The scene: the Shaghoian Concert Hall on Sunday evening for the “Love Conquers All” dessert-auction fund raiser for the Youth Orchestras of Fresno. On stage: the 120 members of the advanced Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, looking elegantly older than their years in concert dress, with a nearly full house of family, friends and opera lovers in the audience.
On the podium: the always energetic Thomas Loewenheim, who manages to seem both crisply professional and indulgently paternalistic when it comes to contemplating his vast brood of budding musicians.
The entrance: First the orchestra performs the prelude to “Rigoletto.” Then, as the players strike up the opening notes of the famous aria “La donna e mobile” — if I could just hum a few bars in print I’m sure you’d instantly take up the tune — we hear the soloist, Scott Piper, from the back of the auditorium. He strides down the side aisle and then through the center of the house, voice booming, and as he passes directly in front of my seat, I swear I can actually feel the sound vibrations emanating from him. He’s like a human sub-woofer.
The energy: It’s palpable. Piper, an acclaimed professional singer, has a joyous, infectiously warm demeanor that makes clear he loves opera — and these kids. As for the musicians, accompanying opera singers is a tough business, and even when the orchestra sounds young in terms of musical texture and intonation, the attitude and self-confidence of the players is positively grown-up.
The diva: Layna Chianakas is on hand, too, making a fitting professional companion to Piper, pouring much more emotion and drama into her arias than you usually see in a concert setting.
The encore: After a boisterous finale of “Carmen,” Piper takes the stage one last time for the wildly popular “Nessun dorma.” He’s joined at the conclusion by Chianakas, ending the evening on a sweeping, extravagant note. For a concert built around an intermission bidding on fancy desserts, the folks with musical sweet tooths were the ones who walked out with the real sugar high.