Sunday, April 24, 2016

concert review: Fresno Philharmonic

Theodore Kuchar's last regular-season concert as music director. Judging from the schedule already released for next season, his imaginative and tempting programming will be retiring with him, rendering it less likely that I'll be coming out here in the future. But this one was worth the 3-hour drive.

It began with Dvorak's Biblical Songs, psalms set for soloist in a quasi-recitative style, quite unlike the massed choral strophes you usually get. The soloist was Kelley O'Connor, a mezzo (it says here, but I'm not sure I believe it) with an astonishingly deep and stately voice.

Then, the First Symphony by Kalinnikov, the world's first and best Tchaikovsky imitator. (What about Rachmaninoff?, you cry. Rachmaninoff doesn't sound like Tchaikovsky. He sounds like Borodin.) Kalinnikov sounds like Tchaikovsky with less blocky orchestration; his melodic sense in particular is very close. It's a great piece of music that I'd never heard live in a professional performance before, and this lean and intense performance was worth the trip.

So was Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev's gloriously raw and punchy film-music cantata, another piece great to hear but not often played. Despite the sizable forces, both instrumental and vocal, I missed a certain degree of monumentality in the work, but then Kuchar is a "slimming-down" conductor rather than a "bulking-up" one (see "lean and intense" above). The drama was fine, the rhythms excellent (I liked watching Kuchar using hand signals to count down bars before choral entrances), and the tone color astonishing, especially those hard metallic moments in the strings.

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