Rei Hotoda feels a jazzy beat in her soul as she opens a promising new season of the Fresno Philharmonic
Now in her seventh season as music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, Rei Hotoda feels as if she’s built a level of trust with her audience. Slowly and carefully, she has made a point of being different and innovative in her programming. She has championed American composers, composers of color and living composers, sometimes all three at the same time. While being careful not to stray far from the core repertoire, she has helped train the ears of Fresno Phil audiences in terms of being receptive to more modern classical sounds.
Which brings us to Hotoda’s buzzword for the new season:
Though that theme might surprise some purists, it really isn’t that much of a stretch in conjunction with classical music.
“I feel like this is the next logical step of really exploring this iconic American music that’s rooted in so many aspects of our culture,” she says.
Jazz is often thought of as a separate, distinct genre of music compared to classical. Building on the idea of inclusivity, which is so important to her, she asks: What if we explored the intersection between jazz and classical? How does one influence the other? How do we break the barriers between them and discover the things in common between the two?
“That’s what we’re really highlighting this year,” she says. “There’s a thread through every program. So it’s really going to be a fun season of exploration.”
Highlights from my interview:
More on the jazz thing
Just to be clear, the orchestra won’t be playing jazz music. Instead, Hotoda is incorporating recognizable classical composers who either influenced jazz – or were influenced by it. For example, the Nov. 18-19 concert will include Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, a highly rhythmic and influential piece. The April 20-21 concert includes saxophonist Timothy McAllister playing French composer Guillaume Connesson’s “A Kind of Trane,” a concerto inspired by jazz legend John Coltrane.
In the final concert of the season, on June 1-2, she has paired Gershwin’s “American in Paris” – which pretty much has to be heard in a “jazzy” season – with Ravel’s “Bolero.”
In the past, Hotoda – a former professional pianist – has delighted audiences by playing the piano and conducting the orchestra simultaneously. In this weekend’s first concerts, she will perform the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos alongside guest artist William Eddins, a noted conductor and pianist. (Sound familiar?)
Written in 1932, the Poulenc piece is not your average Rachmaninoff or Mozart concerto. It’s very eclectic, Hotoda says. There’s a spontaneous emotional feel. It’s quirky, sassy and jazzy. There’s a hint of Mozart and strong references to Balinese percussive music. (Poulenc was like a lot of composers at the time interested in the sound of the music culturally embedded in Southeast Asia.)
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“Poulenc especially was able to transfer that sound into his piano concerto,” she says.
With Hotoda at the keyboard, the dynamic between conductor and musicians changes. It essentially becomes a piece of chamber music.
“Chamber music is push and pull between every one of us. It’s a different feeling than standing on a podium and leading that. I’m really relying on the incredible musicianship of our orchestra to come along with the ride with us. We’re all leading in this piano concerto together.”
Two Masterworks performances
One big change from last season: The orchestra is moving to Shaghoian Hall as home for its Masterworks series this season. (The pops concerts will continue to be held at Saroyan Theatre.) Performances are Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.
“It’s definitely better for the orchestra,” she says. It’s more fun. It’s a chance for us to reach different audiences. There are so many benefits to having these two concerts. We’re hopeful we will reach out to more people in our community. Plus, free parking!”
Also on the program
Along with the Poulenc, the orchestra will perform Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (Haffner). To end the concert will be an intriguing piece titled “Umoja” by Valerie Coleman.
Coleman, a flute player, wrote the piece originally for her small woodwind ensemble. The title is the Swahili word for unity.
“It was a perfect piece to start because it not only highlights a American woman composer, but also this incredible Swahili song. She brings together jazz and classical music.
Coleman’s “Umola” fascinates her, and one reason is that the composer was able to transform an intimate chamber piece into a full orchestral work that retains the sheer beauty of the piece.
One constant of music is that it adapts. Hotoda has been thinking a lot about this.
“It’s not a fixed thing. It’s constantly alive; it’s constantly changing. Every performance that we do will be different. This music, I hope, will inspire us to think differently, to react differently. We can experience music in a new direction.”