Donald Munro

In a powerful display of conducting, Meyer wows Fresno Philharmonic audience

I’m starting to be glad I’m not on the Fresno Philharmonic search committee for a new music director/conductor. So far only two of the six candidates vying for the position have shown us their stuff, and already it’s becoming clear the decision (which will come next spring after the sixth candidate visits) is going to be tough.

Daniel Meyer, currently music director of the Erie Philharmonic in Pennsylvania and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina, conducted a rousing concert Sunday at the Saroyan Theatre. It 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 concert program consisted of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (featuring guest artist Amit Peled), and the Camille Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (the “Organ” symphony, featuring guest artist Tony Imperatrice).

Meyer was a powerhouse on the podium. If I had just one word to describe his conducting, it would be muscular. In the Beethoven piece, his gestures were big and sweeping. His arms reminded me of a dancer in top shape extending a movement just farther than you thought possible. And in the piece’s more quiet and tender moments, he brought the orchestra along with a dramatic flair – but never (well, almost never) straying into melodramatic territory. He is a compelling figure on the stage, his hair whipping about, accenting every movement, and comes across as a commanding presence.

The audience ate it up.

Behind the scenes

Before the concert, I got a chance to meet Meyer 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 pre-concert lecture.

You can read some of my impressions about Meyer as a person in a piece I posted Friday. My first impression: He’s a great communicator. He seems to be a natural in terms of coming across as confident, authoritative and precise – but not aloof. He exudes a warmth and passion for classical music that is infectious. (And he also has a nice, understated comic timing.)

I also got the impression he can be quite a strong personality in terms of his vision for the music. (No conducting by committee here.) He told me: “My strategy has always been to go in with a clearly delineated musical concept. I tend to find people will go with that even if they don’t agree with that. On Monday morning, when I head home, they might say, ‘I’m glad he’s gone.’ Or: ‘He had some very interesting ideas about the music and got us to play really well.’ But at the very least there’s been a dialogue, and an interplay between orchestra and conductor.”

A few excerpts from our discussion:

Does music transcend other art forms? For Meyer, it does. “It’s an intellectual pursuit; it takes brainpower to engage. It’s an emotional pursuit … and there’s a spiritual dimension that resonates with people. Those three things make music so special to me.”

Favorite cuisine: Korean.

What would we find on your streaming device? “Last night on the plane ride in, what was really extraordinary was my flight to Phoenix was an extended sunset. I thought: This is a perfect Radiohead moment.” He’s also a huge Prince fan.

Favorite ride at Disneyland? “I think the rides at Disneyland are a little too tame for me ... I love roller coasters that take your stomach out of your gut and put it back when they finish up. My wife would tell you I scream like a little girl on those roller coasters. It’s true, but I love the thrill of those rides.”

Froelich’s take

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 Beethoven: “I noticed a strong, passionate connection to the piece. Meyer was demonstrating broad, sweeping gestures throughout the piece. Of the three pieces, he demonstrated the strongest connection to the Beethoven. It was very clear he knew this piece inside and out.”

Connection to the Shostakovich: “He was quite a bit more measured, and I think part of it is that was due to the rhythmic intricacy of the work, but also trying to ensure that the soloist remained the focus of the piece. That worked out quite well. In the end, what you got from the Shostakovich was the virtuosity and crystal-clear tone from the soloist. It was beautiful. I really felt Meyer allowed for the soloist to shine through.

Connection to the Saint-Saëns: “I saw a middle point between the very grand gesturing we saw in the Beethoven and the more measured approach we saw in the Shostakovich. We saw the grand style as in the Beethoven coming out again, but there were also more subtle nuances in quiet moments. The strongest effect was the sheer power he got out of the orchestra. Part of that was due to the organ, but it was very powerful.

Presence on the podium: “Meyer has a commanding presence on the podium. His gestures were both animated and strong, demanding full attention from all present in the hall. He exudes charisma.”

Connection to the orchestra: “It’s very difficult to gauge the connection between the orchestra and the conductor just watching the candidates on stage. Based upon what I heard, it seemed he had a strong connection. Again, the quality of the sound was quite strong. A small observation: I noticed just a few times when his gestures seemed to be larger than the sound of the orchestra, but these were rare.”

Overall sound: “The orchestra rose to the occasion and was exceptionally strong under Meyer’s conducting,” Froelich says. “The overall power of the Saint-Saëns was very impressive. While some of this can be credited to the presence of the organ, it’s also a testament to Meyer and the orchestra working together to create this amazing sound that literally could blow a person away.”

Final thoughts

Both Froelich and I were highly complimentary in October of the Fresno Philharmonic’s first candidate, Sameer Patel, saying he set the bar high for future candidates. Meyer showed us that the decision is going to be hard. And that’s a great thing, and probably not much of a surprise, considering that the top six candidates were selected from a pool of 105 applicants.

Meyer’s savvy selection of music, ending with the feel-good Saint-Saëns piece, also helped his cause.

“I really don’t envy the job the committee has,” Froelich says. “Just based on these two candidates, it’s going to be a very difficult decision.”

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