The first few rehearsals between a symphony orchestra and an unfamiliar conductor can be magical. And perhaps a little nerve-racking. Everyone’s on their best behavior. If things go well, the rehearsals can feel fresh and pitched with possibility, offering hints of great things to come. Or they can be dreary affairs, stolid and workmanlike, an exercise to simply get through and then move on to more encouraging opportunities.
They’re like a first date.
At this afternoon rehearsal in October, as Rei Hotoda stands on the podium in front of the musicians of the Fresno Philharmonic, preparing for her very first concert as the orchestra’s newly named music director, there’s little chance for the dreary option.
After all, Hotoda was notably successful during the initial wooing process — her tryout week in Fresno back in March — when she charmed players, patrons, media and audience members alike. (And, most important, members of the orchestra’s search committee, which unanimously selected her out of six highly qualified finalists.)
Was there chemistry between her and her future orchestra?
Still, now that she has the job, the dynamic has shifted slightly. She’s in charge. And it will take a while for her to truly get to know the orchestra — and vice versa. A conductor isn’t there just to boost morale and win a popularity contest. There’s work to be done.
“It’s a process,” Hotoda tells me a few days before her first official rehearsal as music director. “I still feel like we’re dating. And we will get to know each other. We will have disagreements as we go through this relationship together, but I think we all want to grow as musicians. That’s a universal statement for a musician: It’s never good enough. I want to inspire growth and curiosity from the orchestra as well.”
At the rehearsal, Hotoda is brisk and businesslike on the podium. She has to be, considering the limited amount of rehearsal time. But she isn’t terse. No sense of squeezing up against a deadline. No drama. Just prepared.
INSIDE THE MUSIC: Join author Donald Munro at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, in the Saroyan Theatre for the Fresno Philharmonic pre-concert lecture. He’ll be talking to Rei Hotoda about this story and her Veterans’ Day-themed program, which includes Beethoven’s famed Symphony No 5.
“On the podium she’s clean, she’s efficient, she’s artistic,” says Anna Hamre, a member of the search committee and music director of the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, a longtime partner of the orchestra. “She gets to the essence of the music. Her conducting is about the music; it’s not about her.”
At the moment, the orchestra is deep into the Grieg Piano Concerto, that robust monument to Romanticism. Guest soloist Natasha Paremsky is at the piano. She hadn’t met Hotoda before yesterday. But that’s often the case in the globe-trotting classical music world. Rapport between conductor and soloist is something that has to happen quickly. They’re already bonding after just a few minutes of them being on stage together.
Hotoda stops the orchestra to work out a section of the music with the strings.
“I want it a little more melancholy, not so bright,” she says. “Think of the notes. It’s as if I want you to place each one rather than leading toward the downbeat. The length is great, just much softer.”
This is the kind of tinkering that can make a piece sound great, not just good — even if most people in the audience don’t realize why.
The actual music itself is one part of the job, however, albeit an important one. Conductors don’t get hired just because they’re great musicians. (There are a lot of great musicians out there.) These days, they have to provide the whole package: Connecting with audiences. Encouraging donors. Educating young people. Attracting new listeners. Planning programs that sell tickets.
Hamre thinks Hotada checked off all the non-musical boxes on the search committee’s checklist along with the musical ones.
“I’m impressed with her off the podium as well,” she says. “She’s thoroughly and genuinely gracious. She’s thoughtful. She’s eager to know and understand the city.”
Most important, Hotoda is projecting an energy and enthusiasm during performance that gets people feeling as if they’re part of something special. She loves what she does, and it’s evident.
During the break, she comes over to say hello. I ask her how rehearsal is going so far.
“It’s a great group,” she says with a smile. “I can’t believe they’re mine.”
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I’ve written a lot about Hotoda over the past seven months. I penned a preview interview with her when she came for her week-long tryout, as I did with the other five finalists. I reviewed her March concert. I covered the big announcement in June of her selection as the orchestra’s new music director. I offered a preview and then a review of her first concert of the season in October.
Along the way I’ve had the opportunity to exercise my writing chops by focusing on her musicality. What can I say? Her presence on the podium make me want to capture her intensity in words. From my review last month:
She ended the concert 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.
But to continue the dating analogy, Hotoda is at the point in her relationship with Fresno that it’d be nice to get to know her better as a person: a little about her background, her family life, her busy routine as a jet-setting conductor. She signed a four-year contract, so she’ll be around for a while.
What makes her tick?
I asked her husband, Brian Dollinger, also a conductor. (A two-conductor family? Wow. More on that in a bit.)
One word: focus.
