With the new work ‘DANCE,’ Fresno Philharmonic joins the California Festival in promoting new music
When it comes to playing new classical music, the Fresno Philharmonic has long been ahead of the curve. For years, music director Rei Hotoda has championed contemporary composers and made it a point to highlight their works.
Now, with the newly minted California Festival, it’s clear that orchestras and ensembles across the state are embracing new music in the same way.
More than 100 musical organizations in California are performing concerts in the festival, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 19, across the state in a coordinated effort. To be part of the festival, all of the participating ensembles are required to feature at least one piece composed within the last five years.
The Fresno Philharmonic joins the “virtual” festival with its Masterworks concert this weekend (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at Shaghoian Hall). The program includes Anna Clyne’s “DANCE,” written for cello soloist Inbal Segev, which was inspired by lines from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. The piece premiered in 2019, just months before the pandemic.
Also on the program is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and George Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony,” one of the first American works to fuse jazz and classical music.
For Segev, herself a champion of new music, learning about the inclusion of her Fresno performance in the California Festival made her smile.
“It was a really nice surprise,” she tells me in a phone interview soon after her arrival in Fresno this week. (It’s her first visit to the city.).
“DANCE” is a new-music success story. The concerto reached the 10-million-listen mark on Spotify and was named to NPR Music’s “Favorite Songs of 2020.”
Segev has long been a proponent of new music. She launched the “20 for 2020” project, commissioning new chamber works from 20 of today’s most compelling composers, according to her website, including John Luther Adams, Viet Cuong and Angélica Negrón, for a music video series and four-volume Avie Records set “to document the challenging year.”
“DANCE” takes inspiration from Rumi’s poetry. The idea was Clyne’s. (“It is mostly not a committee situation,” Segev says about the dynamic between composer and artist.)
Reviewing the album – which pairs the new piece with Edward Elgar’s famed Cello Concerto – for San Francisco Classical Voice, Richard S. Ginell writes:
At first glance, the word “dance” might be misleading, for there is nothing dance-like in a literal sense that I can hear anywhere in this piece. Rather, the basis for the title is a pithy poem by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi that determined the concerto’s five-movement structure and is worth quoting in full:
Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance, in the middle of the fighting.
Dance, in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
For Segev, the words can still give her goosebumps. The piece’s mood, which Ginell describes as textured with a “yearning Hebraic flavor aimed squarely at the soloist’s heritage,” feels like an antidote to societal turbulence.
“It’s serene in a time that a lot of people had anxiety,” Segev says.
Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Clements notes: “The concerto as a whole is utterly personal, blending musical materials in a way that is entirely Clyne’s own. Sometimes she borrows from folk music – she particularly singles out Jewish and Irish echoes in her melodic writing – and sometimes from classical models, especially baroque, but the fusion is always gorgeously rich and compelling.”
As for the piece’s popularity – no doubt elevated by Segev’s enthusiastic embrace of social media – it helps that the piece is accessible to audiences in terms of tonality. This is not the new classical music of the latter 20th century, much of which seemed rigid and mechanical, but rather strives for an emotional connection.
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Though the piece was written several years ago, the Israeli-born Segev is obviously going through a terrible time in the present, considering the war in Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism around the U.S. For her, the message of “DANCE” offers solace.
And the fact that it is a piece by a living, breathing composer also pleases her. Even more pleasing is its connection to the California Festival, where more than 180 new works are being performed.
Stephen Wilson, executive director and CEO of the Fresno Philharmonic, is pleased that the festival – which was organized by the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Diego Symphony – was able to make such a strong case for new classical music.
That fits with the forward-looking feel of orchestras across the state, which, like Fresno, have been strong proponents of living composers. There is a unique identity to the classical music scene in California.
For local open-minded music patrons, the statewide festival is something of a vindication.
“This is not just some preoccupation of the Fresno Philharmonic,” Wilson says. “This is a real thing.”