Coffee Talk with Rei Hotoda

by Adam Rosen

This Saturday, October 21, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra will hand the baton to Rei Hotoda, one of six remaining candidates vying to be the ASO’s new music director. After an exhaustive search that received 437 applications, the ASO is giving each finalist a chance to conduct a full concert during the 2017–2018 season.

Though originally trained as a pianist, Hotoda turned to conducting after studying at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Her 12 years in the profession make her a relative newcomer, but you would never know it from her resume. She’s currently the music director of the Fresno Philharmonic—a part-time position, as leading the ASO would be—and has guest-conducted in dozens of cities around the country.

Hotoda grew up in Chicago, right by Wrigley Field, and she currently lives with her husband and two children in the small town of Morton, Illinois.

The theme of Hotoda’s concert is “Journeys,” and on Saturday she will be joined by the celebrated Indian tabla player Sandeep Das.

To help introduce herself to Asheville, Hotoda happily agreed to speak with me at Trade and Lore Coffee on Wall Street on Wednesday, October 18. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Hotoda talks about conducting excellence, life on the road, and her local impressions.

AR: What attracted you to Asheville?
RH: This position, the music director of the Asheville Symphony, is amazing. I’ve heard wonderful things about the city itself being a very culturally rich city, and a diverse city musically, but also some wonderful things about this area.

AR: What makes a good conductor?
RH: I think a good conductor brings the best out of an orchestra. And bringing out the best means bringing the performance level to the highest level possible. It’s really more of a feeling—an emotional feeling, rather than, “Oh, that was the best Tchaikovsky symphony I’ve ever heard.” People need to be excited about the music, and if the orchestra and I can provide that and project that to the audience, I think that’s the best thing I can do.

AR: According to your bio you’ve conducted orchestras in dozens of different cities. How do you prepare for conducting an orchestra that you’ve never worked with before?
RH: It’s a little bit like dating. At the first rehearsal you just get to know each other and see how things go. And then by the end of the last rehearsal or the performance you feel like, “This is working out great! And we had an enjoyable evening, a five-course meal, lots of conversation . . . I’ll hope I see you again next time.” It’s very much a get-to-know-you situation. From the orchestral side and from my side, we both bring our best to the first date. We’re anxious, but I think the best possible situation is that the conversation is lively.

AR: Apart from classical, what kind of music and bands are you listening to right now?
RH: I love listening to Top-40. I love listening to Pink. I love listening to Chance the Rapper sometimes.

AR: Does any of this inform your music?
RH: Absolutely. I like to know what’s out there, what’s recent, what people are listening to, stuff that I wouldn’t normally be listening to. I like to be challenged and to know what the most recent albums are. I don’t listen to classical music when I’m relaxing.

AR: Tell me a little about the event you participated in called “the Great American Road Trip.” Where’d you stop, and what’d you do? When I read about it, it sounded very Simon & Garfunkel.
RH: This was for the Utah Symphony. I was their associate conductor. We took the orchestra to all these national parks and monuments in Utah. It was fascinating to see all the different landscapes, and the community came out to Dinosaur National Monument and brought their lawn chairs. To hear music in a setting like that, with the stars and the mountain right there, is a totally different experience. And it made me listen to it differently as well. 

AR: Speaking of being on the road: Your family lives in Illinois, and you conduct in Fresno. What’s it like traveling so much?
RH: I find that when I’m on the podium, and doing a concert, and working with these incredible musicians, and meeting with people in these different communities, it makes all the traveling worthwhile. It makes standing in line in the airport not such a chore. This is such a great gig; I love what am I’m doing, and I get to make a living off it.

AR: Why do you think you should become the next music director of the ASO?
RH: I love this town, first of all, in the 36 hours I’ve been here. It’s so creative, and so beautiful. I love the mountains, and I love hiking. I think the [ASO] is on an upswing, and I want to ride the wave with this group, so to speak. And I think the orchestra has so much to offer to the community, and I want to be the bridge to do that. I think this is a great organization, and I’d love to be a part of it.

Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.
www.adammrosen.com