“I want everyone in Fresno to know that when they are with Rei — either one on one, or in a presentation, or the big performances — she’s there in that moment,” he says. “She takes it very seriously. She is prepared. She wants it to be the best she can be. I want people to know she has spent countless hours preparing. I know we always assume that, but we don’t always hear it. From the spouse side of things, I see all that hard work.”
Her son Constantine Janello, a high school senior, says these are the three words he’d use to to describe his mother: passionate, dynamic and devoted.
Hotoda’s mother, Sachiko Hotoda, remembers that when her daughter was 10 years old, she played in a piano competition at DePaul University.
“During her performance, the lights went out in the performance hall, but Rei kept on playing her piece,” her mother says. “She only stopped playing when the audience began making a fuss. This showed me her personal drive, and willingness to perform on piano, no matter what the circumstances.”
She won first prize.
Years later, she would go on to record an album of contemporary solo piano works by Japanese and Chinese-Canadian composer piano pieces. (You can find “Apparitions” on iTunes.)
When Hotoda first entered the Eastman School of Music to study piano performance, her mother remembers that the president of the school gave a tough-love inspirational welcome speech to the incoming students.
“He told them that only a handful of them would make it as musicians,” her mother says. “I am so proud that she is a part of the handful of students that have found success in their life’s journey in music.”
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Her mother was born in Tokyo. Hotoda was, too. The family moved from Japan to the U.S. and settled in Chicago. Her parents owned a sushi restaurant. Next door was a Mexican restaurant, and Hotoda would sneak over and get a burrito.
At age 3, she started playing piano. Her first teacher was her mother.
“When she turned 4 years old, I took her to a professional piano teacher,” Hotoda’s mother says. “The first day, the teacher told me that when Rei sat at the piano bench and looked at the music, a serious look entered her eyes.”
The trajectory seemed to be set early, if not for a career in music then at least for a childhood dominated by it. But another calling piqued Hotoda’s interest as a girl: ice skating.
Her idol was Kristi Yamaguchi.
“She was very inspired when watching her skate,” her mother says. “I could see her skating improve once she discovered Ms. Yamaguchi. She was also very interested in the creative aspects of skating.”
Hotoda at one point was practicing four hours daily. One day Hotoda told her mother she wanted to apply to an international competition in Europe.
“I was shocked at the costs of the application and large lesson/practice fees,” her mother says. “I explained how difficult this was to be and that music would be forever on her side once she devoted energies to music.”
In one of those “just wait till you grow up and have kids of your own” similarities, Constantine also recently found himself tugged between athletics and music. He loves wrestling. He also plays the cello.
“We both have huge passions for what we do, whether it’s a physical sport or music,” Constantine says. “And yes, my mom did get very nervous whenever I wrestled a match. I remember she would always cover her eyes whenever someone would get taken down or thrown at a meet. But, while she was always nervous for me potentially ending my whole cello career with one injury to the hands, she knew that I loved the sport and completely supported me no matter what.”
He recently came to a decision: He wants to be a music major in college.
“That’s put a big smile on Rei’s and my face,” says Dollinger, Constantine’s step-father.
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Hotoda and I are at Antonio’s Mexican Restaurant in north Fresno eating a late lunch a few days before her October concert. It’s my privilege to introduce her to chipotle sauce.
“I put it on everything,” the waiter assures her.
We’re talking about her busy life. At the moment her husband is in Hawaii with their young daughter, Sophie, conducting a concert for the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra in Waimea, Hawaii. (He also conducts the Clinton Symphony Orchestra in Sterling, Ill.; and the Muscatine Symphony Orchestra in Muscatine, Iowa.) Her mother is bringing Constantine to Fresno to watch Hotoda’s debut as music director.
Dollinger has known of other two-conductor households, but only at the schoolteacher level, not in the professional world. It creates some logistical challenges.
Home for Hotoda and her family right now is in Morton, Ill., the “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” population 16,000, which is about two and a half hours from Chicago. It’s Dollinger’s hometown. He describes it as a town with a 1960s feel, small enough for people to know each other. It’s close to Peoria, which has a good airport.
A 3-foot wide paper calendar hanging in the kitchen is the organizational nerve center of the household. Her travel dates are marked in red. His are in green. The kids get blue and purple. (Their blended family also includes Dollinger’s daughter, Arianna, who lives out of state.)
“We are a collaborative family,” Dollinger says. “It is a matter of working out the various orchestra schedules, plus family schedules, plus travel time. I’m really detail oriented. Rei is too, but I like to take a lot of the initiative in terms of travel planning. Part of it is the meticulousness of my military background.”
She and Dollinger have been married for seven years. They met at the Hot Springs Music Festival in Arkansas. Later he asked her to come to his Muscatine Symphony as a guest artist. She brought Constantine along.
