Fresno Philharmonic celebrates Bernstein


The violinist Jennifer Koh returned after more than 20 years to perform on Sunday with the Fresno Philharmonic. Back in 1996 she was a young college student bursting with talent; today she is seasoned veteran of the classical-music scene known not only for her virtuosic playing but also her initiatives to promote contemporary composers. A few thoughts on the concert:


Salute to American composers: All three composers on the program were American, and knowing that going in, it definitely colored my perception. In the first piece, John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” I found myself thinking of bustling cities and bright prospects. Instead of latching onto much of a melody, thanks to the minimalism of the score, my listening experience was guided by the precise jackhammer tempo and the sharp sense of building something. In fact, I thought of buildings, and in a weirdly specific way: I got this image of tall, graceful skyscrapers under construction, the hard-hatted workers nonchalantly sitting on high steel beams taking a lunch break, the wind whipping amiably past as they ate sandwiches and chugged hot coffee from heavy-duty thermoses. I thought of vast American cities taking shape. The percussion section got a workout, as it has several times this season, and the precision and driving energy of conductor Rei Hotoda’s baton gave the experience a crisp vitality.

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Jennifer Koh returns to Fresno Philharmonic with recipe for a flavorful Bernstein ‘Serenade’

Virtuoso violinist is helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth

Jennifer Koh played with the Fresno Philharmonic way back in 1996, so you’d forgive her for being a little hazy in the memory department when it comes to details. That was more than two decades ago, when the youthful talent was busy whipper-snapping her way into the elite ranks of the world’s concert violinists. Throughout the course of her significant career, she’s played lots of places.

It might come as a surprise, then, that as she returns to play with the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday, Feb. 25, Koh’s recollections are crystal clear about one particular detail from her Fresno visit. Not to be too dramatic about it or anything, but it changed her life.

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Jennifer Koh returns to play with the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday, Feb. 25. Photo / Juergen Frank

The music director of the Fresno Philharmonic at the time was Maestro Raymond Harvey. During rehearsal week, he invited the young Koh — a college student finishing up at Oberlin whose resume included making her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 and winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994 — to dinner at his Fresno High School-area home. He cooked a marvelous gourmet dinner for her, as he was known to do.

She was impressed. “How do you cook so well?” she asked.

Then she admitted to him that she was a complete klutz in the kitchen. How bad a cook was she at the time? Think of her at a level of starting-a-fire badness. (That really happened once when she tried to cook a steak that was frozen. She didn’t know she had to defrost it first.) Koh might have been a virtuoso violinist, but her culinary skills were seriously out of tune.

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Fresno Philharmonic gallops to glory with Hotoda at the reins


Forgive me in advance for the likely overwrought equine metaphor, but here’s what the Fresno Philharmonic made me think of after Sunday’s lively concert:

A tall, powerful, spirited and stately thoroughbred horse, one displaying a graceful rhythm and palpable sense of energy to its gait.

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Jack Perez, 8, enjoys his first visit to the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday. His mother, Caty Perez, won tickets to the concert from The Munro Review.

Holding the reins, of course, was Rei Hotoda, the orchestra’s new music director and conductor, who is infusing her first season with a passion and vitality that feels infectious. The orchestra looks happy. The audience looks happy. Attending a performance is like a day at the races when your bet pays off.

The orchestra overall sounded wonderful. Do I think the concert was perfect? No. (Read on.) But I think I’m in the minority.

Here’s a quick rundown:

The scene: A very good crowd in the Saroyan Theatre, gathered for an intriguing program consisting of a piece by Fresno composer Kenneth Froelich, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest artist Awadagin Pratt, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

The Froelich: Titled “Spinning Yarns,” this 8-minute work by the Fresno State composition professor was inspired by the jazz tradition of “trading fours,” referring to a point in which the horns and drummer improvise four-bars of music at a time. The fun thing about this piece — and that’s the operative word I’d use to describe it, fun — is that the “Yarns” of the title refers to obviously boisterous stories being swapped by the musicians. The effect is that of a series of spirited conversations unfolding in a crowded noisy room, perhaps a beer joint. Though the music has a driving, pounding quality to it — it’s quite a workout for the percussion — there’s also something familiar and even relaxing about its impact, the way the din of a dozen conversations can seem warm and friendly. I thought it was grand.

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5 Things to Know about Kenneth Froelich

With the Fresno State professor’s “Spinning Yarns” featured by the Fresno Philharmonic, get to know the composer. Plus: Win a pair of tickets to Sunday’s concert

You think the job market in your field is tough? Try being a composer. Not only are you competing against other living composers out there to have your works appreciated and performed, you’re also up against an even bigger pool of dead composers whose pieces are revered. It’s quite common for a typical professional symphony orchestra program to feature a lineup of composers who are all long gone. For the flesh-and-blood variety, it can be hard to be heard.

