The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra opened its 80th year in innovative fashion. During the course of the season, five candidates to replace musical director Markand Thakar will take to the podium, batons in hand, to conduct concerts in Symphony Hall.
The first candidate, Rei Hotoda, strode confidently out on stage decked out in a black jacket and crimson red blouse, and after a brief explanation of the night’s selections, she turned briskly to the orchestra and launched into Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” a contemporary piece of music from the Grammy Award winner in 2009 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Pulitzer Prize winning composer.
Hotoda, herself, is not lacking in musical credentials, having studied with Gustav Meier (director of the orchestra conducting program at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins, formerly having served as the youngest full-time professor in the history of Yale University and the instructor of conductor master classes throughout Europe and Asia) at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Hotoda holds a doctorate in piano performance from the University of Southern California, but more on that part later. Presently, Hotoda is the assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Back to “blue cathedral.” Composer Jennifer Higdon, according to Hotoda’s introduction at the top of the evening, has composed some of the most performed repertoire in contemporary classical music. Brooklyn born, Higdon was raised in Tennessee before living in Atlanta, where the self-taught flautist had never really paid attention to classical music before her college years, where she found herself playing in the orchestra at Bowling Green State University. She composed “blue cathedral” in 1999, after the death of her younger brother, Andrew Blue, in a reflection of the relationships, individually and collectively, people make in life. She gave attention to creating solos for clarinet (the instrument her brother played) and for flute (her own instrument) in composing the music.
The tone of the piece is gentle when not punctuated with frenetic brass and wind outbursts. Throughout, the clarinet and flute course through the music until the flute falls away, in obvious symbolism. It is at times melancholy, beginning tentatively. It really is a sublime composition and the DSSO under Hotoda’s direction, breathes life and power into the notes, leaving one to hope that the orchestra makes a habit of introducing beautiful contemporary works alongside iconic classical favorites. You can listen to “blue cathedral” here to find out for yourself.
Hotoda didn’t have to plead her case for the piece too much, for my interest. Although I can sit and listen for hours to the old favorites, I, myself, need to open up to the beauty of contemporary compositions. I cannot say for certain what my expectations were when I heard it was a new piece of music, but my moment of hesitation was swept away when Hotoda’s baton went up and the soft opening moments fluttered in an unassuming and unpretentious introduction, gaining emotional momentum and eventually soaring throughout the hall. There is real emotional power in symphonic music as there is in no other genre and the sheer joy in the revelation that the emotion is packed into the notes without any vocal accompaniment and can reach into the depths of the soul is a stirring experience, much like Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” is to me. It’s time to consider contemporary pieces in much the same manner as celebrated classics. Coupled with the background information on the touching personal reasons for Higdon’s composition of the piece, the aural experience of “blue cathedral” is something not to be missed. It’s a lot of music for twelve minutes.
After Higdon, Hotoda welcomed celebrated pianist Katherine Chi to the stage as the concert’s guest artist. Firmly established as a virtuoso pianist, the New York Times wrote of Chi’s 2003 New York recital debut: “Ms. Chi displayed a keen musical intelligence and a powerful arsenal of technique.” This might be understatement, as a matter of opinion. She gave her first recital at the age of nine and just a year later, was accepted at the lauded Curtis Institute of Music. Chi’s elegant and commanding presentation is a theatrical experience in its own right. And that makes Chi the perfect choice to accompany the DSSO for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
The drama of the opening notes makes this one of the world’s best known of piano concerti. Composed in 1875 and revised in 1879 and again in 1888 under heavy criticism, the concerto has three movements. A fun piece of trivia about this concerto is that Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, in 1958, with this piece, astonishing the world as an American winning the competition at the height of the Cold War. At any rate, the 1888 revision is the version of the concerto heard today. Hypersensitive and insecure, I have to admit that Tchaikovsky is my favorite of classical composers. The drama and tragedy of his life and his relationships plays out spectacularly in his music, making him, as I like to say, the “hot mess” of the classical world.
The concerto is an ambitious piece for a new conducting candidate to take on for the opening of a new season of music and that’s what makes Hotoda all the more intriguing. The small-statured woman takes command of the orchestra with her majestic movements and obvious regard and familiarity with the repertoire. It’s nearly sensory overload during the first movement from the highs of the dramatic theme in the beginning of the movement to the valleys of delicacy the instruments playfully throw out into the hall. Hotoda coaxes and pulls out the subtleties in the music along with encouraging the larger than life passages that define the concerto as a masterpiece.
Chi, for her part, is an equally commanding presence—regal and elegant, she seems to alternately treat the keys of the piano as a lover, tenderly stroking the notes before bearing down and furiously pounding out the more dramatic moments in the concerto, her face a study in passion for the music. The performance was such a mesmerizing and harmonious blend of talent and direction that, in a fantastic and much deserved disregard for de rigueur silence between movements, at the conclusion of the first movement’s 865 bars, the audience in symphony hall erupted into applause and stood for an ovation.
In a sort of endearing and shy move, conductor Rei Hotoda, at the conclusion of the concerto and after the deserved applause, stepped down from the conductor’s podium and joined pianist Katherine Chi alongside on the piano bench sans orchestra where Hotoda got to demonstrate her piano performance chops, showing off that hard-earned doctorate in piano performance from USC, while she and Chi dazzled the audience by playing together.
The second half of the evening featured Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” arranged, in its more famous version, by Ravel. The suite, comprised of ten movements, was completed in 1875 and was composed originally for piano. Hotoda through the orchestra, treats the piece with finesse and polish, resisting the urge in many orchestrations to highlight the coarse nature of some of the original composition. As just the listener, I was impressed by the music’s tendency to reach peaks of tension and then release, building on itself until the thunderous conclusion. Some of the music is abrupt and is thrust out into the audience with what seems like brute force. The precision with which Hotoda and the orchestra presents the music in a theatrical way that is visually appealing and aurally succinct. Serious critics of Mussorgsky will say that he was not a competent musician other than being a good pianist and have, at times, been entirely critical with the pacing and mood of the piece as interpreted by other conductors and orchestras, but as a person sitting in the hall, I believed the DSSO was generous with the composition and did not attempt to move through it with a breakneck speed. It flowed and filled up the space, as it should. And, by all accounts, the audience was enthralled–at the conclusion, cheers and applause for a most satisfying, innovative, brave and accomplished season opener.
At one point in the middle of the Tchaikovsky concerto, my mind wandered to the role of the conductor. I wished that, for once, the orchestra was turned around so that I could see, the entire time, the face and movements of the conductor as she directed the orchestra. And then I imagined the role of the conductor, not just for this particular performance, but for a piece of music like “Carmina Burana” and the thrill of being center stage, in the middle of the music and the orchestra, coaxing and pushing it along, letting it rise organically and out into the symphony hall. The power, the thrill of creating it and having voices and instruments move in precision to notes set down in the ages. What a magnificent rush it must be.