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Fresno Philharmonic recap

I enjoyed the Fresno Philharmonic’s intimate concert over the weekend. (I attended the Saturday evening performance at the Shaghoian Hall.)

The good: Zuill Bailey, master cellist, wowed the audience with his cello acrobatics in Prokofiev’s difficult Sinfonia Concertante. Bailey was cool yet intense as his runs exploded at thrice-roller-coaster speed and his fingers skipped over the fingerboard so quickly they blurred. The composer threw in every trick other than making the soloist stand on his head while playing. It was an impressive performance. Another highlight: the orchestra’s Brahms Symphony No. 4 was strong, from Janette Erickson’s rousing flute solo to Maestro Theodore Kuchar’s emotive conducting.

The so-so: Perhaps it was where I was sitting in the auditorium, but the orchestra’s well-known opening piece, Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture,” seemed out of balance to me, with the percussion overwhelming other instruments in some parts with a clangy, tinny dominance.

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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.

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OPERA REVIEW: ‘Candide’

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From the opening notes of the famed overture, you realize why the music in “Candide” has remained so beloved over the years. There’s a shoulders-back, ready-to-strut, nearly giddy feel of adventure ahead. But there’s also something about Leonard Bernstein’s music that hints at danger and complexity: a sense that the way forward won’t be nearly as bright and carefree as you’d like to think.

Frankly, after watching the Fresno Grand Opera production of “Candide” that opened Friday at the Shaghoian Hall, I’d rather listen to a concert of music from the show than watch the staged version. This production features accomplished singing from a cheery cast of principals. Director Joseph Bascetta  finds some creative ways to stage the action in a small space, and he keeps the bewildering plot barreling along at a brisk pace. But the line between satire and slapstick in “Candide” is difficult to navigate. What comes across as brilliantly acerbic and biting on the page, as penned by Voltaire in his classic work on which this operetta is based, becomes on the stage overly broad and bloated. I felt as if I were watching more an academic exercise, a historical salute, and less an emotionally fulfilling operatic experience.

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Saroyan vs. Shaghoian: Is the balance shifting?

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The Bee didn’t plan it this way, but it certainly made for interesting timing. The Fresno Philharmonic’s first subscription concerts in the new Shaghoian Hall took place the same weekend that The Bee’s George Hostetter filled us in on the shaky finances of the city’s Convention Center.

That’s because the center includes the Saroyan Theatre, in which the Fresno Philharmonic used to perform exclusively. For its three performances of the Mozart Requiem this past weekend, the orchestra turned to the smaller Shaghoian on the campus of Clovis North High School. (The orchestra did perform previously in the hall in 2010 in a non-subscription concert.)

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OPERA REVIEW: ‘La Rondine’

The opening performance Friday of Fresno Grand Opera’s “La Rondine” was a significant milestone for the company. Why? Not for the title or the singing (which was first-rate by the amiable and impassioned Rebecca Davis and Chad A. Johnson in the leading roles) — but for the venue. “La Rondine” marks the first time Fresno Grand Opera has presented a fully staged production in the 750-seat Shaghoian Hall. That’s a much smaller space than the much larger Saroyan Theatre, where the company has performed for more than a decade.

So it was with anticipation — and some trepidation — that I attended the performance. The beautiful new hall, acclaimed for its acoustics, promises a chance for a warm and intimate experience well suited to this tender, smaller-scale gem by Giocomo Puccini. But it also poses a challenge in terms of producing a fully staged work. With a much smaller stage than the Saroyan, no orchestra pit and no way of  flying in scenery, my gut feeling was it would be harder to put a sense of “Grand” in a Fresno Grand Opera production there.

My verdict? Mostly positive. This “La Rondine,” which closes Sunday with a matinee performance, has some wonderful musical and dramatic moments. Veteran artistic director Joseph Bascetta is a consummate pro, and his concept for the production and his meticulous yet fluid staging are inspired (marred only by some lackluster dancing by the chorus). And the Italian-born conductor Valerio Galli, in his American debut, offered a clean, precise and even jaunty interpretation of the score that still offered a swell of romanticism. But the scenic and lighting design — and the balance between orchestra and singers on opening night — left a little to be desired. I think the company has some room for improvement when it comes to using this space to present the top-notch regional opera productions its loyal audiences have come to expect.

