I caught both of Fresno’s philharmonic orchestras over the weekend: the pros, otherwise known as the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra, in the Cirque de la Symphonie show Friday at the Saroyan Theatre; and the Fresno Youth Philharmonic, which combined with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra for a monumental evening of Mahler on Sunday in the same place.
My verdict: Loved the Mahler. Wasn’t so hot for Cirque.
I tried to like Cirque de la Symphonie, I really did, and even at intermission, I was still willing to give it a chance. But by the end, I found the production on the anemic side. It split awkwardly between a sort of ho-hum holiday musical event and a low-rent Cirque show. I was surprised, frankly, at how small the Cirque cast was (just seven performers) and the rigidity of the program. Here’s how it worked: The orchestra played a holiday tune by itself, and then one of the Cirque acts came out (usually a solo performer) and performed some contortions/juggling/acrobatics in front of the players as they played an accompanying piece. And then, repeat. No variety to the program, no sense of drama or occasion. And certainly very little visual spectacle. We’re not that far from Las Vegas, after all, where the various Cirque shows explode with color and light, and this version was basic and perfunctory.
It was enjoyable at first watching the orchestra members try not to peek from their music at what was happening in front of them, but that feeling wore off rather quickly. It didn’t help that the opening Cirque number, a guy who twirled a spinning metal cube, was the weakest of the bunch. I kept worrying that the cube would slip out of his hands and decapitate the second violins. Thankfully, no sections were butchered.
I also, um, didn’t care for some of the Philharmonic’s music-only moments. A glum rendition of Jessel’s “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” which kicked off with an unfortunate interlude in which a trumpet player fumbled for his mute, reminded me of a slow death march through marshmallow nougat. Hale’s “Brassy Holidays” had a sloppy ending. And while it was nice to hear “Sleigh Ride,” the ever-present department-store Muzak version of that holiday favorite has so sapped the original tune of any meaningful festive impact that the pleasure was short-lived.
I’m not sure why I was so grumpy on what was supposed to be a night of holiday good cheer, and people around me seemed to ooh and aah at the muscle-bound strongmen and the woman who twisted and turned in the air using nothing but a red-sash thingie, but the whole evening seemed disjointed. I much prefer Philharmonic holiday concerts I’ve seen in the past that brim over with 100-piece choirs and lots of good, green, hearty cheer — not watching a woman spin a hula hoop on her head.
As for the Mahler on Sunday night … what a treat. The audience was huge, the ovation prolonged and bursting with pride, and the abundance of youthful talent almost overwhelming. (And there wasn’t a juggler in the bunch.) Congratulations to these young, hard-working musicians.