It’s double duty for Hotoda when she conducts Fresno Philharmonic from the piano
For a couple of years now, Rei Hotoda has been hinting that she’d one day treat Fresno Philharmonic audiences to a conducting feat: playing the piano and conducting the orchestra at the same time.
And I’m excited.
Pictured above: Rei Hotoda does a Munro Review version of a Tiny Desk Concert. Photo: The Munro Review
I got the opportunity to interview Hotoda at one of her favorite places: in front of a piano. (To get to sit next to someone of Hotoda’s talents while she plays is a rare privilege.) We met at Steinway Piano Gallery to talk about the orchestra’s upcoming celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday.
Along with the composer’s monumental Eroica Symphony and beautiful overture to the opera “Fidelio,” the Fresno Philharmonic will perform the Beethoven Triple Concerto featuring Hotoda on piano, concertmaster Stephanie Sant ‘Ambrogio on violin and guest artist Julie Albers on cello.
The very best way to experience this story is by listening to it, because then you get to hear Hotoda play various themes and excerpts from the piece. (Click the Soundcloud link below and you should be able to stay on this page.)
Another must listen/view: Hotoda played a snippet of the last movement of the piece for me, which I recorded on video. You can find the YouTube version a little farther down in this story.
I’ve transcribed our conversation, lightly edited, below.
Donald: Do you feel when you sit down at the keyboard that you’re home?
Rei: Very much. I’ve been playing since I was 3 years old. It is — how do you explain it — a relationship. A long, long-term relationship.
Donald: I know that when I played trombone in band in high school and college, it was a “feel” thing for me. I would move the slide (mimes the motion). The same for (when I played) the piano. I’m sure part of it is a tactile thing.
Rei: very much. Also, I use different parts of my brain when I’m playing and when I’m conducting. I feel that way, anyway. If anyone would put a brain scan on me, I don’t know what they would actually see (laughs).
Donald: You feel more relaxed, more in tune with your feelings?
Rei: I feel like producing the sound is completely different from conducting, which you’re trying to evoke a sound. Playing makes me feel like I’m part of the music-making in a very tactile way. It’s extremely gratifying right away. I can actually press down and make a sound. (She plays a chord.)
Donald: We talked before about your piano playing. You divide your time between the piano and conducting. Has anything changed in terms of the percentage of the time?
Rei: Absolutely. I study and am conducting a lot, lot more. My day job is conducting, and my night job — the things I do in the owl hours — are practicing. But getting ready for a concert like this, I definitely put this in the forefront.
Donald: How many days a week do you play the piano?
Rei: Every day, when I’m preparing for a concert. For example, for this piece, I learned it this past summer, and I’ve kept it up for the fall. It’s like a yearlong process.
Donald: How often have you conducted from the piano?
Rei: I would say maybe three or four times.
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Donald: Oh, OK. So this is a pretty special thing.
Rei: It is. It’s something that is extremely challenging. It’s like playing video games, playing tennis and trying to cook a gourmet dinner at the same time. It’s many, many facets of music making happening at the same time. I really like the idea of mirroring the playing with the conducting … to put those together is a fantastic, rewarding experience. Also, to play chamber music with my orchestra is a very intimate affair. Having to rely on them, and them relying on me — there’s this interplay happening on stage. It’s a very intimate, intense moment — that we’ll experience this weekend.
Donald: One of the things that has always impressed me about chamber music is that communication between the players. There’s usually one who starts things off — the lead. Is there a name for that player?
Rei: For instance, in the string quartet, it would be the first violinist leading. But in this piece, with the Beethoven Triple, we have violin, cello and the piano. When Beethoven wrote this piece, he wrote it for his student, Archduke Rudolf of Austria. He was a student who showed a lot of promise. What better way to honor this patron and this student than to write a concerto for him? And so what he did was kind of wrote it so the cellist and violinist would highlight the pianist. So he wrote the violin and cello parts to be much more difficult than the piano part.
VIDEO: Watch Rei Hotoda perform on the piano
But, in fact, it is a very difficult piano part, because Beethoven in his own way cannot resist making a challenge happen. It makes this piece more like a piano trio concerto. This has never happened before. We’ve had pieces like the Mozart symphony “Concertante” which features the violin and viola. But a lot of times in that piece, they’ll do solos, and then the orchestra comes in. Here, it’s very much the trio is playing, and then the orchestra is playing at the same time. There’s this complete immersion of chamber music that is happening. That is what is so brilliant about this piece.
There are lines where — (plays) the piano accompanies — and the cellist is playing the melody. So we have this melody and accompaniment happening at the same time, and then the violin comes in and interrupts, and then the orchestra comes in and adds certain colors here and there. A lot of times the pianist will be a little bit understated, and the cello and the violin will have a lot more to say. So that makes it very unique in a concerto form.
Donald: Tell me about your wearing of two hats as conductor and player. You have a similar relationship with the cello and violin as in a very small chamber group, where you do eye contact and are on the same wavelength. How do you incorporate the orchestra into this?
Rei: Well, let’s see. For instance, the opening. (She plays.) That’s the melody. And then the cellist comes in. Then the violin comes in. Then I have to show the downbeat for the horns coming in on the second beat of the next measure. I actually am conducting with my head.
Donald: So no hands?
Rei: Once I’m done with that run, then I stand up.
