Aram Demirjian is a big fan of the composer Aaron Copland. So it must have been a thrill on Sunday for Demirjian, the fourth candidate in the Fresno Philharmonic’s season-long search for a music director, to team up with the fabulous Anthony McGill on Copland’s famed Clarinet Concerto. Together they delivered a memorable musical experience at the Saroyan Theatre.
McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, offered a bravura performance of the notoriously difficult piece. Demirjian was right there alongside him with an assertive, self-confident conducting style that made a strong impression on many in the audience.
The concert was the culmination of a week that included search-committee interviews, intensive rehearsals with the orchestra, mingling with subscribers, schmoozing with donors and meeting the media. Along with the Copland, the program featured Mozart’s Overture to “Don Giovanni,” selections from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.
Demirjian, a gifted public speaker, believes in connecting with an audience not just through music but also words, and he made it a point during the concert about how each of the four pieces fit his concept of a narrative threading through the program. He also made it a point to connect with his Armenian roots (“Parev,” he said in greeting), wryly alluding to a certain reason why some in the community would turn out to support him. Earlier, at the pre-concert lecture, he endeared himself to the audience by taking a “selfie” on his phone of him and the crowd.
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On the podium, Demirjian – dressed in a sharp black formal suit and black shirt with no tie – had a flair for the dramatic and used plenty of big, sweeping gestures. Two images linger: him bending his knees quite theatrically during the Copland; and then, later, his body quivering almost violently with the power of the music.
For all that drama, however, I didn’t sense as much of a bond between the musicians and Demirjian as I have among the previous three music director candidates (Sameer Patel, Daniel Meyer and Alexander Mickelthwate). That’s the view of an outsider looking in, of course, but the body language of the orchestra members, which seemed a little less animated and comfortable as in concerts past, stood out for me. I didn’t feel that the orchestra and conductor were completely in sync – not so much in terms of the music but more in a hard-to-pin sense of shared ensemble.
Behind the scenes
Before the concert, I got a chance to meet Demirjian both in a lunch interview (which included a Facebook Live interview) and backstage before the performance. I also watched him interact with the audience in “Words on Music,” the pre-concert lecture.
My first impression: He exudes self-confidence and has strong feelings about how to make classical music more relevant to all ages. (“The same obstacles to attending classical music concerts for people who are in their 20s and 30s are also there for people in their 40s and 50s,” he told me.) He wants audience members to feel comfortable. And he wants them to be entertained, not just feel as if they’re being asked to appreciate the music.
A few excerpts from our discussion:
Innovative thinking: When he was associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, Demirjian started a series called Classics Uncorked designed to appeal to people curious about the symphony but may not have attended for one reason or another. The weeknight concerts start earlier, are shorter than a usual program, come with a glass of wine and encourage a more informal, interactive experience for the audience. “That series really developed a following and got a lot of people excited about the symphony who hadn’t necessarily attended before,” he says.
What he listens to in the car: Podcasts. Sometimes he needs a break from the music.
His favorite band: Aerosmith. (“A little old-fashioned, but yeah.”)
Is he more of a Disneyland or Magic Mountain kind of guy? “Definitely Disneyland. I’ve only ridden on one roller coaster in my life. It was because I didn’t want my wife – who was not my wife at that point and wasn’t even my girlfriend – to think I was a wimp.”
I turn once again to Fresno State music composition professor Kenneth Froelich, who joined me at the concert. While conducting isn’t Froelich’s specific expertise, he knows a great deal about music, and I thought he’d be a good person to offer a viewpoint. Here are some of his thoughts on the overall concert:
Connection to the Mozart: “In general, this was a quality opening performance by both the orchestra and the conductor. However, there were a couple of spots – particularly in the transitions – where the music wasn’t quite as clear as you would want it to be. Classical-era music is quite exposed, so it’s very easy to hear when the lines are not quite lining up the way you want it to. Overall it was good with the exception of those transition spots.”
Connection to the Copland: “The star of the show was easily Anthony McGill. He was spectacular, and probably the strongest soloist the orchestra has had all year. He was brilliant! The balance between the orchestra and the soloist felt a little off at times – however, this could have been due to where I was sitting in the hall. In general, I thought it was a very musical performance, but like the Mozart there were a couple of spots where I thought the orchestra was not quite together, particularly in the second movement. This is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time, and I adored hearing it performed.
Connection to the Dvorak: I felt that overall the Dvorak came off quite well. The music was dynamic, soulful, and fun! The power of the brass really carried the final movement of the piece. I enjoyed it.
Presence on the podium: Aram is very active on the podium. He moves a lot, with strong sweeping gestures. He has a tendency to move his whole body with the music. There were times where I felt a little more of a delicate touch might have been required, where he was perhaps moving more than I would personally like. In general, I felt his presence was strong, if not perhaps a little overdone.
Connection to the orchestra: It was difficult for me to gauge how much of a connection there was between the ensemble and the conductor. My perception was that the orchestra was often looking at the music, and not necessarily engaging with him as much as with some of the other candidates. However, it is exceptionally difficult to pick up on this from sitting in the audience so you should take my perception with a grain of salt!
Overall sound: Aside from the few spots I mentioned earlier, this was a strong concert. I felt the brass drove home large portions of the Dvorak as well as with Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and I loved hearing the soaring strings through the first movement of the Copland. Overall, I thought the orchestra sounded quite good.
Once again, I’m glad I’m not the one to have to be making the final decision on which of these fine candidates should next lead the Fresno Philharmonic. All four candidates so far have been eminently qualified. Demirjian is buzzing with lots of intriguing ideas about expanding the reach of classical music. And his relative youth can be a selling point as well.
“When I was at the pre-concert lecture,” he says, “and Aram mentioned the year he graduated from high school (2004), for the first time in my life I felt old!”