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.

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

From the physical to the celestial, the Fresno Philharmonic reaches for the sky

You can win a pair of tickets to Sunday’s ‘Of Heaven and Earth,’ a program close to conductor Rei Hotoda’s heart

“I love the title ‘Of Heaven & Earth’ for this concert,” Rei Hotoda tells me. “It touches on the physical realm of where we are on this Earth, but also on the spiritual world of the heavens.”

As I’ve gotten to know Hotoda, who is finishing up her first season as music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, I can count on her to exude enthusiasm when talking about upcoming programs. (“Every time I get on an airplane to Fresno, I get so excited,” she says.) But I can tell there’s something extra special about Sunday’s (April 15) concert, the last Masterworks offering of the season, which will be performed at 3 p.m. at the Saroyan Theatre.

phil heaven and earth

For one thing, it includes several pieces that Hotoda is just wild about. Of Debussy’s “La Mer,” for example, she says: “I can’t say how much I love this piece. It’s one of the most incredible symphonic works ever written. If I could eat a piece, this would be the piece I would eat.”

Win two tickets to the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Of Heaven & Earth” concert. To enter this giveaway, leave a comment on this post telling us if you’ve ever let your cell phone go off in a concert or theater event and how you reacted. (Or, if you don’t want to ‘fess up, just say why you want to attend Sunday’s concert.) Deadline to enter is midnight today (Friday, April 13). Two pairs of tickets will be given away. The winners will be picked at random and notified by email.

She’s excited, too, about the diversity of the program: There are two living composers (Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” and Tan Dun’s “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” are featured), and two of the pieces (“La Mer” and “Passacaglia”) are examples of Asian-influenced music, one of Hotoda’s passions. Poulenc’s choral work “Gloria” is a remarkable version of the traditional Latin Mass.

Continue reading “From the physical to the celestial, the Fresno Philharmonic reaches for the sky”

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.

jennifer koh
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.

Continue reading “Jennifer Koh returns to Fresno Philharmonic with recipe for a flavorful Bernstein ‘Serenade’”

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.

phil photo 01.28.18
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.

Continue reading “Fresno Philharmonic gallops to glory with Hotoda at the reins”

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.

ken froelich
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.

Continue reading “5 Things to Know about Kenneth Froelich”

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.

Continue reading “A fond adieu to 2017”

A stellar launch as music director

Rei Hotoda’s inaugural concert as Fresno Philharmonic conductor is filled with passion, musicality and showmanship


She began her inaugural concert with a gracious smile and a long, deep bow. And she ended it with a dramatic stance: her left arm raised high in a power salute with baton pointed skyward, her other arm at rest by her side, creating an elegant asymmetry. It was a graceful yet assertive posture to end on, a follow-me pose, as if to say: I’m here to lead you to great things, and I’m going to do it in style.

Rei Hotoda knows how to make a memorable debut.


In her first concert Sunday afternoon as the Fresno Philharmonic’s newly appointed music director, Hotoda built on the momentum she started in her performance in April as guest conductor of the orchestra, when she was one of six candidates vying for the position. She wowed that audience with a combination of dynamic programming, crisp musicality, rapport with the musicians and a commanding sense of physicality on the podium that at times can be nearly balletic.

Continue reading “A stellar launch as music director”

Welcome to the podium

The Fresno Philharmonic celebrates a new era with the official arrival of Rei Hotoda as music director

Finally! After the long, hard haul of searching for a new conductor, the big day is finally here for patrons of the Fresno Philharmonic.

Rei Hotoda will officially take the podium on Sunday, Oct. 15, in her first concert as the orchestra’s new music director. She was the unanimous choice of the orchestra’s search committee after six finalists each conducted a Masterworks concert during the 2016-17 season.

Her debut marks a new era for the orchestra. So it’s fitting that the first piece played under her new tenure will be Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance.”

Taking up the baton: Rei Hotoda’s first piece will be “New Era Dance.” Photo /

She will be joined by guest artist Natasha Paremski, who will play the Grieg piano concerto. Paremski has played in many of the world’s great concert halls.

(I’m giving away two pairs of tickets to readers; see the end of this post for details on how to enter.)

Continue reading “Welcome to the podium”