Munro Review
June 6, 2017
Donald Munro

Orchestra picks Hotoda as the 8th music director and conductor in the organization’s long history.

On a crisp Sunday in March, the final notes of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 floated into memory at the Saroyan Theatre. The audience broke out in tumultuous applause. Four standing ovations followed. Many people in the audience at the Fresno Philharmonic concert, including me, had just come to the same conclusion: Rei Hotoda nailed her audition.

That premonition was confirmed today when the orchestra announced that Hotoda is the eighth music director (and first woman) in Fresno Philharmonic history. Her name was revealed at a standing-room only event at Pardini’s.

Even though she was the fifth conductor candidate interviewed, Hotoda emerges as a person of many firsts in Fresno Philharmonic history. She is the orchestra’s first Asian American music director. She is the first woman. Most important, orchestra CEO Stephen Wilson told me that Hotoda was the unanimous choice of the orchestra’s board and its search committee — a first choice among six candidates.

It’s the cap to a lively season-long selection process that brought the finalists to Fresno for search-committee interviews, intensive rehearsals with the orchestra, meetings with subscribers, schmoozing with donors and — the big test — conducting a Masterworks concert.

“I’m just thrilled and excited to be the new music director,” Hotoda told me in a phone interview from her home in Morton, Ill., last week in advance of Tuesday’s announcement. “I’m so privileged and honored to be chosen.”

She signed a four-year contract. Her salary was not disclosed.

Along with the orchestra’s board and search committee, she also made a good impression on two other important constituencies: players in the orchestra and audience members.

“She was clearly the top choice of the musicians, and there was an exceptionally high degree of enthusiasm about Rei in audience surveys,” Wilson says.

Hotoda, who finishes up a term as associate conductor of the Utah Symphony this summer, will formally begin her new position at the Fresno Philharmonic on July 1. Her inaugural concert will be Oct. 15 at the Saroyan Theatre with a program that includes Grieg’s Piano Concerto played by guest soloist Natasha Paremski. Hotoda will conduct all six Masterworks concerts in the 2017-18 season lineup.

Thus begins a new chapter in the orchestra’s 63-year history, and one that has a chance to build on considerable audience excitement during the search process. After interviewing each of the candidates and attending their concerts, I can attest to their high levels of musicianship and leadership qualities. Time and again when talking with audience members this season, I heard people say how delighted they were that the five men and one woman who auditioned had such sterling credentials and audience appeal.

Even more pervasive was the feeling that Hotoda had managed to forge a special bond with the orchestra in a short amount of time.

Hotoda follows Theodore Kuchar, whose 15-year tenure as music director and conductor brought a new level of musical excellence to the organization. The orchestra is considered Fresno’s artistic crown jewel in terms of national reputation. Because of the city’s proximity to Los Angeles and San Francisco, both world-class music cities, it can draw professional players from both areas. The ensemble also has a core of top-notch local players. The result is a regional orchestra with very high musical standards.

Hotoda is set to build upon that tradition and promise.

“Rei is exceptionally talented as a conductor,” Wilson said. “Her programming ideas are thoughtful and exciting. I think people are really in for a treat this season with some great repertoire.”

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All of the six candidates were gifted communicators, both on and off the concert stage, and offered a variety of conducting styles from muscular to minimalist. Hotoda, however, was a standout. I was particularly taken with her presence on the podium, praising her precise beat and her graceful, minimalist physicality. From my Fresno Bee review:

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.
I remember watching the faces of the orchestra members as they stood to take their bows. There were lots of smiles, and not just of the polite variety. It was obvious that conductor and orchestra had connected.

In our phone conversation last week, Hotoda remembered finishing the end of the March concert with fondness.

“I had that exhilarating feeling when you’ve journeyed together and created this incredible sound,” she said of the moment. “There’s nothing else like it. I was just thrilled that the orchestra played so well for me. Everyone was on the edge of their seats playing their hearts out, and really for the music. Not for me, not for the audience, but for bringing the symphony to life.”

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is a rousing crowd pleaser that might be expected to elicit a strong audience response. Probably the biggest surprise at that concert was the stirring reaction people had to the opening number, a contemporary piece by Zhou Long’s titled “The Rhyme of Taigu,” an homage to the ancient art of taiko drumming.

Under Hotoda’s baton, “Taigu” seemed to seethe and pound with a pulse of its own, creating an exhilarating musical moment.

“It did surprise me,” she said of the enthusiastic response to the piece. “I’m very passionate about contemporary music, and also really good works. I think it shows it is possible to do new music without it being the spoonful of medicine that you will swallow.”

Hotoda didn’t realize how much people liked the program overall until the reception with audience members afterward in the lobby, where she was inundated with well-wishers.

“I was taken aback by how much they loved that concert,” she said. “Really, it’s a testament to the orchestra and their level. I was so blown away by the incredible orchestra.”

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Taking over a new orchestra as music director is an involved process, and Hotoda will be gearing up this summer for the challenge. (She also has a full lineup of concerts planned, both with the Utah Symphony and in a series of guest conducting gigs, including with the Nashville Symphony.) The Fresno Philharmonic’s staff already booked guest artists for the 2017-18 season because such things have to be done well in advance, but Hotoda will be working in the next few weeks to put her own personal stamp on the lineup.

Beyond that, she’ll be getting to know Fresno better.

“The first year for me will be kind of an investigative time for me, exploring the area,” she said.

She will spend a lot of time here during her first season, but she and her family will remain in Illinois while her son Constantine, 17, finishes up his last year of high school.

“We’ll explore options after that,” she said.

Hotoda is married to Brian Dollinger, a conductor and string bass player. They also have a 5-year-old daughter, Sophie.

As a woman conductor, Hotoda is “part of a very small group, but it’s growing,” she said. A 2013 New York Times story noted that of the 103 ensembles in the nation with the biggest budgets, 12 had female conductors; just one of the top-tier 22 was led by a woman, according to the League of American Orchestras.

“There are more female music directors, but it’s still something that should be happening more often,” she said. “It’s about creating opportunities.”

Two things she knows she wants to do in Fresno is build on the area’s diversity and promote community engagement, whether it’s performing in different venues or reaching out through programming.

Hotoda has lots of good ideas, confirms Wilson. “She indicates a desire to program in a way that reflects Fresno,” he said.

It’s still early for specifics, but they’ll be coming soon.

In the meantime, the Fresno Philharmonic’s eighth music director said she can anticipate big things coming.

“To have a board and staff be so supportive of this new era — I feel like a kid in a candy store,” she said.