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CONCERT REVIEW: Inon Barnatan with the Fresno Philharmonic

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The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 doesn’t get anywhere close to as much love as the composer’s much more famous Concerto No. 1. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard the 2nd performed live before.

Pianist Inon Barnatan, in a combustible performance Saturday with the Fresno Philharmonic, made me a fan.

I bumped into Fresno artist Evany Zirul in the lobby during intermission, and she showed me a drawing of Barnatan that she sketched out during his performance, then asked him to sign. The sketch captures the pulsing energy of the artist and the piece. I asked if I could post it here.

Barnatan’s persuasive turn at the keyboard was made even better by the acoustics and intimacy of the Shaghoian Concert Hall. I felt encompassed by the sound, which had a warmth and richness to it that only rarely turned mushy. Even in the moments of top frenzy in the first and third movements of the Piano Concerto, with Barnatan clanging the upper octaves like a blacksmith feverishly pounding out a creation, I could still appreciate the articulation of each note.

And what a privilege to sit so close to Barnatan, whose muscular interpretation of the piece had him mopping his brow with a handkerchief. In the Shaghoian, the seats feel much closer to the action than at the much larger Saroyan Theatre. It brings to mind the intensely intimate experience you can get at the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series at the Fresno State Concert Hall.

It was also part of the experience to watch Barnatan when he wasn’t playing. Instead of sitting quietly, he was drawn into the orchestra, his head bouncing from one section to the next. Barnatan was so intent, almost twitching in anticipation during his breaks, that he reminded me of a swimmer on a relay team who can’t wait to dive back into the race.

One reason the Tchaikovsky 2nd likely isn’t played much is because the piano makes room for a violin and cello to soar, Barnatan told me when I interviewed him. (In this case, orchestra veterans Stephanie Sant ‘Ambrogio and Gerald Miller embraced their starring moments with finesse.) Through it all, Barnatan was emotionally invested in the piece.

The rest of the orchestra’s all-Tchaikovsky program sounded good as well, with conductor Theodore Kuchar delivering a sweet Romeo and Juliet Overture. The 1812 Overture was rousing, though at times at too fast a tempo for my taste. (And I was lukewarm at the delivery of the cannon blasts at the end of the piece, which were recorded. I realize you can’t get a real cannon into a concert hall, but the integration of the live and recorded sound felt awkward — perhaps it was the placement of the speakers.)

This Tchaikovsky weekend triple-header at the Shaghoian isn’t the first Masterworks offering staged at that venue by the orchestra. In many ways, the Shaghoian is a wonderful place for it to perform for at least some of its offerings. (I’m torn, as I’m sure many people are, by the worry that downtown Fresno will suffer if the Shaghoian siphons off too many events from the Saroyan. Holding events in the extreme far northern reaches of the city doesn’t seem very inclusive.)

Lots of people assume that the Fresno Philharmonic made the decision to move some of its concerts from the Saroyan to the Shaghoian for financial reasons. But the orchestra’s executive director, Stephen Wilson, tells me that it’s pretty much a financial wash for the organization. Yes, the venue costs are lower at the Shaghoian than the Saroyan. But holding three concerts at the Shaghoian instead of two at the Saroyan means more money for musicians. (And that is a good thing, Wilson emphasizes.) As this season progresses, I plan to ask regular orchestra patrons what they think about concerts at the Shaghoian vs. the Saroyan.

For me, this most recent concert at the Shaghoian was also my favorite by the orchestra in the hall in terms of acoustics and general ambiance.


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