For Grammy winner Eugene Friesen, a special Fresno Pacific concert means coming home
Fate didn’t bring the 10-year-old Eugene Friesen and the cello together. It was his father.
Here’s how the selection process worked in Dietrich Friesen’s household:
“When it came time to choose our instruments, I mimicked the gestures of playing the trombone,” says Eugene Friesen, whose father was a beloved music professor at Fresno Pacific University for decades. “He just turned pale, and promptly brought me a cello.”
Would Eugene’s life have been vastly different if it weren’t for that moment? Would he be a world-famous trombonist? He doesn’t waste any time musing on what his career trajectory would have been like if he hadn’t hooked up with the instrument that has brought him such prestige and fame. The four Grammy Awards, the longtime spot in the famed Paul Winter Consort, the solo albums, the acclaimed music-education tours – they all spring from that parental decision.
“My cello has been my lifelong companion,” he says.
In a wonderful homecoming moment, Eugene Friesen will appear at Fresno Pacific (7 p.m. Saturday, March 18) in a concert titled “The Beauty of Love.” It will also feature his brother, Milton Friesen, a retired music educator, worship pastor and vocal soloist; Eugene’s wife, Elizabeth Rogers, a singer-songwriter; and pop singer Sara Renee Murray. You can learn more about the concert on the FPU website.
I spoke with Eugene earlier this week – he was walking down a street in Boston when I first called – and enjoyed hearing about how Fresno (and Fresno Pacific) played such a key role in his life. Some highlights from our conversation:
Dietrich Friesen brought his young family to the West Coast to teach at what would become Fresno Pacific University. His specialty was sacred choral music, and it was under his direction that the university’s choirs gained prominence. One of Friesen’s accomplishments was founding the Fresno Oratorio Society. (When he retired in the late 1970s, that organization retired as well. Dietrich Friesen died in 1988.)
He exposed his children to music at an early age, of course. But Eugene never felt any particular pressure to follow in his father’s choral footsteps. His brother Milton – who studied choral music and is a fine pianist – was his first collaborator. By the time Eugene was set up with the cello, he knew he wanted to be an instrumentalist.
His first was Pearl Winter, a cellist in the Fresno Philharmonic. Eugene remembers that at one point when his family had to pause his cello lessons because of finances, Mrs. Winter taught him for free. Another teacher who made an impact was Larry Huck at McLane High School, who taught his students harmony, something that wasn’t usually done with that age group. That helped launch Eugene, who graduated in 1970, into the world of improvisation, one of his great joys.
Soon he was playing in the Fresno Philharmonic.
“Fresno was an amazing place to be a young musician,” he says.
In his college career, Eugene knew he wanted to focus on music and to skip the rest. After one semester at Fresno Pacific, he transferred to Fresno State, where he studied with Fred Dempster on cello (and assiduously avoided non-music classes). He also would make a crucial connection there that would forever alter the trajectory of his career.
Paul Winter, who in 1962 had played the first jazz concert ever at the White House at the invitation of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, was a notable name when he visited Fresno State as a guest artist in 1973 to teach a workshop in improvisation. Eugene was in a practice room when the workshop started. In popped another Winter – this one James Winter, chair of the music department – who asked why Eugene wasn’t at the workshop.
He didn’t have the $2 fee, Eugene replied.
Winter paid it for him.
Eugene was a hit at the workshop.
“At that time I hadn’t been exposed to great artists before,” Eugene says. “Someone of his caliber and celebrity in that world I was not accustomed to. What really shocked me was how approachable and kind he was. There was not a trace of superiority or arrogance about him.”
Fast forward five years. Eugene by that time had moved on to Cal State Northridge and then to the Yale School of Music, where he received a certificate in music. Paul Winter, meanwhile, suddenly had an opening for a cellist. A memory stirred of a young player at Fresno State who’d mightily impressed him.
And the rest – 20 albums and four Grammys later – is history.
Back to Fresno Pacific
When Fresno Pacific moved to its new campus on Chestnut and Butler avenues, the first building housed everything – including the music classrooms. Concerts were held at the dining hall. Later they were held in the new gym.
Now the campus has a sparkling new performing arts building, the Warkentine Culture and Arts Center. Eugene Friesen has never seen it. He’s looking forward to performing there.
As an artist, his output has been eclectic over a long career. Along with his role in the Paul Winter Consort, his solo albums include original music, classic composers such as J.S. Bach, electronics, natural soundscapes (including humpback whales) and the poetry of Rumi, all to “paint a portrait of a world united in hope,” as he puts it.
Twenty years of teaching at the Berklee School of Music in Boston has kept him close to young people. So has his solo show, “Cello Man,” which is aimed toward students. His latest CD, “In Harmony,” was released in 2022. Through it all, improvisation remains key.
At the Fresno Pacific concert, a healthy chunk of extended Friesen family will be in the audience, including nephews, nieces, grandchildren and grand-nieces – between 20 and 30 in all.
You could call it a family reunion.
“I feel so grateful to be raised up in a devout and musical family,” he says.
They’d probably still turn out to hear him even if he were playing the trombone.