Theater & Arts

Beethoven and beer? Fresno Philharmonic’s first woman musical director promises change

When Rei Hotoda and the Fresno Philharmonic finished a raucous March performance of the conductor’s ambitious program – one that began with a song composed 14 years ago and ended with a century-old Tchaikovsky classic – the Saroyan Theatre audience refused to let her leave. It brought Hotoda back to the stage for a bow. Again. And again. And again.

After the performance, some in attendance described a buzz sweeping through the normally reverent crowd that was far more akin to the feeling after a rock concert than that of an orchestral performance. They too, it seemed, did not want to leave.

It would seem Fresno’s classical music faithful should get used to that feeling.

The Fresno Philharmonic has named Hotoda as its new musical director following a six-month audition and interview process with a talented field of six finalists. She will replace Theodore Kuchar, who left the orchestra in 2016 after 15 years at its helm. She is the first woman to hold the position in the philharmonic’s 63-year history. Her first performance will be Oct. 15.

“This is going to be a season where someone who has never been here must set aside any preconceptions of they think a Fresno Philharmonic concert will be,” President Stephen Wilson said. “Under her leadership, this will be exciting, welcoming – something people regardless of musical background will find enjoyable and worthwhile to attend.”

Hotoda, who finishes her stint as the Utah Symphony‘s associate conductor in August, said she was thrilled to take over a top-notch orchestra filled with great players capable of playing complex music of various genres. This will be her first gig as a music director, having also served as assistant conductor for the Dallas Symphony and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The new director hopes to entrench herself within the community as soon as possible. She believes a more inclusive music program with pieces chosen to reflect the diversity of Fresno will help grow the city’s symphony community.

However, Hotoda has no immediate plans to move to Fresno. She currently lives in Salt Lake City. Her family lives in Chicago. She’s also still interviewing and trying out for other music director positions throughout the country (it’s not uncommon for conductors to hold multiple director jobs at part-time orchestras, like Fresno).

“It’s the life of a conductor,” she said. “But I will be (in Fresno) quite a lot.”

She also wants to bring the symphony to the people. Hotoda, Wilson and the philharmonic’s board of directors are considering adding shows to the season that would take place outside of the Saroyan Theatre.

“One concert every couple of months is great, but I’d like to be more embedded in the community,” Hotoda said. “It could be at a lounge or bar. One idea I have is Beethoven and brews. We could do piano sonatas in a bar. We have incredible musicians in this community. I want to showcase them in a more intimate setting, that way people get to know the players more.”

Hotoda, also plans to bring more contemporary music to the Fresno Philharmonic. She’s not looking to force-feed new music to audiences, she said, but rather incorporate modern pieces into programs still built around the classical cornerstones.

“I want to play music that’s about where we live and we’re talking about now – a 21st Century orchestra,” she said.

The response to her March concert’s opening piece, Zhou Long’s “The Rhyme of Taigu,” proved to Hotoda that Fresno is “willing to listen and participate in the music of our time.” It also set her apart from the other candidates.

Fresno State composition professor Kenneth D. Froelich called it his “single favorite piece of music this season.”

“She opened with a really interesting and complicated piece,” Wilson said. “And she really brought the audience along with that piece. One person commented that she ‘played the orchestra’ rather than conducting it.”

Hotoda, a concert pianist with a doctorate in the field before switching to conducting, said she’d never heard anyone say that about her before, but she agrees with it.

“It’s kind of true,” she said. “(Conducting) is my calling, my passion – my lifeline to the music.”

Wilson noted that the audiences at each of the Fresno “tryout” concerts were extremely involved in the selection process. About 20 percent submitted comment cards after each performance. The response to all six finalists was overwhelmingly positive, he said, but Hotoda received the most comments and generated just a bit more excitement.

“There was a very strong consensus that Rei was the best choice,” Wilson said. “She connected very strongly with both the orchestra and the audience. She impressed us with her ideas and her vision for programming and our future.”

With a new director in tow, the philharmonic’s brain trust must now answer questions familiar to all in the arts community: How do attract new patrons while also appealing to a loyal subscription base? How do we try new things without disrupting decades of tradition? How do we compete in the Spotify and Netflix era?

The season will open with the philharmonic’s popular guest-conducted Pops concert, this year featuring the music of “Star Wars” composer John Williams, on Sept. 16. But our first glimpse of the new-look organization will be the following month, when Hotoda takes the reins.