Like That. (I’ll have to remember it for the future.)
The Rachmaninoff: The master composer’s “Symphonic Dances,” his last major work, made for a lively ending to a dance-themed concert. There’s a pronounced “Russian feel” lilt to the work that made me think of peasant blouses and richly laden carts. Hotoda exuded confidence and control from the podium.
The takeaway: The concert was rousing, festive and full of life. Which is all that live music should be. Hotoda and the orchestra certainly know their way around a dance floor.