I won't soon forget April's Fresno Philharmonic concert featuring Wu Man, the world's best known player of the pipa, the lute-like ancient Chinese instrument.
The pipa concerto she played by Tan Dun began with a foot stomp from the entire orchestra, and from there, it was a whirlwind of music stretching from plaintive to frenzied. The range she demonstrated was amazing, from the tiniest pinprick of a note to a full-fledged grating effect that sounds like a washboard.
What I remember most as an audience member at the Shaghoian Hall was feeling completely immersed in the experience. The piece would build, relentlessly, and then suddenly release into tender melancholy. At other times the performance was infused with a lighthearted intensity and a calming sense of bemused contentment. I felt part of it all.
Live performance can be such a glorious experience that I actually ache sometimes for people who have never experienced it. Sure, it's nice to be able to download within seconds just about any piece of music imaginable. But a recording can't match being there live. There are moments that speak more highly to the triumph of the human spirit than witnessing 80 or so highly trained players in a symphony orchestra playing a downbeat as if they're one musical organism.
Thankfully, opportunities in the 2014-15 season for live music and opera in the central San Joaquin Valley abound, starting on Thursday with the opening concert in Fresno Pacific University's Pacific Artist Series. (Featured is the Hord Consort.) Each year, as I prepare my classical music preview, I scramble to keep up with all the events. As we look ahead to the 2014-15 season, we can't fit in every performance from every group. But I check in with the biggest institutions, discuss some trends and try to include a highlight or two from as many ensembles as I can.
For an extended version of local classical-music offerings, including links to season schedules, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.
Original Armenian work: One of the highlights of the Fresno Philharmonic's season is the commissioning of a piece by Canadian-Armenian composer Serouj Kradjian. His "Cantata for the Living Martyrs," commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, will be performed at the Saroyan Hall April 25 by the orchestra, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and a chorus consisting of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale and the Fresno State Concert Choir.
The complete Beethoven piano concertos: Another Fresno Philharmonic highlight will be almost like a mini-festival. Pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi will play the complete concertos spread out over a weekend of three performances (March 13-15) at the Shaghoian Hall.
Saroyan Theatre vs. Shaghoian Hall: The Fresno Philharmonic seems to have found a good balance between performing at the cavernous Saroyan downtown and the more intimate Shaghoian out north. Of the six Masterworks concerts this season, three will be performed at the Saroyan and three at the Shaghoian. Last season, the orchestra also performed three concerts at the Shaghoian. (In terms of seating capacity, the Saroyan has about three times the number of seats.) The two pops concerts (Christmas and Broadway offerings) this season will both be at the Saroyan. One thing to note: The orchestra seems to have settled on one Saroyan performance for a concert, not a Saturday night/Sunday matinee combo, which could be considered a downsizing from years past.
Opera purists rejoice: Fresno Grand Opera, which last season didn't stage any traditional operas, will present Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire," a contemporary title, on Feb. 15, and Puccini's classic "Tosca" on May 7, both at the Saroyan Theatre. Last season, the company produced a giant homegrown production (with Broadway-worthy principals) of "Les Miserables" and brought in the pop opera trio Il Volo, but I heard from some patrons who were disappointed at the lack of "real" opera in the lineup. I'm encouraged to see the return of the full-speed-ahead opera approach.
No to Shaghoian: For Fresno Grand Opera, it's still a smaller season than in years past — there is only one performance of each title, compared to two performances of most titles in previous seasons, but at least Fresno Grand Opera is back at the Saroyan. I just didn't think the company's experiment with the smaller Shaghoian Hall for staged productions was a good fit.
Mix of seasoned talent and emerging talent: The Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concert Series is known for bringing the world's most famous classical pianists to Fresno. One this season is Eliso Virsaladze from the Republic of Georgia (April 17). But the series also gives you the chance to meet the next generation of players, some of whom might become legends themselves. One such up-and-comer is Beatrice Rana (Feb. 4), silver medalist at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Breaking free of the holiday logjam: At least one local group is experimenting with avoiding the holiday-concert season crunch, in which a huge number of events are all scheduled on the same few early December weekends. The Fresno Choral Artists will perform its fall concert on Sept. 19 and 21, and its winter concert will be Feb. 1. The group is doing something else innovative, too — a collaboration with the Fresno Art Museum providing music for such events as the annual Mini Maker Faire on April 11.
Alzheimer's tie-in: Speaking of collaborations, the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale is breaking new ground with a March 22 performance of Robert Cohen's "Alzheimer's Stories." It's part of "Giving Voice to the Central Valley," a new outreach for the ensemble. The chorus will partner with area organizations and service providers to highlight concerns and efforts.
College talent: The offerings of such institutions as Fresno State, Fresno City College, Fresno Pacific University and the College of the Sequoias are too numerous to list, but savvy classical music buffs have online concert calendars bookmarked to find promising recitals and concerts.
Focus on water: The Youth Orchestras of Fresno knows how to come up with intriguing concert themes. The big one this season is "Water, Water, Everywhere!," on May 24, billed as a "Youth Music Extravaganza." The group is already working with El Agua es Asunto de Todos and the Community Water Center in Visalia on the concert, which will feature hundreds of student musicians and another original composition from Fresno State's Benjamin Boone.
