The Fresno Bee
April 14, 2017
by Donald Munro

The final hands have been shaken. The last downbeats given. The final notes played. And, yes, the last tacos have been eaten.

I’ve watched and listened to all six candidates for music director of the Fresno Philharmonic conduct the orchestra throughout the season, with the final concert concluding last Sunday. At my side at the six concerts has been Fresno State music composition professor Kenneth Froelich, who has been offering his input. (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.) I also got to know each candidate in informal lunches that included carne asada tacos and Facebook Live interviews.

After much discussion, Froelich and I have come up with two equally ranked favorites: Rei Hotoda and Sameer Patel.

Hotoda is associate conductor at the Utah Symphony Orchestra in Salt Lake City. Patel is associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony.

The decision isn’t up to us. That (difficult) task falls to the orchestra’s search committee, which hopes to announce the new music director by early June.

The eighth music director and conductor in the orchestra’s history won’t be easy to select. Daniel Meyer, Alexander Mickelthwate, Aram Demirjian and José-Luis Novo all had some very strong moments on and off the podium. All six candidates – who were winnowed down from 105 original applicants – are eminently qualified for the post.

“Any one of these candidates is going to be able to lead this ensemble really well into the future,” Froelich says.

Still, Hotoda and Patel stuck out to us as frontrunners.

“Both candidates really shined with the opportunity they were given with the ensemble,” Froelich says. “They showed how strong they were with their conducting techniques, they both had wonderful programs and I really felt that of all the candidates, the two of them really communicated with the orchestra the best.”

Here’s a roundup on the selection process, our two top picks and a look at the other four candidates.

Complicated search

The search committee is made up of four Fresno Philharmonic board members, an outside musician appointed by the board and four musicians from the orchestra.

There are many factors in the selection process. Musicianship is a must, of course. So is charisma and the ability to connect with the orchestra and members of the community. Developing new audiences and raising money? That’s on the list, too.

“We’re looking for someone who can articulate a compelling artistic vision for the Fresno Philharmonic,” says executive director Stephen Wilson.

(Froelich and I weren’t privy to the search-committee interviews, so we’re basing our picks on the more public aspects of the search.)

All members of the orchestra were surveyed after each concert. Audience members had the opportunity to complete surveys as well, and between 250 and 300 people did for each candidate.

There are other complexities. At least five of the six candidates are actively involved in other job searches, so there’s a possibility that a first-choice candidate in Fresno might also be wooed by other orchestras. And there’s also the question of how a new music director would fit a Fresno appointment into his or her career lineup. With 10 concerts a season, the Fresno orchestra isn’t considered a full-time job. It’s expected that its music director will also conduct other orchestras. How the pieces of that puzzle fit together could be important.

“We would definitely want to assure ourselves that whoever is offered the position has space in their schedule for the foreseeable future,” Wilson says. “We want someone who is available and enthusiastic about spending ample time in Fresno, to be here to do the whole job.”

Rei Hotoda

Program: Zhou Long’s “The Rhyme of Taigu,” Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5.

Presence on the podium: 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.

Froelich’s take: “I think she was possibly the strongest technician of all the conductors I saw. Her ability to communicate her beat, just making sure the ensemble is in sync with her, was one of the strongest of all the candidates. And I really loved her programming choices.”

Sameer Patel

Program: Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Starburst,” Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, Sibelius Symphony No. 2.

Presence on the podium: Strong without being overbearing and precise without being mechanical, he showcased the orchestra in bright, bountiful moments. Patel’s connection with that music – nearly stormy when need be but dispassionate when appropriate – was clear. Part of the magic of any kind of music is chemistry, and he delivered it in often subtle but sometimes striking interludes.

Froelich’s take: “He really understood how to engage well with the orchestra. He knew how much gesture to give to the ensemble and when to back off and really let the music come forward. I felt his technique was really strong.”

Other candidate impressions

Daniel Meyer: Music director of the Erie Philharmonic in Pennsylvania and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina. An athletic, muscular presence on the podium, with almost a rock star persona. Lots of big, grand, dramatic gestures. Very strong communicator with the audience.

Alexander Mickelthwate: Music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Impressive résumé, innovative ideas to expand classical music audience. Great sense of humor from the stage and very good communicator. Very distinctive conducting style: lots of mirrored gestures, using both his left and right hands in opposition to each other as a way to keep the beat going with the ensemble.

Aram Demirjian: Music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Very confident presence on the podium. He coaxed drama, passion and big sounds from the ensemble, but there didn’t seem to be a strong bond between him and the ensemble. In a few moments, the orchestra wasn’t together, one of the dangers of using really large gestures.

José-Luis Novo: Music director of the Annapolis Symphony. Very expressive with his hands, a “willowy” style on the podium, very loose and lyrical. In more agitated, forceful pieces, some of the intensity and clarity of the music was lost.

Final thoughts

One moment from all those taco lunches stands out with me. Hotoda talked about how you take the same piece of music and with 10 different conductors it can sound radically different each time. I’d never really pondered the importance of chemistry, tempo and the physical presence of the conductor on the podium.

A lot of times people aren’t aware of what a conductor does. They say: It doesn’t matter who gets up there because the musicians just play the notes.

This delightful past season showed me how wrong that thinking is. A good conductor does matter. A lot. I’m excited to learn who gets the final nod – and even more excited about next season.

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