Robert Nielsen is retiring from Fresno Community Concert Band, but not without one last ‘Bash’

After 25 years as conductor (and co-founder) of the Fresno Community Concert Band, Robert Nielsen is stepping down from the podium. He’s going out in style. “Bob’s Big Bash” — in the form of two concerts on Sunday, May 27 — promises to be a vibrant and poignant experience. There’s even a world premiere by Fresno City College’s Mike Dana (who, coincidentally, just retired). And just to give things a family spin, Irene Klug Nielsen, an accomplished flutist, will be featured soloist under her husband’s baton.

Robert Nielsen

Bob Nielsen took time to ruminate on the past 25 years and expound on the virtues of music made for the sheer love of it.

Q: Set the scene for us. It’s your very first rehearsal as conductor of the Fresno Community Concert Band. What year was it? Did they have electricity back then? (Just kidding.) Give us a sense of the time and place.

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From Gershwin to Elton John, pianist/singer Tony DeSare brings keyboard magic to Fresno Philharmonic

You can win a pair of tickets to Saturday’s pops concert at the Saroyan Theatre


With his recordings and busy touring concert schedule, Tony DeSare has lots of admirers. But it’s easy to figure out his No. 1 fan.

“My mother,” says the celebrated pianist, singer and songwriter, who headlines Saturday’s final Fresno Philharmonic pops concert of the season, titled “Great Balls of Fire.” (I’m giving away two pairs of tickets to the event; details are below.)

tony desare
Tony DeSare performs Saturday, May 12 with the Fresno Philharmonic.

It’s only fitting that on this Mother’s Day weekend, he will play one of his mom’s favorites, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” he tells me in a phone interview. Here’s a rundown on the concert:

The program: Along with Gershwin, DeSare will join with the orchestra to play songs by such favorites as Elton John, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Jerry Lewis and Irving Berlin. You can look forward to boogie-woogie, ragtime, straight-out pop and rock ‘n’ roll. “It’s for people who really love piano music,” he says. “I based the program on what I loved when I was a 10-year-old kid.”

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Feel the beat. No, really feel the beat.

The Lively Arts Foundation presents Drum TAO’s national tour of ‘Drum Heart’ at the Saroyan Theatre. You can win a four-pack of tickets

If you think you work long hours in your job, consider a typical day in the life of a Drum TAO company member on tour:

Meet in the hotel gym at 6:30 a.m. to hit the machines. After a vigorous workout of cardio and strength training, take a shower and eat breakfast. If it’s your first day in a city, arrive at the theater by 10:30 a.m. In Drum TAO, you do your own load-in — you unpack the trucks, carry in the equipment, set everything up on stage, tune the drums. Lunch is at 2 p.m. Continue pre-performance prep, any needed rehearsals, warm-ups. Shows are usually at 7:30 or 8 p.m. After the vigorous, high-octane production is over, you help strike the set and load the trucks. You’re back in the hotel after midnight.

drum tao
Drum TAO presents “Drum Heart” on Saturday, May 5, at the Saroyan Theatre.

Next day: Meet in the gym at 6:30 a.m. to hit the machines.

“We manage to keep in shape,” says Taro Harasaki, who has been in Drum TAO for 14 years.

You can win a family four-pack of tickets to Saturday’s performance of “Drum Heart” (7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5, Saroyan Theatre). To enter, leave a comment on this post telling why you’d like to go. Deadline to enter is 10 p.m. Friday, May 4, so this is a quick turnaround. I’ll pick the winner at random. Please don’t enter if you won’t be able to use the tickets. I’ll be informing the winner by email, so check yours Saturday morning.

That’s an understatement. Then again, the promotional image for the tour pretty much says it all: Most of the company members are clad in costumes baring their washboard abs. These guys and gals are not gorging on American fast food.

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The power of voice: Fresno Master Chorale bids adieu to season with stirring tribute to Bernstein


Catching up from the weekend:

When I listen to the Fresno Community Chorus, I often think of the raw, primeval, guts-and-all, human power of choral music. Sure, our ingenious brains have made possible the creation of musical instruments of all shapes and styles. Those instruments add immeasurably to our lives. But the voice came first. It remains special in terms of emotional connection.

I was reminded of this at the chorus’ spring concert on Sunday, which featured three of its illustrious ensembles — the Master Chorale, Coro Piccolo and a new group, Quintus — at Shaghoian Hall, along with a fine orchestra, all under the nuanced baton of Anna Hamre. Four pieces by Leonard Bernstein, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, were performed. In keeping with that “birthday” theme, several other celebratory pieces by other composers joined the program as well. Here are a few of my thoughts:


Festive air: The opening piece, Henry Purcell’s “Come ye Sons of Art,” had a bright and chipper air, especially the rousing final movement, “See Nature Rejoicing.” Purcell wrote the piece in 1694 in honor of Queen Mary’s birthday. (And what a gift. It certainly lasted a lot longer than a new taffeta gown or a balloon bouquet.) This could have just been an overly mechanical, anachronistic exercise, but Hamre and her singers brought a warmth and spontaneity to the piece that gave it a special zest. As I listened, I could imagine the queen sitting there in a festive tent, colorful pennants fluttering in the breeze, everyone wearing lots of wool (ah, how that must have smelled when it got wet), as she presided over an intimate lunch for, say, a few hundred of her closest friends.

