Fresno Beehive

Lunch talk with Alexander Mickelthwate: bitter cold, tacos, long-distance relationships and the Fresno Philharmonic

The Bee’s Donald Munro and Alexander Mickelthwate discuss tacos and more at El Premio Mayor Taqueria.
The Bee’s Donald Munro and Alexander Mickelthwate discuss tacos and more at El Premio Mayor Taqueria. Special to The Bee

Wednesday might have been a gray and rainy day in Fresno, but to Winnipeg resident Alexander Mickelthwate, it felt downright tropical.

“I’m so nice and warm,” he said.

Mickelthwate, the music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, is the third of six candidates to audition for the role of music director/conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic. He’s in town this week meeting board members, musicians, the media and audience members, all leading up to a Sunday concert with him on the podium.

Once again, The Bee arranged for a get-to-know-the-candidate lunch. We wanted something authentic, not swanky, so we picked El Premio Mayor Taqueria, where we could treat Mickelthwate to a Taco Truck Throwdown champion.

Our little lunch group with Mickelthwate on Wednesday included me, features editor Kathy Mahan, orchestra executive director Stephen Wilson and a special guest: Emily Campbell, a Fresno State student and music lover. Our discussion ranged from the German educational system (he was born and grew up in Frankfurt) to his favorite ride at Disneyland (Space Mountain).

You can check out part of our discussion on the following Facebook Live video:

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Alexander Mickelthwate, the third of six Fresno Philharmonic conductor candidates, is spending the week doing media interviews, rehearsing with the musicians and meeting with audience members, musicians, patrons and students. His visit culminates Sunday with an appearance at the “Words on Music” pre-concert lecture and then conducting a Masterworks concert at Saroyan Theatre. The Bee's Donald Munro is talking to him live from one of Fresno's favorite taco shops, Taqueria El Premio Mayor.

Posted by The Fresno Bee on Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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Here are a few highlights of the discussion:

What he thought of the El Premio Mayor tacos: “The best I’ve ever had.” (We won’t tell any of the Mexican restaurants in Winnipeg.)

About that Winnipeg weather: Last week it was 27 degrees below zero. The city is the coldest urban settlement in North America, Mickelthwate informed us, though I wasn’t sure if his tone was pride or exasperation.

Fun fact about Winnipeg: It’s the exact geographic center of North America, we learned. (And I told him that North Fork is the exact geographic center of California, a bit of useless trivia he can recount for his Canadian friends.)

On the importance of an orchestra reaching out to different demographic groups: Mickelthwate has made it a priority. For example, the Winnipeg orchestra recently had a Filipino-themed concert and brought in as guest star Lea Salonga, which packed the auditorium. He also helped start an Indigenous Festival that celebrated the music of the First Nations people of Canada.

His coolest sounding concert idea: Mickelthwate organized a concert at an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool. The performance featured atmospheric dark blue lights, dry ice on the water, synchronized swimmers and musicians on diving boards. On the program: “The Sinking of the Titanic” by British minimalist composer Gavin Bryars, which incorporates the song played by the Titanic orchestra as the ship sank. “The composer envisioned what would it sound like if those players are playing as they go slowly underwater,” he said. “The lower they go, the more distorted the melody gets.”

His goal as a conductor: “I hope the audience will all come together and think, this is something bigger than just a piece that was written 200 years ago. It was current. It really touched me and us at a deeper level.”

What he listens to in the car: NPR (even in Canada), and sometimes sophisticated, quirky, atmospheric rock bands. (Think Icelandic.) “Besides that, I love silence. I really do.”

Favorite food: dumplings and sauerkraut. Just kidding. (“There is a German part I do miss a little bit,” he said.) He does most of the cooking in the family, and he loves spicy stuff, like Thai and East Indian.

On long-distance relationships: They can work. He met his then-wife, Abigail Camp, at age 22, and they dated for four years with him in Germany and her in New York. They now have two kids and have been married 20 years.

On returning to California: He’d love it. (Earlier in his career he served as associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Essa-Pekka Salonen.) He visits his wife’s family in San Diego twice a year. “I still have my California driver’s license!”

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