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Donald’s weekend picks

1. WATCH OUT FOR FLYING COWS
On Thursday on the Beehive I told you about opening night of “Spamalot.” Well, I attended the show last night — and while my review will come early next week, let’s just say I laughed so hard during the French Taunter scene that I almost choked on my Good Company water. (And there was even a gag directed at me, which I’m not going to share so as to ruin the moment, but let’s just say I’ve never been quite so personally surprised during a performance.) Check out my cover story in Friday’s 7. Also, Bee photographer Gary Kazanjian took a bunch of great photos, which he posted in an online gallery. “Spamalot” continues at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater through March 17. [Details]

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For holiday and classical music, it’s a musical-marathon weekend

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It happens every year at this time: The first two weekends of December are stuffed with concerts and performances from virtually every musical ensemble in town. I wonder sometimes if all these groups are chasing the same audience, but that’s just the way it is. All you can do if you’re into this kind of music is prepare for a busy couple of days.

I have three stories recapping your holiday and classical options in Friday’s 7 section. The lead story is a conversation between San Joaquin Chorale conductor Roy Klassen and accompanist Kevin Memley, who composed an original piece for the ensemble’s Christmas concert.

If you’re looking for holiday-related concerts, my roundup lists five options:

  • The Fresno Choral Artists join with the Porterville College Choir for two full-scale performances of Handel’s “Messiah” with orchestra and soloists.
  • Soli Deo Gloria, a woman’s chorale, performs Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.”
  • The Fresno Community Concert Band performs “A Most Wonderful Christmas.”
  • Musica Viva performs its annual Baroque Christmas program.
  • The Fresno State music department choirs present “Home for the Holidays.”

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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.

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Donald’s weekend picks

I’ve already told you about some of this weekend’s happenings, from Fresno State’s “The Glass Menagerie” and Good Company’s just-reviewed “Born Yesterday” to “City Dance Spring Concert 2011″ at Fresno City College.

Some more picks:

ORGAN MANIA
Here’s your chance to play the spectacular Morton pipe organ at Warnors Theatre — and to ride up and down with it on its elevator.

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Always a student

davideffron.jpgNo matter how proficient you’ve become as a musician over the years — and how accustomed you’ve become to being in the public spotlight — there has to be at least a tinge of anxiety when you sit down and play a solo for your former teacher.

That’s the case this weekend for Thomas Loewenheim, who has an extremely busy three days in front of him between performing as a guest soloist with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra on Saturday and conducting the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday. When he sits down Saturday night to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Loewenheim will be following the baton of David Effron, the head of conducting at Indiana University, the former head of conducting of the Eastman School of Music — and, not concidentally, Loewenheim’s conducting teacher. It will be the first time the pair will collaborate together in a live concert. (8 p.m. Saturday, Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall).

Of course, you can’t muster up too much sympathy for Loewenheim — he asked for it, after all. He’s the one who invited Effron to work for a week with the Fresno State orchestra, which he conducts on a regular basis. I caught up with him via email to ask him about the experience of playing for his mentor.

Question: Are you nervous?
Answer: Even though Prof. Effron has been very supportive and very complimentary about my playing during and after rehearsals, performing with/for your teacher is very intense, and in a way scary. You know, Maestro Effron performed and worked with some of the finest musicians in the history of classical music. He even performed the Dvorak Concerto with my cello teacher, Janos Starker, who is one of the greatest cellists in history. The stressful thing is not so much that he was my teacher, but that he has so much knowledge and experience. Add the fact that he truly is one of the great musicians of his generation, and this is all very inspiring and humbling.

In addition, we are performing with my students, who are listening very carefully to the way I am playing, and the last thing I would want to do is disappoint them.

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One weekend, two philharmonics

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.

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Mahler Symphony No. 1: more photos

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Young musicians don’t usually get the star treatment in the newspaper — that honor is most often reserved for high school and college students who demonstrate prowess with a football, not a bassoon — so it’s my pleasure in Sunday’s Spotlight section to devote four pages (including the cover) to the 150 elite musicians taking part in tonight’s massive Mahler concert at the Saroyan Theatre. The combined Fresno State Symphony Orchestra and the Fresno Youth Philharmonic (part of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno) will perform under the baton of Thomas Loewenheim. We didn’t have room in the paper for all the nice shots that Bee photographers John Walker and Darrell Wong took for the story, so I thought I’d post some here. Enjoy!

Above: violinist Annelise Bins.

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