Five guys singing: Quintus is the chorus’ male quintet, featuring Aaron Burdick, Thomas Hayes, Joe Camaquin Vigil, Nick Olsen and Riley Garcia. Their voices blended beautifully on Bernstein’s “One Hand, One Heart” and “Pirate Song.” Still, there was a bit of a tentative feel to their performance, almost a sluggishness to the beat (especially on “One Hand”), as if they need a little more confidence singing together.

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Donald’s list: Weekend choices (April 27)

Whether it’s cutting-edge chamber music or the classic play “The Crucible,” there are lots of options for the weekend. I’ve already filled you in on Good Company’s “The Heiress,” Jeremy Denk performing with Keyboard Concerts and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra in separate concerts, and the Fresno Community Chorus spring celebration of Leonard Bernstein. Here are even more choices:

‘The Crucible’

Don’t you love the poster for the new College of the Sequoias production? (Kudos to the designer.)

crucible poster

“The Crucible,” of course, is Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic play about the Salem witchcraft trials, but it can also be read as a searing allegory about McCarthyism or more generally mass hysteria in times of political unrest. The new production is set in a post-World War II small town that “feels eerily close to our own.”

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In salute to Bernstein, Fresno Community Chorus tackles ‘Chichester Psalms’ and other works

The chorus’ Master Chorale, Coro Piccolo and Quintus ensembles celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth

Leonard Bernstein, the famed conductor and composer, is getting a lot of attention in 2018. And for good reason: It’s the 100th anniversary of his birth. The Fresno Community Chorus is getting in on the celebration with a spring concert that devotes a big chunk of the program to Bernstein. It takes place 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at the Shaghoian Concert Hall.

Here’s a rundown:

The marquee piece: Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” will be performed by the Fresno Master Chorale, the chorus’ largest ensemble. The text was created with the juxtaposition of segments of Psalms (including all of Psalms 100, 23, 131, and parts of 108, 2, and 133). Most familiar, of course, is the 23rd Psalm, says conductor Anna Hamre, which starts with, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

bernstein poster 2

The background: Bernstein insisted that, in depicting young King David, the solo be sung by either a countertenor or a boy. So, while there isn’t a specific familiar Bible story, there is nevertheless a tale being told. Hamre tells me: “The end of the second movement includes the fiendishly difficult section where the text translates as ‘Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?’ Within a few measures, the treble voices intone above this war-like text with the words “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Bernstein’s notes instruct the treble voices to sing that segment “blissfully unaware of threat.”

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This weekend, it’s Jeremy Denk times two

Noted pianist (and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow) performs with Keyboard Concerts and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra

When you have an artist with the prestige and virtuosity of pianist Jeremy Denk come to town, why not double the impact? That was the thinking of Keyboard Concerts and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, which are both putting the spotlight on Denk in separate concerts this weekend.

Denk returns to the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series for an 8 p.m. performance on Friday, April 27, at Fresno State’s Concert Hall. The next evening, at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in the same location, Denk will perform Beethoven’s famed “Emperor” piano concerto with the Fresno State orchestra.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
Jeremy Denk performs with Keyboard Concerts and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra. Photo / © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Denk is a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award. He’s written for The New Yorker magazine and has a popular blog. His musical collaborators have included Joshua Bell and Steven Isserliss, and his recordings have reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Chart.

How is Fresno lucky enough to have not one but two Denk performances?

Andreas Werz, artistic director of Keyboard Concerts, explains that the timing was fortuitous.

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In season’s most moving Masterworks concert, Fresno Philharmonic offers music for the soul

Music director Rei Hotoda guides the orchestra through an emotional and intellectually vibrant program


I can now say I’ve played with the Fresno Philharmonic. Just call me 2nd Cellphone, 143rd Chair.

At Sunday’s concert in the Saroyan Theatre, I held my “instrument” aloft during composer Tan Dun’s spirited “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds.” For 54 seconds, as my phone chirped and sang with noises that sounded like an aviary at feeding time, I became part of the orchestra.

tan dun

Was it just a gimmick? I can see how some might feel that way. But in the context of Tan Dun’s buoyant piece, whose bevy of sound effects includes clapping, snapping and cooing by the musicians (and not just the percussionists), the audience participation felt like an integral part of the experience. In those 54 seconds, that usually unbridgeable gap between the orchestra and audience disappeared. We were in this together.

It was wonderful.

Sunday’s concert, titled “Heaven & Earth,” had a theme of mysticism and spirituality. It wasn’t just about religious or “sacred” music, mind you, though Poulenc’s “Gloria” falls into that category.

Instead, music director Rei Hotoda crafted a program that was catholic in the true sense of the “small c” version of the word. It felt encompassing. It resonated both intellectually and emotionally. It was, for me, the most moving concert I heard all season. I’m still thinking about it days later.

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