A new concert of promise and two other new works (first of three columns)

It has been a very hot June and July in Fresno, California, lately. Now, as a Fresnan, I have gotten into the habit of sharing the horrors of our consistent triple-digit highs for weeks in a row to innocent friends in other places, especially when they whine about highs in the mere 90’s. I can usually win the temperature wars by casually mentioning the 106° high we had yesterday (unless that friend is from Phoenix!). But “spring” is “returning” soon; we anticipate highs to drop to 97° on Friday!

There is one nasty thing about this intense heat: once the early morning, with its bicycle ride and other physical activity in the glorious sunrise, is done, we will stay inside the house and largely to ourselves. I burrow more deeply into my own composition projects and isolate myself even from my Christian brothers and sisters who are writing breathtakingly wonderful music to the glory of God. I have burrowed so deeply I only now return to this column after more than two months’ absence. Surely it was only a month, I reason, but the truth stands: it’s been two months. But enough of my apologies; let’s look at some new music already!

I will present three blogs over the next three weeks: a new beginning for Fresno composers, a new violin and piano sonata following the traditional Catholic hours of prayer, and, right about when we remember Hiroshima, a new work observing the 75th anniversary of the Japanese internment.

First, let’s go local. And let’s be honest: Fresno has not been the hotbed of creativity, especially in new classical music. We do have Orpheus, which, from time to time, has produced some great concerts of new works, but its website has not been updated since 2011, and its former executive director, Brad Hufft, died suddenly just last April at the age of 59. Another composer and producer of new music from Fresno, Charles Amirkhanian, long ago fled to San Francisco where he founded the edgy avant-garde music series, Other Minds, in 1992, and which has been going strong for a quarter century. California State University at Fresno (Fresno State) has produced some wonderful composers in its century of existence, including Pulitzer Prize winner Leslie Bassett, and Fresno Pacific University likewise over the last 70 years. And there are still some very significant and established composers in town and in our Valley, including Larry Warkentin, George Warren, Kenneth Froelich, Ben Boone, and Kevin Memley. But the real energy may be the rising generation that we have been teaching.

On July 15, one of my students, E. J. Hinojosa, a 2016 Fresno Pacific University alumnus, realized the first stage of his dream to have Fresno become, in his words, an epicenter for new classical music. Rather than rehash the details of Hinojosa’s vision, let me refer you to the splendid introductory article that Fresno music, art, and theater critic, Donald Munro wrote for this concert, The Composer Showcase’s Inaugural Concert Event, which you may find at https://munroreview.com/2017/07/11/noteworthy-concert/. Munro’s article gives an excellent overview of the four composers and The Composer Showcase vision.

I had the privilege of attending The Composer Showcase’s Inaugural Concert Event to hear the music of millennials Hinojosa, Matthew Wheeler, and Maxton Vieira, and Generation X composer Memley. As they planned the event, the millennials reached out to Memley, who already has a well-established reputation and following throughout the Central Valley, who not only agreed to join the Showcase, but richly encouraged the other three and masterfully accompanied the entire event, except when he joined the 16-voice, all-volunteer choir for the a cappella selections.

Hinojosa did so many things extremely well for this event. Ingeniously, he planned it for the middle of July (I thought this was insane on his part and had hoped by then to be out of Fresno on vacation, like most other Fresnans!), when there is not much going on at all in California’s 5th largest city of over half a million people. Like a young Felix Mendelssohn, he dared to conduct this epochal event himself, even getting impromptu conducting lessons and pointers on the side from a couple of his choir volunteers. He composed three captivating numbers himself. And he networked extraordinarily well with the entire musical community of Fresno, including Munro and the local public radio station KVPR, who sponsored this event.

The end result: about 200 Fresnans like myself who would rather have been at the beach and otherwise had not many musical events to attend, jammed Community United Church of Christ for this inaugural event. Even Stephen Wilson, the executive director of the Fresno Philharmonic, came to this program. And what did we hear? Twelve brand-new choral works, five written since January for this event, all written within the last five years.

In this concert, Memley reinvented himself in three dramatically different directions, Hinojosa displayed unbridled joy and optimism, Vieira embraced the audience with his rich sonorities and warmth, and Wheeler unveiled visions for the near and distant future firmly planted in the past.

Memley is well known for his upbeat choral numbers which generally involve catchy jazz and pop rhythms and harmonies. So it was quite surprising for his opening number, Hodie Christus Natus Est, to come off as a Renaissance-era Christmas carol in the Dorian mode with a surprise ending in the Mixolydian mode. However, the 7/8 dance rhythms betray their much more recent origin and the customary Memley exuberance is here in spades. Later on in the program, we heard his Locus Iste, my favorite of his numbers, which combines the heartfelt devotion of Anton Bruckner (who also set this text) and the sonorous added-tone chords and many strands of divisi of Morten Lauridsen. He also lightened the mood of the entire event by his whimsical and hysterical Melissa Sang a Melisma, with a brilliant virtuoso solo by soprano Julie Carter. Yes, that title says it all!

Hinojosa wrote both words and music to the majestic, yet upbeat Arise. Marrying complex jazz harmonies, of which he is a consummate master, to energetic, pulsing rhythms, Hinojosa has created a triumphal paean of joy that brings hope and encouragement to all who hear it. We also heard his stunning, jazz-infused arrangement of Shall We Gather at the River, which deserves to give Aaron Copland’s well-known arrangement a run for the money, and his more intimate Whispers, written especially for the Community United Church of Christ congregation, which featured an engaging violin and cello obbligato. The concert closed with his The Bells of Freedom, an energetic, rhythmic call to social action for justice in the name of Jesus Christ.

Vieira brings new life to Beneath the Cross of Jesus, especially in his highly-chromatic harmonies and multiple voices to the last stanza. He has a compelling piano accompaniment that wonderfully undergirds the choir without merely doubling it. His Sunrise to Sunset, arranged from his earlier string quartet, works well as a vocalise for the divided choir. His music brings us a particularly warm and mellow quality that nicely contrasts with the other three composers.

Wheeler’s music may be the most challenging of all in this concert. I often tell my students about “expensive” pieces to write, which are pieces, often masterpieces by their composers who had to suffer intensely in order to write them. Wheeler’s Illuminate is one of those expensive pieces, written to express his grief over the passing of his father, but also to redirect himself and us back to the Life- and Lightgiver. The harmonies and use of musical space evoke the mystery of Debussy, but with a little more edge. As it moves from the darkness of F minor to the dawning light of D-flat major, a closely-related key, the music serenely modulates from tragedy to hope. Wheeler also contributed a very different setting of the well-known Psalm 121 that features tone clusters and some of the densest and most complex musical textures of the evening, qualities also shared by Starry Night, a marvelous musical depiction of the heavens, particularly the Aurora Borealis.

The hand-picked choir of sixteen voices presented all the works beautifully and compellingly. The love they showered on the composers and on their young director was evident in their inspired presentations all evening. Indeed, the roster reads like a Who’s Who of Fresno music, including the new choral director at Fresno Pacific University, directors of worship & music at First Presbyterian Church, Kingsburg Community Church, North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church, and Community United Church of Christ, the emeritus chair of the Music Department of Fresno Pacific University, and several music instructors of area school districts.

The richly-deserved standing ovation made it clear that The Composer Showcase balanced engaging the audience and challenging us to new realms in music. As Hinojosa plans new events for the Showcase, my hope is that he will turn the dial more into the challenging direction, which will indeed be a challenge. Can Hinojosa and his friends make Fresno and the Central San Joaquin an epicenter for new music? We will see with the next Showcase event, but last Saturday was a promising start.