She began her inaugural concert with a gracious smile and a long, deep bow. And she ended it with a dramatic stance: her left arm raised high in a power salute with baton pointed skyward, her other arm at rest by her side, creating an elegant asymmetry. It was a graceful yet assertive posture to end on, a follow-me pose, as if to say: I’m here to lead you to great things, and I’m going to do it in style.
Rei Hotoda knows how to make a memorable debut.
In her first concert Sunday afternoon as the Fresno Philharmonic’s newly appointed music director, Hotoda built on the momentum she started in her performance in April as guest conductor of the orchestra, when she was one of six candidates vying for the position. She wowed that audience with a combination of dynamic programming, crisp musicality, rapport with the musicians and a commanding sense of physicality on the podium that at times can be nearly balletic.
In Sunday’s concert, Hotoda demonstrated that the qualities that made her the unanimous choice of the orchestra’s search committee after that April concert were no flukes. The mood in the Saroyan during intermission and afterward was ebullient and excited.
“I think you’re going to see ticket sales skyrocket,” one board member told me happily.
The scene: Any new beginning deserves a festive atmosphere, and a wave of welcoming applause filled the Saroyan Theatre when Hotoda walked onto the stage for the first time. (One gentleman even tried to start a standing ovation right then.) The goodwill in the auditorium was palpable. And why not? A new conductor, a new season. New possibilities.
The opening piece: Just as she did in her April concert, Hotoda began with a contemporary piece (although this one is 25 years old): Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance.” It’s a big, boisterous and exuberant piece brimming over with allusions to New York: the jangled traffic, the sirens and police whistles, the sudden tranquility of Central Park, the upbeat rhythmic organized cacophony of millions of people sharing a small space together. Parts of the composition have a strong Bernstein “West Side Story” mambo feel, and others suggest a rowdy college marching band.
My take: Along with an appropriately celebratory title — the composer wrote it to mark the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic — the piece was something of a wild ride, particularly for a Fresno Philharmonic audience, but that goodwill I mentioned gave it a nice cushion of acceptability. The orchestra sounded wonderful. I was struck that Hotoda pushed the envelope just a little more with the Kernis piece than she did with her choice of Zhou Long’s “The Rhyme of Taigu,” in April. The Kernis piece was a bit less accessible, not quite as easy to wrap up in a tight little package, as the percussive focus of “Taigu.” I think Hotoda is signalling that she’s ready and willing to take Fresno new places musically and to build on what comes before, even if in smaller doses.
The guest artist: Natasha Paremsky offered a stellar performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. When I talked to the soloist last week before the concert, she told me that the Grieg is so over-the-top Romantic and gorgeous that it’s probably one of those pieces that you should only listen to every once in awhile, else you might overdose on its sweetness. (The only note I took in the second movement: “It is as beautiful as frosting.”) I took her advice to heart, electing not to listen to any recordings before the concert, and I was glad to experience Paremsky’s take. From the moment we heard those famous first crashing chords, the piece felt fresh and buoyant.
The third piece: Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” which many scholars consider to be a composition that marked the beginning of modern music, unfolded with a dreamy, almost hazy, lyricism. I found it hard to connect to what was supposed to be the composition’s stark sensuality. Coming after the open-arms appeal of the Grieg, I’m glad I heard Hotoda’s take on the Debussy in the pre-concert lecture, because it gave me something intellectual to hang onto while listening. I suspect this is one of those pieces that might call out for a few introductory words in the concert as well.
Closing piece: Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” a four-movement tone poem, was a chance for Hotoda to be a bit showy along with virtuosic. At times raucous (and in my mind a little overdone), Respighi threw in lots of audience pleasers, from recorded bird calls to a brass choir sequestered in the balcony, thus offering a stereo sound you just don’t get from a pair of headphones. (Kudos to the Fresno State music students who delivered in a key moment.) The last movement, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” represents Roman warriors returning to their city in triumph, and as the music gets more bombastic and gladiatorial, you can almost hear the crowds cheering and the stomping of the soldiers. By the finale, when Hotoda struck her impressive pose with baton pointed high, it felt as if the audience was ready to leap up and fall in behind those marching legionnaires into a new era.
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