For Fresno Philharmonic’s Rei Hotoda, this is the perfect time for the emotional power of Mahler
Rei Hotoda has a big date on Sunday with a gentleman named Mahler.
How big? We’re talking about seven French horns.
“It’s a massive endeavor not only in size but in artistic growth for the orchestra,” says Hotoda, who will conduct the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday, May 8, in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 – nicknamed “Titan” – in the final concert of the season.
After enduring the diminishments of the pandemic, which required the orchestra taking baby steps back to live performance – including a series of concerts involving a much smaller number of musicians than usual – Hotoda looks forward to presenting a work known for its, well, robustness.
Mahler is not often performed, she says, and one reason is the size of the orchestra. It will be the largest number of instrumentalists on stage for the Fresno Philharmonic at the Saroyan Theatre since it performed Benjamin Britten’s massive “War Requiem” in 2018.
There’s more good news for Mahler fans: The orchestra is embarking on a four-year series of Mahler’s works.
“I think this orchestra is ready,” she says. “It’s a massive endeavor not only in size but in artistic growth. I feel like we have really grown, especially since the pandemic, as an ensemble to really work together in new ways. My relationship with the orchestra has grown tremendously – not only that, but also the orchestra with the audience. We need that kind of symbiotic relationship to play Mahler together.”
Though she’s starting with Mahler No. 1, she won’t be going in numerical order with the composer’s symphonies and other works in years to come. (The orchestra will announce its 2022-23 season lineup in a few weeks.)
Hotoda was inspired by orchestras she’s worked with in the past, including the Utah Symphony (known for its own ambitious Mahler cycle) and the Dallas Symphony, where she covered Jaap van Zweden (music director of the New York Philharmonic) when he conducted the Symphony No. 1 there.
“This is a dream come true for me. I was programming and thinking about this season during the pandemic. We were right at the tail end of last year when I came up with this idea. Stephen (Wilson, the orchestra’s CEO) agreed that it would be a phenomenal thing to celebrate our orchestra in this way.”
But the scale of Mahler isn’t the only attraction.
“During the pandemic, I would listen to his music. Mahler’s music is very emotional, and I was going through a very emotional time. How are we going to sustain our orchestra? His music really reflects the constant shifts of emotion that we went through the last two years. It’s really relevant right now.”
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Coming from a tradition of Brahms and Beethoven, Mahler was inspired by the descriptive and programmatic music of Liszt and Wagner.
“And yet his music is very pure. He embodies this music. His life is in the music. Suffering pain, loss, love – all those things that we feel as human beings. It’s on an epic scale. It’s very visual. It’s very heightened. That’s why I think his music is so amazing and has so much relevance. I’m just so excited, as you can tell.”
Also on the program is a short piece by the French composer Lili Boulanger, “D’un matin de Printemps.” Boulanger and Mahler lived during the same time period around the turn of the 20th century – he in Vienna, she in France. Boulanger’s piece is about spring (“think cherry blossoms and the Shinzen Garden in full bloom,” Hotoda says) while Mahler opens up his symphony with the beginning of creation. Rebirth and regeneration are major themes in both pieces.
For Hotoda, it’s a way to make musical connections for the audience.
“I feel that she is a composer who’s completely been marginalized for decades, and is finally coming to the forefront as a composer in her own right,” she says. “Had she lived longer, would she have composed nine symphonies of the scale of Mahler’s? Who knows?”