But that’s exactly what Kenneth Froelich, a Fresno State music composition professor, is achieving this weekend. At Sunday’s Masterworks concert, the Fresno Philharmonic will perform Froelich’s “Spinning Yarns.” (The program also includes guest soloist Awadagin Pratt in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.) To mark this notable event in Froelich’s career, here are 5 Things to Know about the piece and the composer — plus a bonus item about the rest of the concert. And go to the end of this post to learn how you can win two tickets to the event.

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Kenneth Froelich’s “Spinning Yarns” is featured in Sunday’s Fresno Philharmonic concert.


“Spinning Yarns” is inspired by a jazz concept. And it’s not the kind of yarn you might think.

In jazz, the term “trading fours” refers to a point in which the horns and drummer each improvise four-bars of music at a time, exchanging back and forth in a rather transparent musical dialog. The title “Spinning Yarns” evolved from this idea.

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A fond adieu to 2017

I’ve already told you my Top 20 favorite cultural events for 2017. Now here are a couple of year-ender wrap-up lists that I can’t resist:

My favorite stories of the year

My criteria: It’s completely subjective. I just like how these stories came out. For some, it was the fun in reporting them, and for others the joy in writing them. (Note: Because of my hybrid year — working through May as the Fresno Bee’s arts reporter, and the remainder of the year in my new role at The Munro Review — you’ll find stories from both platforms.) Here they are in chronological order:

In the moment of totality: my photograph taken from Mary’s Peak in central Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Photo / The Munro Review

In Delphi, a mysterious past provokes navel gazing: In this travel piece from Greece, I visit the strangely moody location where the famed oracles changed the ancient world.

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Audra McDonald to join Fresno Philharmonic for Memorial Day weekend concert

A hometown concert by Audra McDonald is rare — and always big news.

The Fresno Philharmonic will get that opportunity on May 26, when the Fresno-raised McDonald — who has won more Tony awards than any performer — will stop at the Saroyan Theatre on a West Coast swing of her concert tour.

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Audra McDonald will perform with her hometown orchestra on May 26. Photo / ©Autumn de Wilde

Andy Einhorn, a longtime musical collaborator of McDonald’s, will conduct.

Tickets for the general public will go on sale Dec. 18 and may be purchased at or by calling 559-261-0600. Fresno Philharmonic subscribers and donors have the opportunity to purchase tickets from Dec. 8-17. Ticket prices range from $35-$95.

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Win tickets to Fresno Philharmonic’s holiday concert

Conductor Rei Hotoda and orchestra celebrates the holidays with an acclaimed baritone soloist, the Fresno Master Chorale and more

UPDATE: Congratulations to winners Christina JG Connelly and Lisa Gluskin.

ORIGINAL POST: The Fresno Philharmonic has an appealing holiday concert planned for you this weekend. Guest artists for “Home for the Holidays” include the acclaimed baritone Jubilant Sykes, who has appeared in such venues as the Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Also joining conductor Rei Hotoda will be the Fresno Master Chorale, directed by Anna Hamre, and the Alta Sierra Intermediate School Chamber Choir, directed by Gail Barbour.

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Jubilant Sykes is guest soloist at “Home for the Holidays.” Photo / Fresno Philharmonic

A special treat will be Mark Standriff (who recently played Mushnik in StageWorks Fresno’s “Little Shop of Horrors”) narrating the classic “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

The concert is 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Saroyan Theatre.

And guess what! I have a pair of tickets to this popular concert to give away to a reader of The Munro Review.

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Getting to know Rei Hotoda

In an extensive profile, get a glimpse behind the scenes of the busy life of the Fresno Philharmonic’s new music director

The first few rehearsals between a symphony orchestra and an unfamiliar conductor can be magical. And perhaps a little nerve-racking. Everyone’s on their best behavior. If things go well, the rehearsals can feel fresh and pitched with possibility, offering hints of great things to come. Or they can be dreary affairs, stolid and workmanlike, an exercise to simply get through and then move on to more encouraging opportunities.

They’re like a first date.

Three generations: Rei Hotoda, center, with her son, Constantine Janello, and mother, Sachiko Hotoda, in the Saroyan Theatre lobby after the conductor’s first concert as Fresno Philharmonic music director. Photo / The Munro Review

At this afternoon rehearsal in October, as Rei Hotoda stands on the podium in front of the musicians of the Fresno Philharmonic, preparing for her very first concert as the orchestra’s newly named music director, there’s little chance for the dreary option.

After all, Hotoda was notably successful during the initial wooing process — her tryout week in Fresno back in March — when she charmed players, patrons, media and audience members alike. (And, most important, members of the orchestra’s search committee, which unanimously selected her out of six highly qualified finalists.)

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