Illinois Symphony opens season with music about overcoming challenges (plus a cheery waltz)
Maestra Rei Hotoda leads the Illinois Symphony Orchestra in works by Hannah Kendall, Shostakovich and two guys named Strauss (Richard and Johann II — no relation).
Umbrellaed under the title “Virtuosic Voices,” the concert kicks off the symphony’s 2022-23 season Oct. 15 at Illinois State University’s Center for the Performing Arts.
Hotoda serves as music director for the Fresno Philharmonic in California and has guested with some of North America’s most well-respected orchestras. She last conducted the Illinois Symphony in 2012, and, for a few reasons, she remembers it well.
“I was 36 weeks pregnant, on the podium conducting ‘Scheherazade’,” she said in an interview with WGLT. “Working with this wonderful orchestra was really memorable. I’m happy to be back.”
In addition to Saturday’s concert, Hotoda will conduct a Mozart-focused program on Dec. 3 at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.
“Virtuosic Voices” is the first engagement since the symphony announced a move back to ISU after 17 years at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. The ISO maintains dual hubs in Bloomington-Normal and Springfield, where it shares a partnership with the University of Illinois Springfield and will perform the day before the concert in Normal.
On top of the venue change, Hotoda’s appearance also is the first since former music director Ken Lam announced his departure after five seasons at ISO. She said the organization is “excited about all the changes,” including a newly appointed assistant conductor, Jacobsen Woollen, who also leads the ISO Youth Orchestra.
As a guest conductor, Hotoda’s challenge was choosing a program without much prior knowledge of the musicians and audience. She said she equally values the classics and new music, anchoring this program around Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier Suite.”
Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Voices of Spring” caps the evening with a jaunty, recognizable waltz, while the first half of the program is less cheery. Living composer Kendall’s 2017 work, “The Spark Catchers,” opens — a work inspired by Lemn Sissay’s poem of the same name. Both are reflections on an 1888 London match workers’ strike led by women and teenage girls protesting hazardous working conditions.
“I believe the musicians chose the Shostakovich ‘Violin Concerto,’” said Hotoda, noting that solist Itamar Zorman was originally scheduled to come during the pandemic. It is the first time they’ve worked together.
“It is a very difficult piece for the orchestra, not only for soloist,” said Hotoda, adding, “it will be a difficult listen for the audience.”
The four-movement concerto is dark and somber, reflective of Shostakovich’s life in Soviet Russia under Joseph Stalin’s oppressive regime. Paired with “The Spark Catchers,” Hotoda proposes an overarching theme about people overcoming challenges.
“If we don’t expose our audiences to music that’s sometimes not always happy — we’re not always happy all the time," she said. "There are weeks where I look at social media and everyone’s happy. Why isn’t there a post of somebody sad? Then I can relate to that.”
Maestra Rei Hotoda conducts the Illinois Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 in the concert hall at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts, 351 S. School St. For tickets, visit ilsymphony.org.