Theater & Arts

Audience participation? New Fresno Philharmonic director leaves mark with modern programming

Rei Hotoda was the unanimous choice to lead the Fresno Philharmonic, and the first woman to ever hold the orchestra’s reins wasted no time in creating a 2017-18 season rich in both modern pieces from living composers and classics from Beethoven, Debussy and more.

Each of the six masterworks concerts will include a piece by an American composer, and the season will also feature works from five living composers.

“It’s important to promote the music of our time and present great music that audiences may not have heard before,” Hotoda said. Injecting more modern compositions into the orchestra’s schedule was a key focus for the new musical director, who was officially introduced in June.

“These pieces reflect the diversity of our country,” she continued. “I am a Japanese-American, but I received all of my training here in America. These pieces represent orchestral music happening right now in America.”

The April 2018 performance of Chinese-American composer Tan Dun’s “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds,” for example, will require audience members to pull out their phones and participate with the orchestra. The piece was written in 2015.

Classical musical purists shouldn’t worry, though, as Hotoda has interwoven the contemporary choices with hardened classics. That very same April performance will also feature the Fresno Master Chorale and end with “La Mer” by Claude Debussy.

“It’s my dream program,” Hotoda said. “There’s something for everyone in each of these concerts.”

Hotoda and her orchestra will also perform Ludwig Van Beethoven’s ever-popular Symphony No. 5 in C Minor in November. Although she’s brought an infusion of new music to Fresno, the director doesn’t mind steering her musicians through well-traveled waters.

“Every time I conduct Beethoven’s Fifth, I find something new to discover,” Hotoda said. “Orchestras have played this piece for centuries, but it still has something to say. It’s never a humdrum piece; it’s something that really connects to the audience.”

Hotoda also drew from local talent when planning the season. The orchestra’s third masterwork concert will feature a piece by Fresno State composer Kenneth Froelich.

The March concert, titled The Virtuoso Orchestra, features music designed to showcase the talents of the orchestra’s musicians. Hotoda noted that several sections – the cellos, woodwinds and others – will each have solos during the performance of Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones concertantes,something “very unique and challenging” for an orchestra.

Two pieces in the March concert will also feature solos from Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, the orchestra’s first chair violinist and concertmaster since 2010.

“It’s her first time as a soloist for us,” Hotoda said. “It was long overdue.”

Although Hotoda had no part in planning the orchestra’s Pops Series, the classically trained pianist said she was thrilled this season’s final pops concert will feature a piano-centric lineup that includes Billie Joel, Elton John and George Gershwin. The pops series will begin in September with a performance of famed film composer John Williams’ works.

All of this season’s concerts will be at the William Saroyan Theatre, but Hotoda hopes to bring smaller performances to different venues throughout the central San Joaquin Valley as some point during her four-year tenure. She said she would welcome any advice from local patrons on where and how to do that.

The Fresno Philharmonic 2017-18 Season

All performances at the William Saroyan Theatre, 730 M St., Fresno

Pops I: Music of John Williams

Sept. 16, 7:30 p.m.

Masterworks I: A New Era Begins

Oct. 15, 3 p.m.

Masterworks II: Homage

Nov. 12, 3 p.m

Pops II: Home for the Holidays

Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m.

Masterworks III: Tchaikovsky Fourth

Jan. 28, 3 p.m.

Masterworks IV: Bernstein at 100

Feb. 25, 3 p.m.

Masterworks V: The Virtuoso Orchestra

March 18 3 p.m.

Masterworks VI: Of Heaven and Earth

April 15, 3 p.m.

Pops III: Great Balls of Fire

May 12, 7:30 p.m.