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Choral excellence

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Drake wasn’t the only big concert last night. The Concordia Choir, making a return engagement to the Shaghoian Hall, gave a soaring, gorgeous performance. There were times I found myself so transfixed I’d realize I hadn’t moved a muscle during a song, so fully was my body and mind encompassed by the music.

Concordia, conducted these past 26 years by choral superstar Rene Clausen, is riveting because of its perfect blended sound. The male and female voices become something almost otherworldly, as if the 70 singers have become one organism. In a breathtaking rendition of Alexandre Gretchaninoff’s “Our Father,” the soprano line was a marvel, pure in tone and floating almost weightlessly, like dandelion petals in a breeze. The final deliciously enunciated consonant in the “Amen” concluding the piece hung like the last rays of a sunset, the “N” a thing of beauty in itself.

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Tonight: the Concordia Choir

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One of America’s top college choirs returns to Fresno’s Shaghoian Hall for a concert that is sure to be a couple of hours of acoustic bliss. I heard the Concordia Choir perform in the Shaghoian in 2009, and I’m excited to be there tonight for another experience. From my Sunday Spotlight column:

The program includes a broad range of choral music from the Renaissance to 20th century composers, including works by Bach, Morton Lauridsen, Grieg, Schuman and F. Melius Christiansen. An audience favorite is a section devoted to 19th Century Romanticism written by composers from Norway, Germany, Italy and France — with the choir members dressed in period costume.

For tickets, go to concordiatickets.com or call 800-838-3006. Event organizer Carol Maul anticipates there will be limited tickets available at the door.

Coming in March: the Concordia Choir

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If you’re a fan of choral music and missed the world-renowned Concordia College Choir’s 2009 stellar performance at Shaghoian Hall, you’ll want to plan ahead for the group’s return visit March 8.

Tickets went on sale yesterday through Concordia’s website and toll-free number for the concert. With less than 800 seats available at the Shaghoian, this is sure to be a sell-out. You can buy tickets here or phone (800) 838-3006. Cost is $30 or $15 for students.

Expect a rousing performance from the Air Force band

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There’s more than one local connection when it comes to Wednesday’s free 7:30 p.m. performance of the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West at the Shaghoian Concert Hall. First, one of the band members, trombonist Ryon Terronez (pictured at right), is a 2003 graduate of Buchanan High School and attended Fresno State. The hall is named for his beloved mentor, Paul Shaghoian, the Clovis Unified music teacher with whom Terronez studied for seven years. It will be the first time Terronez’s parents get to see him perform in his U.S. Air Force uniform. (He won a place in the acclaimed band less than a year ago.)

The second connection is community-wide. As I wrote in my Sunday Spotlight column about the concert, seven graduates of Buchanan High — four of those from the Class of 2001 — have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s sure to be an emotional concert, especially when the band plays the traditional medley of four U.S. service songs at the finale.

Catching up: a gorgeous sound from the Fresno Philharmonic

I took yesterday off and am just getting around to recapping my weekend: Saturday night at the Philharmonic’s debut at the gorgeous Shaghoian Hall; and on Sunday a road trip up to Playhouse Merced to commune with one of the great country music legends in the charming “Always … Patsy Cline.”

The Phil concert was tremendous. The intimacy of the Shaghoian, combined with the exactitude of the acoustics, made it seem as if the audience was right up there on stage amidst all the music stands. Way back when I played at the high school and college level, it was common for me as a player immersed in the action to be able to assign a directional component to my listening experience: The trumpet was coming from that part of the room, say, and my ears would confirm that. I felt that way Saturday night, and it was a delight. I became obsessed with the violin section, especially during the orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, and marveled at the range of dynamics — the opening was so soft that I was reminded of barely beating insect wings. The louds were triumphant, too; and as I waited for the piercing brass in the fourth movement, it was almost as if it were a tactile thing — as if I were anticipating actual impact. Adding to all this was Theodore Kuchar’s intensity on the podium as he conducted from memory.