“From the collegiality of the music, we became friends, then down the road it turned into courting,” Dollinger remembers.
At the time, she was getting seriously interested in making the move from piano soloist to conductor. (After Eastman, she’d gone on to receive Doctor of Musical Arts in piano performance from the University of Southern California.) She studied conducting with Gustav Meier at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and she received a 2006 Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, created by Marin Alsop, to mentor women conductors. (She keeps up with the piano and performs at least three or four times a year; she’s also a big chamber-music fan.)
Her switch to conducting paid off: She has guest conducted orchestras in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Edmonton, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Toronto, Toledo, Nova Scotia, and Winnipeg.
At home in Morton, the couple have turned their formal dining room into an office, with two big desks that line up facing each other. (“It’s like two CEOs in the same room,” he laughs.) He’s a string player, so they talk a lot about “string stuff.” And as conductors, they discuss repertoire, particularly newer works, a particular interest of Hotoda’s.
“What’s great for me is that I get more exposure to living composers,” he says. “She gets a lot of lessons in strings. We both complement each other.”
Still, it isn’t all talk about classical music. Hotoda actually has wide-ranging musical tastes. (Constantine tells me: “My earliest memory that really told me that I was in a musical household was when I was 4. I remember my mom practicing Rachmaninoff Etudes at night, and in the morning, playing Jimi Hendrix CDs on my way to pre-school.”) She loves the outdoors, and ever since she married Dollinger, she’s been known to float on a fishing boat in the middle of the Mississippi River, just lolling away the afternoon.
Hiking is high on her list of activities to pursue in the central San Joaquin Valley.
For now, Hotoda is making the commute from Morton to Fresno, something she did when she had the assistant music director positions at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and most recently at the Utah Symphony. Constantine is still in high school, for one thing. After that, who knows?
“The living situation is always in flux,” she tells me as we enjoy our Mexican food. “It comes with the profession, to figure out how to manage two careers, and my husband being a conductor as well, and to have kids. We like to have our home base. We’re trying to support each other and help out as much as we can. We could say we’re moving next year, but we don’t know.”
The important thing, she says, is that she’s committed to Fresno.
“My plan is to really get to know the city and be a part of this community,” she says.
Hamre was impressed that in one of her first visits to Fresno after Hotoda got the job, she visited a Fresno Master Choral rehearsal.
“That speaks so highly of her,” Hamre says. “The choir looks very much forward to working with her this year.”
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When Hotoda conducted her tryout concert in March, she took a risk by beginning her program with a contemporary piece of music: Zhou Long’s fierce and pulse-pounding “The Rhyme of Taigu,” an homage to the ancient art of taiko drumming,
It was a smart move, perhaps even one that more than anything got her the job. The piece was daring but accessible, something that could engage an audience and even make it feel a little hip, while at the same time not overtaxing a listener’s tolerance for dissonance and non-melodic sounds.
The crowd loved it. And it didn’t hurt that the musicians looked like they enjoyed it, too.
“A lot of it is that Rei is genuinely enthusiastic about the music she’s programmed,” says Stephen Wilson, the orchestra’s executive director and CEO. “I think the audience picks up those signals from both Rei and the musicians.”
Hotoda wants to keep moving forward with pieces that aren’t hundreds of years old — while realizing that it’s all a balancing act.
“Yes, we’re doing new music, and, yes, we’re doing American composers, but it’s not a pill to swallow. This is not your medicine you have to take. I want to start small, with ripples. I want to drop that rock in the water first, to see where it goes. I want to do little things first, so it’s not too scary for people. We’ll keep exploring and see how things go.”
At her October concert, she again begins the program with a (relatively) new piece: Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance.”
Is the reaction from the audience as rhapsodic as the Zhou Long piece from March? Perhaps not. But Hotoda had already banked goodwill for new music from that first offering, and my guess is that more audience members were open to this slightly less accessible piece after that March offering.
The rest of the concert goes very well, with a confident Hotoda powering through the Grieg and Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” then concluding with a rousing version of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.”
What’s most apparent in terms of the audience reaction, however, is how self-assured and relaxed she seems. Even comparing her demeanor to her March concert, she seems a little different.
Constantine, who is in the audience, notices a change, too, from concerts he attended when she was assistant conductor at the Utah Symphony.
“Not only has my mom become more confident in her leading of the orchestra, but she also seems much more innovative,” he says. “I think that after so many years of being the second in command to another conductor, she finally has the opportunity to execute her own vision and fantastic ideas to propel the orchestra forward.”
Fresno Philharmonic’s “Homage,” 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $25-$79. Pre-concert lecture at 2 p.m., hosted by Donald Munro.
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