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Weekend pick: the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra

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Conductor Thomas Loewenheim has crafted a powerhouse program for the opening concert of the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, which will be held 8 p.m. Saturday at the Concert Hall. Titled “Towards the Known and Unknown,” the concert will feature the Fresno State Concert Choir and Teresa Beamn on flute in Liebermann’s Flute Concerto, Vaughan Williams’ “Towards the Unknown Region and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

I checked in with Loewenheim to ask him about the concert and about the direction the orchestra is taking.

Question: What were your thoughts in terms of programming this first concert?

Answer: I always strive to program a variety of pieces that will be attractive to the audience, interesting for the musicians, easy for people who don’t go to concerts frequently, and exciting for people who have already heard it all. There has to be a balance between all of these, and if the musicians feel excited about the program, it usually comes across to the audience. In this program, we have known and less known pieces, hence the title, “Towards the Known and Unknown.” It is also a word game on the title of the Vaughan Williams. In terms of the collaborations in this program, I always enjoy accompanying my colleagues and have our students hear their teachers play. It gives the professors a whole new level of respect from the students, who usually see them only in the class room. Also collaborating with the choir is always great as the students don’t get to work much across the disciplines due to their busy schedules. Opportunities like this gets them always very excited and the sound of the orchestra and the voices combined is nothing short of amazing.

Tell us a little about the Liebermann flute concerto.

Lowell Liebermann is an active performer (piano), conductor, as well as a composer. His Concerto for Flute and Orchestra was commissioned and premiered in 1992 by the famous flautist James Galway. His work can be described as neo-romantic, drawing from many 20th century influences like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and many Hollywood composers.

It is considered one of the most difficult flute concerti, and has many exciting parts for both the solo flutist and the orchestra. I especially like how he constantly switches the melodies between the Flute and the orchestra, changing who is accompanying whom at different times. The last movement is the most exciting as it is very fast, energetic, and virtuosic for both the soloist and the orchestra.

With the symphony and concert choir collaborating together on the Vaughn Williams piece, how many musicians will be performing?

The choir has 66 members and the orchestra has 67 members – which totals 173 musicians on stage. Since Dr. Anna Hamre conducts the work, I was able to listen to the orchestra and the choir rehearse on stage a couple of days ago, and was amazed to see all these musicians fill the stage with their presence, and fill the hall with sound. I think this is the best orchestra we had so far, and Dr. Hamre mentioned to me that it is the best choir she had since she came here as well, and we are both so excited about this special opportunity for our students to perform together.

Can you briefly tell us about the significance of the Vaughn Williams piece? What should a listener know going in to the piece?

“Toward the Unknown Region” was composed as part of a friendly challenge between friends. While studying at the Royal College of Music in England, Ralph Vaughan Williams met and befriended Gustov Holst, whose name you may know from his orchestral work, The Planets. They decided to have a little contest to see who could compose a better piece based on the same poem. The text is taken from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Darest Thou Now, O Soul.” Once both compositions were finished, it was decided between the two of them that Vaughn Williams had produced a better setting for the poem. The verdict was reached primarily because of the way that he explicitly tied the music to the text. For example: on the words “no map, there, nor guide”, the melody seems to be slightly lost by falling a half step from the pitch we expect to hear. The work is through composed and starts quite soft with a relatively thin orchestration and keeps growing in intensity and volume throughout until the very impressive and exciting ending, in which the entire orchestra, choir, and the pipe-organ all play together.

How does Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony rank in terms of difficulty for an orchestra?

Well, to be honest, before we started to work on it, I thought it was going to be quite easy to put it together as the piece is one of the most famous and most performed symphonies. However once we started rehearsals, I was amazed to find so many layers of depth in the music. Since we started to work on it more than a month ago, the orchestra kept improving and understanding these inner depth and emotional content of the work. Even today we managed to push the level one notch higher, adding more and more details. It might be that it is so hard because we all know it and have high expectations, but in addition to that, each part is quite difficult, and with Tchaikovsky, he always breaks the musical lines between the different sections in the orchestra, making it hard for the players to know when they have the main line, and when they need to back off a little bit and let the other sections shine. Getting the whole orchestra to know the score better has been quite challenging, but I feel like the musicians have learned to listen better, and learned to realize which of the different layers they are playing at each moment. It is also quite a long piece, and keeping the focus and the intensity required for a successful performance is quite challenging and exhausting – but the quality of the music and its amazing content make up for all the hard work that goes into it.

As the symphony begins its new season, how would you appraise its growth since you took over in the fall of 2007? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What do you think the future holds?

Until I first came here, the orchestra was a string orchestra only, focusing on that literature. With the help and support of my colleagues, we changed that and the orchestra became a symphony orchestra. The winds have always been very impressive at Fresno State because the department’s long tradition of wind orchestras. We had very few string students at the time, and I am so happy to this change so drastically each year. We now have a large and full string section with nine bass players, which gives the orchestra a great foundation to build upon when it comes to sound. The level of each player has also grown a lot so we are able to play more difficult and complex works. My goal is to give the students the feeling of what a professional orchestra sounds like and the works they can expect to perform when they join a professional group. With this in mind, I also make sure to give them more time to learn each piece, as by the time they will join a professional group, they will not have as many rehearsals for each program they will be performing in. Having more time gives us the opportunity to create our own sound and a more unified interpretation, which the audiences have seemed to enjoy very much.

As for the near future, we will be performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with our new violin professor, Dr. Limor Toren-Immerman, as well the Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony on Saturday, December 3, 2011 at the Paul Shaghoian Hall. In the winter semester we will perform Puccini’s La Boheme with the Fresno State Opera Workshop, under the directorship of Dr. Anthony Radford. This is the first full-production opera at Fresno State since I came here, and hopefully that will start a new tradition of opera in our department. I know everyone is extremely excited about this wonderful opportunity. These concerts will be on both March 2 and 4, 2012. We will also have our final concert featuring two new student compositions and the concerto competition winners on May 4, 2012.

What can we expect in the further future? If it is up to me: more members in the orchestra, an even higher level, more concerts per semester, and a lot more exciting music and music making, which I hope will generate excitement in our community and will develop the love for music amongst the students, the colleagues, and the community at large.

Responses to "Weekend pick: the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra"

Theodore Kuchar says:

The work and level which Dr. Loewenheim and the young musicians have achieved since 2007 has been nothing short of miraculous. I anxiously await hearing Saturday’s concert!