Fresno Philharmonic marks 60 years with energetic peformances

The Fresno BeeJanuary 26, 2014 

Violinist Sarah Chang was an inspired choice to anchor the Fresno Philharmonic's 60th anniversary gala celebration Saturday at the Saroyan Theatre.

On one level, there is the prestige and glamour that Chang brings to an event. As one of classical music's younger solo superstars, her name and consummate playing add gravitas. And if you want glamour — always nice when marking a diamond jubilee — Chang revels in that role as well. She strode onto stage in Fresno to perform the Bruch Violin Concerto wearing a dazzling, jewel-toned, floor-length mermaid gown that hugged her curves and practically shouted red carpet.

Yet there's a fierceness to Chang as a musician, a sturdy and muscular confidence to her playing, that adds a level of complexity to the image of elegant fashionista crafted these days for so many women players by classical music's marketing gurus. She tackled the Bruch not with daintiness but a brisk, vehement confidence. During breaks in her part, while the orchestra played, she often dropped her arms completely and held the violin in place with her neck and chin — a pose of strength and certitude.

At the conclusion of the Bruch piece, which just keeps getting faster in sort of a race-car-past-the-finish-line whoosh, Chang actually stepped forward with a small but mighty kick during her final runs, her shoe momentarily emerging from beneath her sparkling dress. She came, she played, she kicked, she scored. And the music was gorgeous.

To me, Chang's muscular, scrappy sensibility is why she made such a good fit for the Fresno Philharmonic celebration. Founded 60 years ago, the orchestra has long been acknowledged as the city's cultural jewel. It takes a lot of money to support a professional orchestra, however, and there have been struggles along the way. The last few years have been tough.

Notable on Saturday night was a sense of optimism among the orchestra's board of directors and management. Sixty years, and things are looking up.

J.D. Northway, the current board president, practically beamed. "We've turned the corner, and the Philharmonic is revived," he said. "I really feel good about the future."

He was speaking after a gala dinner that attracted members of Fresno's "old guard" of orchestra supporters. Names such as Bonner and Moradian — names that have been around since the orchestra's founding -— were often heard. Honorary co-chairs of the event included a number of past board presidents.

Donors dined on a menu of New York steak, garlic whipped potatoes, asparagus spears and walnut mesclun salad. The event attracted 270 people and raised $40,000, said Stephen Wilson, the orchestra's executive director.

Northway was excited that the live auction, which offered such packages as a stay at Erna's Elderberry House and an opportunity to guest-conduct the orchestra at the May 4 concert (along with private conducting lessons from Maestro Theodore Kuchar), attracted bids that exceeded estimated values.

"I think it shows people are really bidding for the future of the Fresno Philharmonic," he said.

After the dinner, guests filed into the Saroyan to hear the orchestra open with Janacek's "Taras Bulba," based on Nikolay Gogol's fictionalized romantic account of a Cossack leader. This clangy, percussive, at times almost abrasive piece — marked by stark changes in mood — was given a gripping interpretation by Kuchar, who certainly knows his Janacek. (He's artistic director of the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly the Czech Radio Orchestra). At one point the piece drew from Kuchar what seemed to be a primal cry from the podium as the music corresponded to the point in the story when Taras Bulba is nailed to a tree and set ablaze. Powerful stuff.

Following's Chang's rapturous reception and intermission, the orchestra returned with a moving rendition of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. When reaching the famed "Nimrod" variation, you could feel the audience settle into its elegiac beauty out of a sense of recognition — there's always a sense of comfort when you embrace something you know — but also recognition of the power and passion of a professional orchestra making achingly beautiful music.

I couldn't think of a better way to salute the last 60 years — and to look forward to 60 more.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at

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