Meet the conductor: Q&A with ASO music director finalist Rei Hotoda

LEADER OF THE BAND: "I love to play and conduct," says Rei Hotoda. "Not only does it take multi-tasking to a whole new level, being both soloist and conductor puts you in an entirely new space."
LEADER OF THE BAND: "I love to play and conduct," says Rei Hotoda. "Not only does it take multi-tasking to a whole new level, being both soloist and conductor puts you in an entirely new space." Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

ASHEVILLE N.C.— “I guess you could say this program really sums who I am up as a musician,” says pianist and conductor Rei Hotoda, who, along with five other finalists, is vying for the position of Asheville Symphony Orchestra Music Director.

Each of the six finalists (including Jacomo Bairos, Darko Butorac, Nicholas Hersh, Jayce Ogren and Garry Walker) will conduct one of this season’s Master Works concerts. Hotoda leads the Asheville Symphony on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m. The program, titled “Journeys,” speaks to her roots and aspirations — and introduces the musician to Asheville.

“While I was born in Japan, I grew up in the States,” says Hotoda. “I studied in America, but I have roots in Asia. I respect my past, but look ahead at my future. This program does the same.”

Xpress: At what point in your training or career did you realize you wanted to be a conductor instead of primarily a pianist?
Rei Hotoda:
I can remember the moment so clearly. It was a real “ah ha” moment for me. I was attending a League of American Orchestras conference, and was given the opportunity to work with a full orchestra. I immediately fell in love with the podium.  From there, I studied with Gustav Meier at Peabody for two years and then auditioned for my first job as professional conductor with the Winnipeg Symphony. … After winning the position in Winnipeg and then turning around and winning the Taki Concordia fellowship, it was like I was home and I haven’t looked back since.

What is the difference in conducting from the piano versus the podium?
First, I love to play and conduct. Not only does it take multi-tasking to a whole new level, being both soloist and conductor puts you in an entirely new space. You are having to see the score from both sides — as a musician leading the orchestra as well as a musician playing with the orchestra. There really are no words to describe the incredible feeling. It’s kind of like a chamber music experience on steroids! However, I can tell you that I need a good massage afterwards (my neck can get a little sore conducting while sitting down) but, beyond that, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

When you were planning your program for the October Masterworks concert in Asheville, what themes, ideas or messages did you especially want to convey to the audience and to the Asheville Symphony?
The audiences of Asheville have a crown jewel of an orchestra that warrants a program that celebrates and highlights [the musicians’] extraordinary abilities. In turn, the Asheville Symphony has an audience that loves its orchestra, and wants to see it do great and important things. Together, they are a community that is extraordinary and special. I wanted to program a concert that would personify all these things, and was representative of the amazing cultural milieu of this city, one that has earned it a wonderful reputation across the country. By choosing to play a beloved pillar of the orchestral repertoire such as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and opening with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, a spotlight is cast on individual members of the ensemble. Then, to connect the two halves with an exciting tabla concerto — which, by the way, is an absolutely incredible piece that I promise will have you tapping your feet — will really create a bridge between the past and the future and sines a light on a diverse fusion of cultures. Not only will we discover this music together, but I am thrilled to be collaborating with Sandeep Das, a master tabla player, who has been all over the world and worked with other renowned musicians, such as Yo-Yo Ma.

Have you worked with Das before?
This will be my first time working with him. … While I have enjoyed experiences collaborating with other amazing players of non-Western instruments — such as the Gagaku Ensemble of Japan that consists of players of the sho, shamisen, koto, shakuhachi — to work with such a master of the tabla is beyond exciting. He is at such a high level; he is a tabla virtuoso. The audiences and musicians are in for a real treat. This performance is not to be missed.

Your bio notes that you’re an advocate of new music — is that in part why you chose Dinuk Wijeratne’s Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra?
I passionately believe it is vitally important to promote the music of our time and continue to develop symphonic music. I also think it’s important to keep the language of new music in the audience’s ear; to inspire exploration and embrace creativity. Oftentimes there is an aura of hesitation surrounding new music. However, I can tell you, this does not need to be the case. While I support new music and advocate for it, I also believe in unity of discovery. I love working with audiences and musicians on new works. It is so exciting and exhilarating that the experience is something I love sharing.

Can you tell us a little bit about the composer and why you’re drawn to his work?
There are many layers to who Dinuk is, from an intriguing composer to an accomplished jazz pianist to a brilliant teacher to an incredible advocate of music education to one of the most wonderful human beings on the planet. His passion and artistic diversity is boundless and inspiring, exciting and inviting, and this shines through his music like a beacon in the night. He is a composer to hear, and one whose music I’m sure you all will fall in love with, like I have.

Why do you hope to earn the role of music director of the Asheville Symphony?
First, it would be an honor to be the new music director of such an amazing orchestra that is supported and embraced by such an incredible community. To get the opportunity to work with an institution, an orchestra and with an audience that is percolating so many new and innovative ideas is something that I very much would like to be a part of. I’m eager to get to know the city this week and to work with this wonderful orchestra. You all have so much to be proud of.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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