Theater & Arts

After memorable performance, Rei Hotoda should be a strong contender for Fresno Philharmonic job

With a performance on Sunday that combined technical precision, savvy programming and invigorating musicianship, Rei Hotoda vaulted to the top tier of the five talented candidates who have vied so far for the job of new music director of the Fresno Philharmonic.

“She is small but mighty,” one patron was overheard to say after the program’s final piece, a rousing interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Hotoda came back four times to acknowledge a prolonged standing ovation, more than any other candidate so far this season. (Yes, we’ve counted.) There are six candidates in total.

Guest artist Shai Wosner, who has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras, connected strongly with Hotoda and the orchestra in a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.

The program’s opening piece, Zhou Long’s fierce and pulse-pounding “The Rhyme of Taigu,” an homage to the ancient art of taiko drumming, was an exhilarating example of Hotoda’s distinctive conducting style. Kenneth Froelich, the Fresno State music professor who has been helping The Bee assess each of this season’s candidates, called it his “single favorite piece of music this season.”

The concert 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.

Hotoda, the associate conductor of the Utah Symphony, had a dynamic presence on the podium at Sunday’s Saroyan Theatre concert that combined an assertive, precise beat with a graceful, almost demure, physicality. Her demeanor ranged from stately and tall – there were times she seemed to stand up straighter than you’d think possible – to moments where she’d lean back slightly, arching her back, as if she were being pushed by a headwind of the music itself.

At other times, she would face squarely in front of the orchestra, arms tightly at her side and hands in front of her as if she were holding the reins of a horse, driving the orchestra forward with a relentless energy.

The musicians seemed to have a strong connection with Hotoda, both in terms of the music and their body language at the end, with lots of smiles while taking bows. And the audience? Lots and lots of goodwill.

Behind the scenes

Before the concert, I got a chance to meet Hotoda both in a lunch interview (which included a Facebook Live interview) and backstage before the performance. I also watched her interact with the audience in “Words on Music,” the pre-concert lecture.

My first impressions: She is a gifted communicator, both in an individual setting and in front of audiences, and she has an understated warmth in terms of her interpersonal skills. She emphasized to me how important it is to give opportunities for people in the community to interact with its orchestra, and not just in formal settings such as the Saroyan. Outdoor concerts and innovative chamber music programs in alternative venues such as brew pubs give a chance for those kinds of connections.

A few excerpts from our discussion:

On what a conductor’s role in the music-making process: “I think conducting in so many ways is who you are as a person. Every person who gets up there and does it, the orchestra will sound totally different. You’ll have five different conductors doing the same excerpt, and it will be night and day.”

What she’s listening to in her car right now: Ed Sheeran.

Disneyland vs. Yosemite: She’s an outdoor person, so it’d be Yosemite all the way. “I feel inspired by nature. I feel a nice peace and calm. One of my most memorable moments: I’d had a really busy season, and my husband took me fishing in the middle of the Mississippi on a boat, and it was dusk, and the fish were biting.”

Froelich’s take

I turn once again to Fresno State music composition professor Froelich, who joined me at the concert as he has throughout the season. 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. His thoughts on the overall concert:

Connection to the Zhou Long: Make no mistake – this was my single favorite piece of music this season. Hotoda did an amazing job of putting this piece together. I cannot stress this enough: this is a technically difficult piece of music for both the orchestra and the conductor to pull off, and everyone did an incredible job. The credit needs to be given to the philharmonic and to Hotoda for what they put together. This was just fabulous.

Connection to the Beethoven: The Piano Concerto No. 5 is one of those war-horse pieces that pretty much everyone knows. Nonetheless, I think that Hotoda brought a really wonderful interpretation of the piece to the podium. Her interpretation was both strong and nuanced. Despite having hearing this piece over 100 times, it felt fresh to me.

Connection to the Tchaikovsky: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony has a beautiful narrative arc. In the pre-concert talk, Hotoda mentioned briefly about this narrative at the beginning, about how the initial theme starts with the music in minor and then comes back in major. I really appreciated how she treated each presentation of these themes with her own individual care, and yet still brought it all together to showcase the natural musical arc present in the work. It was one of the best interpretations of that piece that I’ve heard.

Connection to the orchestra: The orchestra was engaged with her the entire time. I could not audibly hear any moment when the orchestra was not in the same space that she was. They were in lock-step the whole time. The orchestra seemed to be respectful to her, they were paying attention to her, and from what I can tell, there was a mutual respect on the stage.

Presence on the podium: She was confident, she was in command, she was always in sync with the orchestra. Her technical prowess with the baton and her conducting skill was impeccably high. I’m not a conductor, but I know when I see good conducting on the stage, and that was wonderful conducting.

Final thoughts

As Froelich and I have emphasized throughout the season, the caliber of all the candidates has been quite high. Still, Hotoda showed on Sunday that she should be one of the front-runners. Her “audition” sparkled.

I’ll leave the last word to Froelich: “So if I can go back to the Zhou Long piece one more time: Part of why I loved it so much wasn’t simply because it was a 21st century piece, but that it was a 21st century piece that pushed the audience, that gave us something that we could really chew on, but at the same time prove that a more ambitious 21st century work can also be exciting, accessible and adventurous,” he says. “This piece didn’t pander to the audience – it brought the audience to the art. I can’t thank her enough for programming this work.”

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