If Rei Hotoda didn’t already have a key to the City of Fresno, she certainly earned one on Sunday. The Fresno Philharmonic music director both performed and conducted Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. She certainly has many talents. Next thing she’ll be setting the stage lights, taking tickets at the door and fixing the Saroyan Theatre’s plumbing.
The concerto (for piano, violin and cello) was one of three pieces devoted to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday. Most orchestras and ensembles around the world are celebrating the big “B” this year, and what I liked most about Hotoda’s dual-immersion role is that it felt fun and festive.
The concerto was second on the program, after a rip-roaring performance of the composer’s Overture to “Fidelio” that left Michael Chang, the principal violist, sawing away so furiously that I feared he might spark a fire. Hotoda, dressed in customary conductor black, raced backstage to change, and when she reappeared a few minutes later in a ravishing red full-length sleeveless gown — accompanied by fellow soloists Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio (violin) and Julie Albers (cello), wearing complementary blue and silver-taupe dresses — people in the audience murmured with excitement.
And then Hotoda did, indeed, proceed to both play and conduct, with the piano angled in front of her to give the best view of her for the orchestra members. Up and down she went. Repeatedly. The transitions were the most fascinating to watch: She’d be conducting, waving both her arms, and then, as one of her piano entrances neared, she’d sink slowly down, still gesticulating with her right hand while the other felt for the keyboard. To the musicians, I’m guessing it looked it like she waving goodbye in a descending open-cage coal-mine elevator. There she goes!
Sant’Ambrogio and Albers each got a chance to thrill the audience with dazzling runs and deft interplay, with the flurries of notes skipping from one to the next — and then to Hotoda — like a dancing dust cloud. The physicality of the endeavor was fascinating to witness. Hotoda had to be as aware of her body as she was of the music: negotiating the piano bench as she stood and sat, transitioning between conducting and playing, keeping her conducting hands high enough for the players to get the beat.
The whole thing could have come across with a supremely show-off vibe, but something about Hotoda’s chemistry with her fellow performers — and her obvious delight at getting to do something so splashy — kept it from being boastful or aggrandizing. Was it the best way to hear the Triple Concerto? Probably not; it was actually a bit hard to hear the piano at times, likely because of the way it was positioned, and I lost some of the delicacy (and character) of Hotoda’s playing. But that is a quibble compared to the excitement of the performance and the celebratory air it conveyed. I know that Beethoven was an enormous curmudgeon, but maybe we would have gotten a tiny grin out of him, too?
The 3rd Symphony (“Eroica”), which ended the program, was big, vigorous and well played. All three pieces on the program paid tribute to Beethoven’s “Revolutionary” spirit, including his daring musical innovations and his leftist politics, and this piece, which the composer originally dedicated to Napoleon but withdrew after the general crowned himself emperor, hints at the complexity of Beethoven’s life.
Most touching to me was the second movement, the funeral march (“Marcia funebre”), which offered a somber touch before the optimism of the final two movements. I had not heard until Sunday of the death in December of Roxie Jizmejian, a stalwart supporter of the Fresno Philharmonic who loved my arts coverage (and never failed to tell me that when I saw her at concerts and theater productions all over town.) She was a wonderfully kind and gracious woman who always brightened my day when I ran into her — which I did, often, because she loved live performances.
As the orchestra intoned its way through the funereal movement, I thought about Roxie and how delighted she would have been with the concert, from Hotoda’s exhilarating double-duty triumph in the Triple Concerto to the elation of the final movement of the “Eroica.” I’m sure that Roxie would say that music changed her life, and her beloved local orchestra did, too. I’ll miss her.