Spy music: Orchestras across the country continue to try to expand audiences with alternative programming. The Tulare County Symphony performs "Great Movies/Great Music" on Feb. 21, featuring music from "Mission: Impossible," "North By Northwest" and others.
Out-of-town guests: The Fresno City College choral ensembles welcome the Westminster Choir College of Rider University, in Princeton., N.J., on Jan. 11. The ensemble performs regularly with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.
New music: Looking for something a little more daring than Mozart? Fresno New Music, an ongoing concert series, specializes in pushing boundaries. On Nov. 21 it will feature the Swarmius Duo, described as "a sonic fusion of hip-hop, house-lounge-techno and modern-classical." The effect is the kind of music Mozart would make if he were living right now on a Southern California beach. Pretty groovy, eh?
Here are selected highlights of the coming classical music season. For an extended version, including links to season schedules, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.
Clovis Community Band: First concert is Oct. 12. www.facebook.com/cloviscommunityband
Fresno Choral Artists: Opening concert (Sept. 19 in Selma and Sept. 21 in Fresno) is "Shakespeare Sings – Celebrating the 450th Birthday of The Bard." www.fresnochoralartists.org.
Fresno City College choirs: The World Music Concert (March 13) celebrates music and dance representing cultures from around the world. www.fresnocitycollege.edu, (559) 442-8221.
Fresno City College Concert Band: Fall concert Oct. 15. www.fresnocitycollege.edu, (559) 442-8221.
Fresno City College Opera Workshop: The fall production is Gilbert & Sullivan's comedy "Iolanthe" (Oct. 31-Nov. 2). www. fresnocitycollege.edu, (559) 442-8221.
Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale: "Messiah" (Nov. 15 and 16) ushers in the holiday season. www.fresnocommunitychorus.org, (559) 709-6245.
Fresno Community Concert Band: Opening concert (Oct. 19) is a "Big Band Salute" featuring vocalists Debi Ruud and Bob Bergthold. "Super Heroes" (Jan. 25) features guest artist Andrew McAfee on horn. www.fresnocommunityband.org.
Fresno Grand Opera: The company offers two opera productions ("A Streetcar Named Desire" on Feb. 15 and "Tosca" on May 7), and is piggybacking on Broadway in Fresno's "Jersey Boys" (Nov. 2). www.fresnograndopera.org, (559) 442-5699.
Fresno New Music: The concert series welcomes four members of the group Brave New Works (Nov. 1). www.fresnonewmusic.org.
Fresno Pacific Concert Choir: Opening concert is Nov. 9. www.fresno.edu/department/music/events, (559) 453-2267.
Fresno Philharmonic: Didgeridoo player William Barton returns in the opening concert (Sept. 28) in a lineup that includes Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." And guitarist Charles Ramirez, along with guest conductor José-Luis Novo, tackles Ravel's "Bolero" (Jan. 25). www.fresnophil.org, (559) 261-0600.
Fresno State Concert Choir: The ensemble helps Trinity Armenian Church celebrate its 100th anniversary (Nov. 8). And it teams up with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra (Nov. 22) to perform Shostakovich's "Belinsky Suite." www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/music/concerts.
Fresno State Opera Theatre: "Carmen" will be performed with the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 27 and March 1). www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/music/concerts.
Fresno State Symphony Orchestra: Opening concert (Oct. 25) includes the powerful Sibelius Symphony No. 2. www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/music/concerts.
Moment Musical: Opening concert (Oct. 26) includes the Brahms String Quartet in A minor. (559) 432-2473
Musica Viva: First concert series is Oct. 2-4. wulfhorst.tripod.com
Pacific Concert Series at Fresno Pacific University:
Pianist Heidi Williams (Oct. 10) and guitarist Ricardo Guevara (Feb. 12) are part of the lineup. And the series welcomes the Soli Deo Gloria women's chorale (Jan. 22). www.fresno.edu/department/music/events, (559) 453-2267.
Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts: The series opens with Fresno favorite Garrick Ohlsson (Sept. 7) playing works by Beethoven, Schubert and Scrabin. Denis Kozhukhin (Nov. 23) was launched onto the international scene after winning first prize in the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. www. keyboardconcerts.com, (559) 278-2337.
San Joaquin Chorale: The ensemble's Christmas concert (Dec. 6) includes Kevin Memley's "Magnificat" with brass quintet and percussion. Also on the lineup: a cappella Christmas compositions and familiar audience- participation carols. www.sanjoaquinchorale.com.
Soli Deo Gloria: The women's chorale will present Vivaldi's "Gloria" as it was originally intended, for women's voices (Nov. 21). www. sdgchoir.com, (559) 432-2858.
Tulare County Symphony: "Final Chords" (Nov. 22) features the Elgar Cello Concerto with soloist Cicely Parnas. www.tularecountysymphony.com.
Youth Orchestras of Fresno: "Full Speed Ahead" (Nov. 2) showcases John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." www.youthorchestrasfresno.org, (559) 275-6694.