Donald Munro

May 24, 2014

Ode to Choirs, orchestras join with project celebrating Beethoven's iconic Ninth.

Joy comes in a lot of flavors.

Which is why when I think of Beethoven's famed Ninth Symphony, I like to imagine Beethoven sitting down to devour a banana split — with a big smile on his face.

Why the weird association? Follow my thought process: The Ninth has become synonymous with joy. At the same time, Beethoven is known in popular culture as a curmudgeonly and dour guy. (The wild-haired sternness of his somber portraits, along with his personal tragedies, contributes to the image.) It's fun to imagine him for a moment taking a break and reveling in one of the smaller joys of life.

Like a banana split.

If banana splits had been around in 1824, that is.

You might think this is a strange way to launch into a discussion of a piece of music that overflows with such big feelings about brotherhood and world peace — music that captures the ache of how we continually and sadly seem to fall so short when it comes to humanity's potential.

But I think it's a fitting way to acknowledge the delight and enthusiasm with which the Youth Orchestras of Fresno is embracing its final concert of the season. The centerpiece of today's "The JOY Project" at the Saroyan Theatre is the Ninth Symphony, but there is plenty more joy to spread around:

The program includes a piece specially commissioned for the event, composed by Fresno State music professor Kenneth Froelich, titled "A Beautiful Spark," which offers intriguing variations on the famous "Ode to Joy" melody featured in the Ninth's fourth movement. It's written so that the more advanced players in the Youth Orchestras of Fresno can play alongside younger musicians, who get simpler (but still important) parts. (It's fitting that Froelich got the commission. His last name actually means "joyful" in German.)

Also on the program are works by Handel, Holst, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. The three ensembles of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno are featured, along with a combined choir of 150 high school and adult singers — plus 50 students from the Accent on Access violin program at Edison-Bethune Charter Academy. In total, about 500 musicians will participate in the concert, though not all at the same time.

An art exhibition featuring works solicited for the show — all meant to be individual reflections on joy — will be on display in the Saroyan Theatre lobby.

Concertgoers are encouraged to bring their own instruments for a crowdsourced encore of the "Ode to Joy" theme in the theater lobby after the main event. (It's all very informal: Kazoos are welcome.)

Joy can be a lot more complicated than ice cream, of course. For almost 200 years, people have sought to explain why the Ninth Symphony, and in particular the final "Ode to Joy" section, so successfully captures the complexities of this fundamental human emotion.

"There's something about the music that is so ingrained in culture worldwide," Froelich says.

Is that because we learn to associate this very famous music with joy at an early age? Or is there something inherently joyful in the music itself?

That can be a matter of lively debate, but for many people, the answer probably doesn't really matter. "Ode to Joy" equals joy. Simple.

But maybe it isn't that easy, says Thomas Loewenheim, music director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno.

"I wouldn't necessarily call it a joyous piece," he says. "It's much more a frustrated Beethoven who is looking for joy. The idea that all people should be brothers — there's so much intensity there, so much longing."

The Ninth Symphony has long been a rallying piece of music in battles of political oppression. At the Tianenmen Square protests of 1989, for example, students played the music over makeshift loudspeakers.

In the documentary film "Following the Ninth," which was screened by Fresno Filmworks earlier this month in collaboration with "The JOY Project," Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander weighs in on the piece. "The Ninth seems to express most completely what human beings are struggling for," he says. "It's a battle cry for humanity. It's a hymn of possibility."

It doesn't hurt that Beethoven decided to end the piece in the upbeat key of D Major, Loewenheim says, making the final minutes of the piece a cacophony of optimism.

"My personal mission is to bring world peace through music," he says. "What better way to do that than perform Beethoven's Ninth? On Memorial Day weekend, what else would you want to think besides peace?"

Youth Orchestras of Fresno doesn't believe in doing things small, which is perhaps one reason why the bigger-is-better approach to "The JOY Project" seems so fitting. (This isn't new for the organization: Last year's season finale, "Mariachi Madness," featured a similar number of musicians at the Saroyan.) The chorus for "Ode to Joy" features singers from Clovis East High School and Willow International Community College (under the direction of Dan Bishop), University High School and the Fresno Choral Artists (Greg Lapp), Buchanan High School (Roger Bergman) and Clovis High School (Mark Lanford).

Four professional singers handle the soloist duties: Laura Pedersen, soprano; Layna Chianakas, mezzo; Christopher Bengochea, tenor; and Gabriel Loewenheim, bass.

At a performance this big, you never know how joy will manifest itself.

Julia Copeland, executive director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, dropped by an art class at Edison-Bethune Charter Academy a few days before the concert to watch second-graders work on their big communal mural for "The JOY Project." The students working in the classroom spontaneously broke into singing the famed chorus from the Ninth Symphony's fourth and final movement.

She was moved, of course. Who wouldn't be?

That's joy, with a cherry on top.


"The JOY Project" featuring Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, 4 p.m. Sunday, May 25, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., (559) 275-6694. Some reserved seating ($20) available. General seating free ($10 donation suggested)


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About Don Munro

Don Munro


The leading authority of theater, performing and fine arts in the central San Joaquin Valley. Everything you need to know about new shows, exhibitions and cultural events, plus insights into Fresno's cultural scene. Phone: 559-441-6373. Twitter: @DonaldBeeArts. Email:

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