Feb 21, 2020

Orchestras mix in ‘Fire-y’ concert

Even 100 years after Igor Stravinsky ignited the musical world with his masterpiece, “Firebird Suite,” students around the world still perform it.

On Sunday night the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra and the Youth Orchestras of Fresno took to the stage at the Saroyan Theatre for their Planets of Fire concert, featuring the “Firebird Suite” as the finale.

The stage at the Saroyan was barely big enough to accommodate the nearly 200 musicians hailing from five different counties, and representing 70 Valley schools.

Thomas Loewenheim, professor of cello and strings at Fresno State, had the unenviable task of rehearsing each orchestra separately, before their combined rehearsal together at the Fresno State concert hall on Saturday.

“This accomplishes a number of character issues for the students,” Lowenheim said. “It teaches them to be flexible in their character issues for the students,” Loewenheim said. “It teaches them to be flexible in their work ethic, as they may have to perform with other musicians whom they have never even met before.

“I wanted it to be a seamless collaboration.”

The mixed orchestra opened the night’s performance with Planets of Fire, a body of works from the composer Gustav Holst, written around the same time as “Firebird Suite.”

The audience was an eclectic group that included instructors, students and family members. Among them sat Fresno State President John Welty.

Welty, an avid supporter of music programs in and around the Valley, said Loewenheim should be proud of the job he has done.

“He has done an incredible job of advancing students in a uniting force that brings people and cultures together,” Welty said. “It just goes to show how powerful it can be, gathering the youth from our community and creating this excellent performance.”

Another faculty member in the crowd was José A. Díaz, associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. Díaz believes that bringing Loewenheim aboard in 2007 was an important move within the administration.

Loewenheim was faced with a declining interest in youth orchestra involvement in the Valley, as well as a Fresno State Symphony Orchestra that was dead for more than 30 years, when he arrived.

“We had no idea he had so much passion to turn this program around in such a short time,” Diaz said.  “He inspired the students to make it happen.”

The immense orchestra dwarfed the cavernous Saroyan Theater, which was bathed in a  “wall of sound” that emanated from the stage.

Loewenheim’s personal instrument is a vintage cello, a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume model, handmade in 1848. Its big brother is the stand-up bass and combined with the cello, their family was well represented.

With 17 stand-up basses and 23 cellos on stage, these behemoths forged an underlying rolling crescendo throughout the night.

Holst was inspired by astrology, and the twists and turns in the musical performance mirrored each of the planets’ characteristics.

At one point, Loewenheim called on the big-stringed instruments to replicate the planet Mars, named after the Roman god of war. The “Planets of Fire” piece called for brimstone and fire, which was reminiscent of “Star Wars” meets the “Grand Canyon Suite.”

The stage was so cramped that the Fresno State Women’s Concert Choir had to sing through a side door adjacent to the stage.

Welty came to the stage at the end of intermission, and ushered praise upon Loewenheim, the students and especially the community.

Welty nearly scared the student orchestra to death when he told them that Loewenheim had agreed to let him conduct the upcoming finale. After a raucous roar of laughter, Welty returned Loewenheim’s baton.

Loewenheim returned to his pulpit, and with a single swoop of his wand, he brought the full orchestra to attention. With arms flailing and hips gyrating, his tuxedo tails seemed to be flying in the wind.

The musicians retaliated by nearly blowing him off his pedestal with a wave of thunder.

Lillianne Rogers, 21, signaled the final chapter of the suite with a blow from her French horn. In her third year under Loewenheim, Rogers has learned some important lessons in life.

“The idea of having 200 musicians onstage is insane,” Rogers said. “But, the fact of the matter is Dr. Loewenheim said we are going to do this concert.  And by golly we did it. I am grateful to have Loewenheim as my mentor.”

Stephen Walker, 42, returned to college after a 25-year hiatus, and found his passion in stand-up bass.

“Loewenheim has been the greatest professor I have ever had,” Walker said. “My son, Eric, is apparently following my footsteps in my second career.”

Keegan Bramford, 14, from University High School, played cello in the performance, and is a private student of Loewenheim.

“Having him resurrect this program is reassuring,” Bramford said. “If anyone could have done this, it was him.”

When Loewenheim arrived at Fresno State nearly six years ago, he had a vision: build a foundation for a future of music in the Valley.

After earning his master’s degree from Indiana University, Loewenheim had many job choices for employment, but chose Fresno State because he could conduct, play and teach.

“I was able to combine my two passions: string playing and conducting,” Loewenheim said.  In his six years at Fresno State, Loewenheim said the highs have outnumbered the lows, and the concert Sunday was an early gift to the community.

For all they have given, it was his turn to give back.

Loewenheim, who was named educator of the year by the Fresno Arts Council, said that no matter how bad the economy is in Fresno, the community still keeps giving support.

“I can’t wait until the economy is good to see what happens,” Loewenheim said. “I haven’t had a vacation since I’ve been here, but I’m trying to change the world. I’m trying to create world peace through music.”

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