As first Masterworks concert approaches, a ‘Promenade’ with Rei Hotoda

Feel that chill in the air? Not yet? It’s coming. Rei Hotoda is bringing it with her all the way from the Midwest.

Just kidding. But it is that time of the year when the nights get crisper and the Fresno Philharmonic kicks off its Masterworks series. Now entering her second season as the orchestra’s music director and conductor, Hotoda is back in town and thrilled to return to the podium at Sunday’s concert (3 p.m. at the Saroyan Theatre).

“I look forward to seeing everyone,” she says.

I got the chance this week to catch up with Hotoda as she prepared for Sunday’s concert. Here are some high points from our conversation:

Summer break

For the first time in several years, she had a good chunk of the summer off. What did she use the time for?

“I practiced,” she says.


Hotoda, who is also a stellar pianist, learned the Bach Keyboard Concerto No. 1, which she recently played (and conducted!) at the Muscatine Symphony Orchestra in Iowa. Her goal is to learn all six Bach keyboard concertos.

She also hung out with friends and family and got in some gardening time.

Sunday’s concert

Hotoda is calling the opening Masterworks concert “Grand Promenade,” which is part of her theme this season as she and the orchestra explore the “Power of Music.” The opening piece is John Corigliano’s “Promenade Overture.” This 10-minute piece is by an American composer, “which I’m thrilled to highlight,” she says. And it celebrates Corigliano’s 80th birthday.

Plus: Be ready for a surprise. The score includes an instruction that players should look like they are having fun.

“It’s something to kick off the new season in a new way,” she says of the piece.

Second on the program is the famed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring world-class pianist Jon Nakamatsu, a gold medal winner at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The piece is a doozy. The first movement has three cadenzas, or virtuoso solo passages, while movements in most piano concertos just have one. The second movement is “extremely melodic and incredibly Romantic,” says Hotoda. And the third movement is memorable for its call-and-response style. “It’s like the orchestra and the soloist are playing tag the whole time.”

The third and final piece is “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was written for piano by Mussorgsky and later orchestrated by Ravel. The piece was inspired by Mussorgsky’s friendship with the artist Viktor Hartmann, who died suddenly at 39. Mussorgsky was inspired to write it after touring an exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings celebrating the artist’s life.

This is an example of the “power of music” that Hotoda is exploring this season. The various 10 suites in the piece are almost cinematic in their ability to conjure images in the listener’s mind. In “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” for example, Hotoda says you can easily picture those fluffy newborns coming out of their shells. And there are interludes of “promenading” that you can “hear” the composer walking down the hall to the next painting.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” is also a chance to highlight various players in the orchestra with some little-heard instruments, including the alto sax and tenor tuba.

The season ahead

Hotoda has been busy these past few weeks promoting the orchestra’s 2018-19 season. One of the concerts she’s particularly looking forward to is Nov. 11’s “Stories of Valor,” concert, which marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It’s a chance to honor veterans, a cause near and dear to Hotoda’s heart. (Her husband is a Marine.) The program features Benjamin Britten’s searing “War Requiem,” which will be performed by the orchestra plus the Fresno Master Chorale and the Alta Sierra Intermediate School Chamber Choir. There will be around 300 musicians on stage for the piece, so it should be a visual as well as an aural spectacle.

Other season highlights include a co-commissioned new work celebrating Fresno by Dinuk Wijeratne (April 7), a return by orchestra players to the intimate venue at Bitwise South Stadium (April 6), and the debut of “Proxima,” a new music series at Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library featuring Fresno Philharmonic musicians and spotlighting a diverse range of contemporary composers (Feb. 20).

Getting to know Fresno

Finally: Now that Hotoda is starting her second season with the orchestra, she’s learning more about her new part-time home. I ask her if she’s made any recent local discoveries.

Her answer: grapes. Fresno State organic grapes, to be exact.

“The other day I was in Whole Foods and I saw them,” she says. “They were so beautiful. I took them home and washed them, and I couldn’t stop eating them.”

Show info

Fresno Philharmonic’s ‘Grand Promenade,’ 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $25-$79, with discounts available for children and students.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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