Concert preview: Fresno Philharmonic tackles a monumental Mahler symphony, and Rei Hotoda can’t wait for the date

Rei Hotoda has an early Valentine’s date with Gustav Mahler.

It’s perfect timing. The composer is made for a musical crush. Mahler’s works are emotional, glorious, and Romantic. And he’s accessible! This is no pouty, inward-looking, hard-to-read love match. As Hotoda puts it, Mahler wears his heart on his sleeve.

And in terms of the program, it’ll be a first date. Hotoda can’t wait to conduct his monumental 5th Symphony on Saturday night with the Fresno Philharmonic.

“It’s really a milestone for this orchestra to be playing Mahler symphonies,” Hotoda says. “I think it’s a great moment of pride for our audience and our patrons.”

As for her upcoming date: She’s optimistic about the relationship. Hotoda has committed to playing one Mahler work a season for the near future.

More about Mahler and the concert:


His Symphony No. 5 broke the mold

His first four symphonies were influenced by preexisting songs and text. In the 5th, he wrote from the soul.

“This is the first time he ventured out and said, ‘This music is just pouring out of me,’ ” Hotoda says. There’s so much meticulous detail, it’s almost overwhelming.”

Everything about it is big, including the orchestra itself. There will be about 80 musicians on stage.

Mahler was an accomplished conductor, of course, and in that sense, the orchestra was his “instrument.” Like Rachmaninoff on the piano, he knew his instrument so well that he could really push it just as far it could go, especially in terms of stamina. (The piece usually clocks in at about 70 minutes.)

Other composers are demanding, but Mahler asked even more.

“I think Mahler is different for the musicians than playing Strauss, or even Bruckner,” Hotoda says. “It’s like climbing the Swiss Alps.”

The 4th movement is probably the most famous

The Adagietto, which is scored for only the string section and a solo harp, is perhaps Mahler’s best known piece of music. It’s often played separately from the rest of the symphony, as Hotoda has done before. There’s a good story behind the tempo for the movement: Mahler indicated it should be played “very slowly.” Still, there’s a difference between Mahler’s “very slowly” and that of other conductors. He played the movement in about seven minutes. Other conductors such as Leonard Bernstein played it in nearly twice that time.

Hotoda is shooting for about nine minutes.

Mahler means homework

When I caught up with Hotoda by phone this week for this interview, she was deeply immersed in the score for the symphony. There’s a lot to study. For one thing, Mahler was prolific and specific with his marked tempos and musical directions: Use two horns only here, for example. Don’t use a mute on the viola solo, but it still needs to be super quiet at triple pianissimo.

Another reason is that conductors have to dig down and find their own take on the piece. She’s been preparing for months. That’s a different situation from a piece like Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” say, which Hotoda conducted at the most recent Masterworks concert. That piece already has a built-in storyline (in this case connected to the ballet for which it was written). With Mahler’s 5th, she has to know the piece so intimately that she can create her own narrative.

“I want to bring the audience along on this ride,” she says. “I have to know what I’m doing at every moment.”

Balancing the program

Hotoda is pairing the Mahler with Jessie Montgomery’s 2022 “Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra,” featuring guest artist and world-renowned pianist Awadagin Pratt. (Fresno Phil fans will remember him from his 2018 visit.)

Montgomery was commissioned by Pratt and a consortium of orchestras to write the piece, which is inspired by the imagery and themes from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “Four Quartets.” Pratt has been busily touring with the tune.

“Jesse’s piece is very different from the Mahler,” Hotoda says. “It’s like the yin and yang. Mahler is dark. Jesse’s piece is lighter.”

Still, Mahler takes us on an epic journey.

“What’s amazing about Mahler’s 5th symphony is that it starts out with a funeral march, but it ends in a completely triumphant way. He goes from dark to light. When he ends, the heavens open up at the end of this piece.”

Pop-up surprise

January’s concert included an unannounced pre-concert performance by aerial dancers in the lobby, which correlated with the “Birds” theme. Hotoda promises another pop-up event – and it’s a surprise. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Get there 45 minutes early to experience it, she says.

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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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