Donald: When you conduct a regular concerto with a guest soloist, there are times when you let the guest soloist have free rein. With this, how is that different?
Rei: The three of us, the trio, will rehearse beforehand. We’ll make our musical decisions, and then we will share them with the orchestra so they know how we want to play them.
Donald: So in a way, it’s easier for you because you as the conductor knows what you as the soloist is going to do.
Rei: Exactly. I have an inside scoop.
Donald: Is there a point that you are thinking just about the piano, and a point when you’re thinking just about the conducting?
Rei: Exactly. There’s this part in the third movement … I am playing 11 measures of trills. I won’t torture you right now, but as it goes into the trill, it comes out a run, and I have to start conducting the orchestra. Just to give you an idea … (She plays.) I’ll come out of the run, and then I’ll jump up and conduct. It’s very much a show, I think.
Donald: So you’ve had to choreograph yourself a little bit here. You’ve thought to yourself, this is where I’m going to stand up.
Rei: It’s not choreographing — (but) it is, in the sense that I have to be able to play and do it at the same time. If I were just playing it, I wouldn’t have to worry about that. I’d have the conductor do all that for me.
Donald: This is not a short piece.
Rei: No. It’s three full movements.
Donald: Is it an endurance event for you?
Rei: Absolutely. If I am a soloist, all I have to do is wait till my next entrance. But as the conductor, now I have to start conducting the rest of the piece and know where I am. I really have to coordinate all that in my mind.
Donald: Was it more common for someone to conduct from the piano, say, a couple of hundred years ago compared to today?
Rei: Absolutely. Beethoven premiered this. He did a small house concert, so to speak, with an orchestra, and he played and conducted. He did that with his fourth and fifth piano concerti, and Mozart did that. It was basically self-promotion as a conductor. What better way than to do it yourself?
Donald: Where did you get the idea this was something you wanted to do?
Rei: That’s a great question.
Donald: Was it something you’d always wanted?
Rei: No … it came about when I read about these composers like Mozart and Beethoven doing this on a regular basis. I thought after embarking on all my conducting studies this would be such a great way to see if I could do that. When I first did it, I did it with the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12. I just loved it. It was with a community orchestra in Iowa. And I thought, this was so fantastic. It was like I had this blood transfusion — all of a sudden I was a totally different person.
Donald: So, Iowa …
Rei: And the Dallas Symphony, and also the Utah Symphony.
Donald: It’ll be a pretty big audience pleaser. A show of virtuosity.
Rei: I think so. For me, it’s such a privilege to be able to do that. To make music with my orchestra is a very special privilege.
Donald: I have joked — I don’t know how many times, in the past couple of years — about you needing a chiropractor for your neck if you do this. Is it actually hard on your neck?
Rei: (laughs) I’m sure Sunday after the concert, Monday morning, I’ll probably be stiff. All over.
Donald: I know that you keep in very good shape. This would not be for the faint of heart, for someone who isn’t in pretty good physical shape.
Rei: I think so. I know I know Leonard Bernstein did this, too, played and conducted. There are many other conductors who do it.
Donald: Anything you want to tell us about the other two pieces?
Rei: The Eroica symphony was a pivotal moment in Beethoven’s life. He really embarked on his own journey. This is when he really started to push the envelope in symphonic writing. The whole model of the architecture — he was so brilliant in pushing that out into the Romantic Era. Starting with the Eroica Symphony is where he started to do that. Not only is it a pivotal piece for him as a composer, but for us, to hear a composer who was struggling. He really was struggling with his deafness at this moment in time. He really was contemplating suicide. Through art, he was able to really survive.
This is the symphony that shows he was able to put forth everything — all his energy and creative output — into this work. That’s what pushed him to write these incredible pieces after. It’s heroic. They always say he was such a curmudgeon. His personality was so difficult. He was also so politically left. This was his way to put his thoughts about the turmoil that was happening with the French Revolution. He thought Napoleon was going to be the hero that would save us all from this tyranny. And then, of course, he ended up being this tyrannical leader. And (Beethoven) was crushed by that. It shows. The second movement is a funeral march. Who would put a funeral march in their symphony? And then the third and fourth movements are the complete opposite: hopeful, happy, playful. (She plays.)
It’s all just E flat major, yet he’s able to build this incredible intensity and melody out of a major triad. I think that is incredible about who he is as a composer. He was able to write 10 variations in the last movement on that theme. We go from a Hungarian gypsy dance to a heroic ending that starts to climb up into the heavens. It’s an incredible piece.
The Fidelio Overture is about Leonore, who saves her husband from prison because he was wrongfully imprisoned. So, again, this feeling of making right in the world.
They were all written in the same time period: 1803-04. I love this program because they all really enhance each other.
Donald: I know you’ve been thinking about a Beethoven celebration for a while. Was it hard to narrow it down to these three?
Donald: What would have been fourth choice?
Rei: Beethoven 5th symphony of course.
Donald: Which would have been hard. But you had to struggle with that choice.
Donald: Also, most all classical music organizations are doing some kind of Beethoven, so you kind of want to have your own spin on it.
Rei: That’s right. Having these three pieces written in the same time period — this is the moment where he really starts being his own voice. He just skyrockets after that. I thought this would be a great way to start his anniversary — to celebrate his whole creative output that way.