Six music director candidates. Six distinct musical styles. José-Luis Novo, the last of the six talented candidates vying to be the new conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic, on Sunday offered a fiery and colorful program that culminated in the “Firebird” at the Saroyan Theatre.
Novo displayed a relaxed and amiable style on the podium. Kenneth Froelich, the Fresno State music professor who has been helping The Bee assess each of this season’s candidates, described Novo’s conducting presence as “loose and willowy.” In the first piece, Mozart’s famed overture to “The Magic Flute,” he skipped the customary baton and conducted with his hands in an effort to more finely hone the sound and emotional impact of the orchestra.
Guest artist Chee-Yun on violin offered a dazzling display of virtuosity in Dvorak’s difficult Violin Concerto, rounding out the first half. (Her encore, a snappy recitative and scherzo by Fritz Kreisler, was a highlight of the concert.) The second half featured two rousing pieces: Ravel’s “La Valse” (another very difficult piece) and Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” one of the best loved of the canon.
Novo is the only of the candidates who has conducted the orchestra before. He was guest conductor in a program of Latin-American pieces in 2015.
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.
Novo brought a tall and limber presence to the podium, sometimes sweeping his arms around in a semicircle in a fluid motion. He demonstrated an affinity for strong and memorable metaphors, likening the swirling and chaotic “La Valse” to being trapped in a spinning washing machine. That piece turned out to be his strongest of the program.
Yet something felt lacking in “Firebird,” the finale. The piece felt a little subdued and tepid in terms of tempo and intensity. The concert did not end with the sort of electric thrill you normally associate with this well-known work.
Behind the scenes
Before the concert, I got a chance to meet Novo 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 impressions: Novo is a passionate advocate for new music, which is exciting. And he has a low-key, genial warmth when communicating with audiences. (He had the Saroyan audience laughing out loud several times.) And he seems very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Fresno. He said during the concert that he wants to be known as the “final” candidate in the search, not the “last,” because he wants to be first in the search. His final words: “Choose me!”
A few excerpts from our discussion:
On the fact that there is always someone in the audience watching every instrumentalist on stage: “That’s a very important point to remind the musicians in the orchestra: The audience is really interacting with them, and sometimes they get isolated in their own world of performing. The audience perceives the music not only by the sound they produce but also their body language.”
Is there a difference between West Coast and East Coast conductors? “I’m not sure if I know there is a difference in conducting, but I think there is one in the lifestyle. Generally speaking, and I usually don’t like speaking generally, people on the East Coast are more work-driven. People on the West Coast, California in particular, I think are a little more relaxed and enjoy life a little more. And I happen to like that aspect probably because of my own culture in Spain. We can work hard, but it’s not fun to work hard if you don’t enjoy yourself in the process.
Last TV series binge-watched: “Breaking Bad.”
What does he listen to while driving? “I don’t listen to classical music driving the car or cooking. I only listen to music (when I’m) focusing on listening to music. I don’t do it as a side activity because I get distracted. If I’m cooking and I put on a really great piece of music, my dish is going to come out awful. Or if I’m driving I’ll get into an accident. That’s why I don’t do it. I listen to the news.”
I turn once again to Fresno State music composition professor Froelich, who joined me at the concert as he has throughout the season. 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. His thoughts on the overall concert:
Connection to the Mozart: For this piece, Novo chose to not use a baton. He had explained in the pre-concert talk that this was in part because the piece is so well-known by both the orchestra and himself that it was a gave him a chance for more self-expression. I think this was a good choice as it allowed him to showcase many of his strong left-hand gestures. The piece was quite clear and it was performed very well.
Connection to the Dvorak: The Dvorak was a showcase for the soloist, and as such Novo stayed in the background for much of this performance, as he should. The soloist did a fabulous job despite one moment where there seemed to be a slight – yet noticeable – slip-up in a transition. Novo did his part by keeping back and allowing the soloist to take the piece forward.
Connection to the Ravel: I thought it was really strong overall. This is a difficult piece of music, and Novo really brought the orchestra alive for this piece. I think his interpretation was mostly good – however, there were a couple of moments where I wouldn’t have minded if he allowed for a little more flexibility in the tempo which at times felt a bit rigid. Overall I thought it was really well done, and it’s a fabulous piece of music to boot.
Connection to the Stravinsky: “The Firebird” is considered by many accounts one of the best pieces of music in the literature, and has probably one of the most memorable endings of any piece of music, and that was absolutely nailed by the conductor. Having said that, I think the tempo of the “Infernal Dance,” the fourth movement, was slower than I would have liked, and frankly lacked energy. The tension necessary for that movement simply wasn’t there. Other than that, I thought it was quite strong.
Connection to the orchestra: The orchestra and Novo seemed to have a very strong connection to each other. He was relaxed, as if he’d known the members of the orchestra for years, and that relationship seemed to go both ways.
Presence on the podium: Novo has a very relaxed conducting style. There is a willowy quality to his conducting where the music just seems to move along in a very smooth manner. This allowed for a high degree of musicality in many of the lyrical passages, specifically in the Dvorak and the melodic horn parts of the “Firebird.” It is possible that this same quality created some issues in the faster places – such as the aforementioned Firebird “Infernal Dance,” where the music wasn’t quite as intense and perhaps was a touch unclear.
The conductor search is now in the hands of the orchestra’s search committee, which after experiencing six highly qualified candidates now has a big decision to make. It’s sort of an “embarrassment of riches” situation, which is a nice problem to have. The Fresno Philharmonic hopes to make an announcement by the first part of June.
I’ll let Froelich have the last word: “I enjoyed listening to Novo talk about music. He seems to have a very strong sense of what the music is, and he has a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor, which I appreciate. He also clearly seems to want the job, which is always a plus.”