(Note: The concert will be repeated 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre. For details, go to fresnophil.org.)
The scene Saturday night for the “Beloved Beethoven” Fresno Philharmonic concert: Lively, to say the least. There was a big audience at the Saroyan Theatre, and two other events next door — a hockey game and winter formal — created a big traffic bottleneck. Cars were backed up on Highway 41 waiting to exit (there was a rear-end accident to the side of the road just before the offramp, which I’m assuming was related to the backed-up traffic), and a chunk of people didn’t make it to their seats in time for the orchestra’s first piece, Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture.” In fact, traffic was so bad that guest artist Elena Urioste barely reached the hall in time for the start of the concert. Just a few minutes before 8 p.m., she was seen sprinting toward the stage door wearing street clothes.
The music: Inside the hall, however, all was much more pleasant. The “Coriolan,” with its boisterous martial theme mixed with more tender and lyrical interludes, was a rousing way to start a program of what conductor Theodore Kuchar later explained was a focus on Beethoven’s important “middle period,” which sparked a classical music revolution. That was followed by Beethoven’s stirring Violin Concerto, which showed off Urioste’s virtuosic talents. The second half of the program: the massive Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” at a running time of nearly 50 minutes.
The soloist: When Urioste took the stage in a gorgeous, floor-length, deep-green gown, there was an audible reaction from the audience: She looked stunning. But it wasn’t her beauty that transfixed the audience. She powered through the concerto with a sophisticated balance of youthful ardor and cool grace, and in the most technically challenging movement, the 2nd, or Larghetto, she reached fiery heights. Even when a few of her whirlwind runs felt to me a little tentative, her confidence on stage compensated. Apart from the notes themselves, what stood out above all else was her joy. There’s no other word for it. Time and again a big smile would spread across her face, and at moments of rest, with just the orchestra playing, she almost seemed in a dreamy reverie. Most important, she connected with the audience, and you could just sense the goodwill in the air. (She even got a semi-standing ovation after the first movement, and Maestro Kuchar had to gesture the standees down so the piece could continue.) In a recent interview she said, “I really, really love being in front of an orchestra. I feel that I am my boldest self in that scenario.” You can tell.
My favorite moment: As much as I enjoyed the Violin Concerto, it was the orchestra’s “Eroica,” which took the entire second half of the program, that was the pinnacle of the evening for me. Fifty minutes? It seemed to fly by. Kuchar was in top form, and the emotional bond between him and his players was palpable. The third movement, the Scherzo, stood out above all else, with the hunting calls from the three horns a highlight. Overall, this “Eroica” managed to transplant me to a different mental landscape, an ethereal world somehow richer and brighter than the everyday. I was moved.
The “after party”: Talk about making music accessible. Immediately after the concert, the local band Mezcal started playing in the Saroyan lobby, and audience members streamed toward a food table (picking it clean, of course, with the efficiency of a traveling band of locusts, as is always the case with free calories). It was great to see the orchestra members mingling with the audience. At the edge of the party, Urioste — who had changed from her grand gown back to her pre-concert outfit of a simple red winter top, complete with violin strapped on her back — stood talking with fans, giving autographs and taking pictures. Gracious to all, her appearance was the crowning touch to a glorious evening.