Critic’s notebook: With Hotoda on the podium, Fresno Philharmonic Masterworks concert soars

After a welcome two-week vacation and the first weeks of the new semester, I’m catching up with stories. Here’s my take on the Fresno Philharmonic’s Jan. 22 Masterworks concert:

Looking for a quick energy boost? Skip the Red Bull. Dump the double espresso. The best way to jolt your day is to sit and listen to the Fresno Philharmonic perform Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite.”

Music director Rei Hotoda closed the program with the iconic “Firebird” in a performance that had audience members up on their feet and practically gliding out of the Saroyan Theatre.

Narek Hakhnazaryan

Hotoda titled the program “Bird Tales,” and the titles of several of the pieces fit into the theme. Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” performed with impeccable grace by guest artist Narek Hakhnazaryan, seemed to float over the audience, its familiar melody so well known it was almost sedating.

He followed that short selection with the Saint-Saens cello concerto, bringing a master’s touch to the achingly beautiful piece. I had a wonderful interview with Hakhnazaryan a few days before the concert, and he told me it’s as if he’s two different people onstage and off. For him, the audience doesn’t matter as much as the spell of the music – which can lead to some pretty intense rehearsals – and I could sense the way he drifted into that special “head space” that signified a communion of sorts between musician and composer.


The lineup included Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome,” which was the kind of piece that is easy to fall into as a listener. I could imagine birds fluttering on an airy, sunny day and plopping into the water, delicately shaking their wings in a welcome bath. Also, Audrey Hepburn walking by. The second movement in particular was thrilling and exhilarating.

Hotoda has always had canny programming instincts, and in this concert she deftly balanced the new and challenging with the old and familiar. The opening piece was Siamak Aghaei and Colin Jacobsen’s exhilarating “Ascending Bird,” based on a Persian folk tune, which felt magical, mysterious and ethereal. (At one point the eerie undertones almost made me think the Saroyan plumbing was whining in the walls.) Hotoda used the orchestra members themselves in a physical way, having three soloists stand as they played, and then, in a choreographed finale, bringing the entire ensemble to its feet. The movements brought a kinetic feel to the piece, and I like to think they also took the musicians a bit out of their comfort zones, which added to the whirling, slightly woozy feel. I loved it.

The true crowd favorite, however, was the “Firebird.” The music is familiar enough to most that it’s comforting, and it’s vibrant enough to keep you on your toes, especially when played with the precision and intuition of a professional symphony orchestra. For me, I can’t help an immediate, visceral connection that comes whenever I hear the piece: I played an arrangement of it in my college marching band, complete with our star baton artist twirling with real flame. (How they got the Cal Poly Fire Department to sign off on said stunt is lost to history.) Near the end, when the piece slows down to the grand finale, we shifted into marching high-step style on every other beat, as dramatic as a Broadway-musical high-kick chorus line, our feet pounding the field as the fire spun above. How could I forget that?

For the Fresno Philharmonic, the magic happened a little earlier in the lead-up to the finale, at the thwack of a tempo change that shifts the piece into a faster tempo. Even though I knew that moment was coming, it still caught me by surprise, with a whip-crack of sharp, shrill alarm. Hotoda never let the tempo transform into mush, instead giving us a sense of controlled momentum. By the end, I thought of two words: crowd pleaser. There might not have been a fire-flinging baton twirler on stage, but just like in college, I’d say some memories were made in the Saroyan as well.

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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.

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  • Gerald Palladino



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