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For George Warren’s thoughts on the concert, check out his review of the concert at musiccriticfresno.com.

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To-Do This Weekend: the Philharmonic’s debut at Shaghoian Hall

I’ve already mentioned the Fresno Philharmonic’s historic set of concerts this weekend, but it’s worth a follow-up. This will be the first time the Phil plays in the gorgeous Shaghoian Concert Hall, which has received acoustical raves. It will play an all-Beethoven program. I asked music director Theodore Kuchar if he’s looking forward to the venue. Here’s what he wrote to me:

Forget the fact that we are in Fresno. Wherever in the world the wonderful Shagoian Concert Hall would have been located, it is unquestionably one of the great venues with a seating capacity totaling nearly 800 seats. Aesthetically, I have rarely viewed a hall which exudes such class and good taste. Acoustically, when the Philharmonic and I rehearsed there for the first time the Orchestra had a sound which we had never heard, from ourselves, previously. Many of the world’s greatest orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Dresden Staatskapelle, whose titles are directly associated with the concert hall they call “home” – have identities which are largely a product of the concert hall, or acoustic, of which they are residents.

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A beautiful end to California Opera’s festival

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The title character in “Suor Angelica” has died many, many times in this opera’s long history. But it’s hard to imagine a performance sticking with me more solidly than Samantha KnJoi’s in Sunday’s California Opera production at the Shaghoian Concert Hall.

KnJoi, a recent transplant to Fresno from Huntsville, Ala., shoehorned such angst and passion into those dying moments that I heard several audience members gasp. Singing her final aria, she combined anguish with a placid, beatific resignation to her fate. At one point she ended up flat on her back, singing straight up into the rafters of the Shaghoian, and her full voice still soared. In the most exquisite image of the afternoon, a young boy stood near her feet beckoning the dying Angelica forward. Was this her dead son urging her to heaven or a mere hallucination? In the grasp of the ecstasy of her voice, you were hard-pressed to know the difference.

Stage director Edna Garabedian treats opera as a full body experience, that’s for sure. I love the flourish and style of her vision, and the way that she can turn the barest of stages into a full-fledged operatic world. Once again, she managed to mount a full festival in Fresno through what seems at times like little more than sheer force of will.

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Arts watch: Making it to Carnegie Hall, plus Boston Brass at the Shaghoian … and more

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HOW DO YOU GET THERE?
Carnegie Hall is a busy place these days when it comes to Fresno connections. Contralto Sharmay Musacchio, a graduate of Roosevelt High School, is making her debut in the hall with a concert with the New England Symphonic Ensemble on Monday, April 13. She’ll be singing Vivaldi’s Gloria in D major. According to her bio:

Musacchio has soloed with Sarasota Opera, Portland Opera/IVAI, California Opera Association, and San Diego Chamber Orchestra. She performed Dido in “Les Troyens,” Meg Page in “Falstaff,” Pauline in “The Queen of Spades,” Tigrana in “Edgar,” and Tisbe in “La Cenerentola” with Sarasota Opera. She covered The Dragon role in “Grendel” and debuted (as one of the maidens) in Los Angeles Opera’s production of “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” which won two Grammies in 2009.

And on April 1, the Fresno Pacific University Community Wind Ensemble, directed by Patricia DeBenedetto, performed at the hall as part of the New York Band & Orchestra Festival. The group was joined by the Long Island Youth Orchestra and the University of Louisville Wind Ensemble.

The group will perform again 7:30 p.m. April 14 at Sunnyside High School.

One of the pieces on the program, “From Alpha to Omega, Prelude and Fugue X,” was written by Walter Saul, an FPU professor. This is the second time Saul’s music has been performed in Carnegie Hall in the past 6 years.

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