Members of the the Fresno Philharmonic’s search committee for a new music director watched their jobs get just a little harder Sunday after Alexander Mickelthwate’s strong performance at the Saroyan Theatre.
Mickelthwate, music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, is the third of six candidates for the Fresno position. 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.
The program featured the contemporary Mason Bates piece “Mothership,” Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (featuring guest soloist Philippe Quint) and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
After my recaps of the first two candidates, Sameer Patel and Daniel Meyer, I was chastised by a reader for being too “easy” on them. How could both be excellent? (I think such remarks are a symptom of our competitive reality-show culture, with the idea that each episode needs a “winner” and “loser.”) Now that Mickelthwate has been here, I expand on that: How could all three candidates so far be so strong?
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The answer is obvious. These are top-tier professionals vying for the opportunity to lead Fresno’s pre-eminent cultural institution. As the top six finalists out of a pool of 105 candidates, it’s little surprise that all are extremely well-qualified.
Which isn’t to say that conductors are interchangeable. Each of the three candidates so far has had a distinctive style both on and off the podium: Patel a more minimalistic and gentler conducting touch but with a firm presence; Meyer a dramatic showman in front of the orchestra; and now Mickelthwate, who brought big gestures and an athletic, controlled presence to the music.
Mickelthwate is not minimalist in any way on the podium. He uses lots of “mirroring,” in which the left hand does the same thing as the right, giving a more dominant presence. There is a lot of vigor in his motions. (At one point he kept repeating a motion with his left arm that suggested someone reaching up to put something on a tall shelf, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conductor do that before.) For those preferring a more minimalist style, I can see how his “bigness” up there on stage could take some getting used to. But the sound he coaxed from the orchestra paid off.
Behind the scenes
Before the concert, I got a chance to meet Mickelthwate 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 preconcert lecture.
My first impression: He’s an incredibly creative person. I was enthralled with stories of some of the things he’s done in Winnipeg, including putting on a “Titanic”-themed concert at an Olympic-sized swimming pool. He has great ideas for reaching younger listeners. And he has a passionate interest in reaching out to different indigenous groups, as evidenced by a musical series dedicated to the indigenous people of Canada.
A few excerpts from our discussion:
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.
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.” And when his kids are in the car, his go-to CD is ABBA.
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.
As part of The Bee’s continuing coverage of the music director search, I once again was joined by Fresno State music composition professor Kenneth Froelich 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 Bates: “It’s an interesting work to talk about because of the nature of it being part electronic. The conductor had to follow the electronic track and to communicate that to the orchestra. The nature of the piece kind of keeps it in lock with the meter presented, but it was a fun presentation and I think he did a good job with it.”
Connection to the Mozart: “There was a very intimate connection between him and the soloist. I noticed many times they locked eyes during the performance. You could tell he and the soloist were really in tune with each other. The music really shone through because of that.”
Connection to the Berlioz: “Like the past two conductors, the second-half concert piece was the place they really got to shine and showcase themselves, and that was no different here. In particular, the fourth movement, the march to the scaffold, I thought was done very well. The finale was quite grand, and even the slower moments of the piece, which can tend to be long, he managed to keep a good momentum behind it. The interpretation was very strong.
Presence on the podium: “He’s very active. He used the whole body. His left hand almost never stops. Either he’s using it for fairly large gesturing, or he’s using it as a way to provide beat, along with the right hand. When it was intimate and quiet, that was when I thought it was the strongest, and you could really see the nuance and detail come out. In big moments you saw a lot of very grand gestures.”
Connection to the orchestra: “I felt it was good. There were a few times where I felt it was not completely in sync, where the orchestra might have been in a slightly different tempo than he was. These moments were brief. In general, I thought he had some pretty good moments with the orchestra and communicated well with musicians.”
Overall sound: “Very strong. This is our third concert with the conductors, and the orchestra is rising to the occasion. They sounded stellar with all three concerts.”
Once again, both Froelich and I give high marks to Mickelthwate. While I talked to some in the audience who had some hesitations about the Mozart piece, the overall reception was very positive. (And I loved how Mickelthwate was able to incorporate a rave beat into the program, which shook up the Saroyan a bit.)
Froelich is also impressed with some of Mickelthwate’s more intangible qualities. “I really appreciate how much this conductor wants to program new music and living composers,” he said. “I also appreciate his sense of humor, which is important to have in the leader of an ensemble. Based upon what he has done in Canada, it seems like he is an incredibly effective leader, that he can really motivate people, and that’s an exciting element.”