When the Fresno Philharmonic began performing the first piece of its 2017-18 Masterworks series, a few of us sitting in the back of the orchestra section began exchanging surprised glances.
It was jarring, to be honest. There were new sounds emanating from an orchestra that has predominantly been used to bring us the classics. Mimicked sirens and subway car noises mingled with low, barely audible chants.
The piece – Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance” – was written for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic and debuted in 1992. Sunday’s concert bore its name as a double-meaning, as it was also the official Fresno Philharmonic debut of new music director Rei Hotoda.
Hotoda was a trailblazer before she set foot on the Saroyan Theatre stage. In June, she became the first female music director in the philharmonic’s 63-year history. The new leader promised to bring more firsts to Fresno – more contemporary pieces, more audience participation and more ways to use the orchestra.
With “New Era Dance,” Hotoda and her orchestra made those promises a reality. Some of us were a little apprehensive, but the team won us over in six short minutes. The crowd sprang to its feet for a lengthy ovation as the thumping beats subsided.
I felt like much of the applause was specifically for Hotoda – a clear fan-favorite during the philharmonic’s exhaustive search for a new musical director earlier this year. We may have cheered her for leading a rousing performance of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” There’s just a buzz that follows her and flows outward during her energetic conducting.
After the show, Hotoda told me she was pleased the audience reacted in so many ways during “New Era Dance.” At one point, a fair number of people laughed at the siren-like noise in the middle of the piece. She felt the concert as a whole went very well.
The theater erupted even more after a stunning performance of Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16” featuring guest pianist Natasha Paremski, who matched Hotoda’s flair at the front of the orchestra. The more traditional piece let the audience know that it should expect a little bit of everything from the new musical director.
Paremski was astonishing. I have sometimes wondered why the philharmonic always brings in guest artists for one piece when it appears to have so many talented musicians in its ranks, but Paremski’s virtuosity and rapport with the crowd – she eventually played a furious solo encore “to wake (the audience) up” – showed exactly why.
We buzzed during the intermission. I heard someone near me call the “New Era Dance” performance “too busy for me” – a fair criticism – but most of the chatter swirled around Hotoda.
Most of the concert’s second half was not quite as powerful.
The Claude Debussy piece was lovely, but it was the only time Sunday in which the audience did not offer a standing ovation.
The finale, Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” brought the audience back to its feet after an especially strong final movement featuring guest artists from Fresno State. The extra brass players in particular gave the final moments some real teeth.
I’m pretty sure I heard a sour note during a woodwind solo in the third movement, but the audience didn’t flinch as it rose to its feet to give Hotoda and the philharmonic several curtain calls at the end of the performance.
In their debut, Hotoda and her orchestra brought ambition, energy and beauty to Fresno. This “new era” seems to have something for both the 40-year philharmonic subscriber and the person dragged to the symphony because their spouse won tickets. If you haven’t been to the philharmonic lately, you may want to go – if for no other reason than to ride this wave of optimism.