By Steven Hoffman
The Kennett Symphony’s 2013-2014 season is dedicated to finding the next music conductor, with each of the three finalists -- Michael Hall, Rei Hotoda, and David Alexander Rahbee -- taking a turn with the conducting baton.
Hall helped usher in the current season by serving as guest conductor for the “Opening Night Spectacular” at the Madeleine Wing Adler Theatre on the campus of West Chester University on Sept. 21. Hotoda recently led the orchestra during the “Spirit of the Season” holiday show. Rahbee will be at the podium when the Kennett Symphony performs its “Welcome Spring!” show on March 22.
Monica Buffington, the executive director of the Kennett Symphony, said that the organization is taking its time with the search process to replace Mary Woodmansee Green, who provided the artistic vision of the Kennett Symphony for 25 years before retiring at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season.
“Orchestras don’t do this very often,” Buffington explained. “In our case, it was 25 years ago, and we didn’t have this kind of search process 25 years ago.”
The search started in December of 2012 when Kennett Symphony officials formed an eight-member search committee comprised of four board members and four musicians who perform with the symphony. The job opening was posted with various national services, and dozens of highly qualified candidates expressed interest.
“We were overwhelmed, delighted, and very excited,” Buffington said. We received over 100 applications.”
The search committee spent several months reviewing the applications. The musicians on the search committee led the first round of the search process by eliminating those conductors that, for various reasons, didn’t fit with what the Kennett Symphony was looking for. “You could quickly see that they didn’t have the professional experience that we were looking for, or the professional experience just didn’t match what we were looking for,” Buffington said.
The field was narrowed to 18 candidates after the first round of screening. All those candidates were asked to provide references from the administrative staff, the board members, and musicians of the symphonies that they were a part of. Members of the Kennett Symphony’s search committee then reached out to their counterparts, finding out details about how the conductor candidates related to each component of a symphony’s organization. Buffington said that the Kennett Symphony was looking for someone who can work in perfect harmony with not just the musicians, but the board of directors and the staff as well. This resulted in an agreement on seven semifinalists. After another round of interviews, the candidate list was narrowed to three finalists with a wealth of musical experiences.
Hotoda, for example, doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t playing the piano. She started taking lessons at the age of 3, encouraged by her mother, who also had a musical background. In her home country of Japan, Hotoda would take an hour-and-a-half train ride to study with a concert pianist. She practiced two hours a day, and her dedication to the piano only intensified when her family moved to Chicago when she was 5.
Hotoda said that the piano is so familiar to her that it’s almost like her right arm. “I’ve never not played,” she explained.
Hotoda earned a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music. She completed her Masters and Doctorate in Musical Arts in piano performance at the University of Southern California.
While it seemed for a long time that she was destined for a career as a pianist, her musical direction changed when she took a course in conducting. “I had a choice between taking a course in conducting or a course in music history,” she explained. “The last thing that I wanted to do was do more studying, so I tried conducting.”
It soon became apparent to her that, despite her talents as a pianist, she wanted to pursue conducting as a career. “I always say that 88 keys were not enough for me,” she said.
Hotoda studied conducting with Gustav Meier at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Md. She then became a protégé of acclaimed conductor Marin Alsop, and was the winner of the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2006.
Since then, Hotoda has filled her résumé with appearances with orchestras all over the world, including stints with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the Duluth-Superior Symphony, the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. She completed three seasons as the assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She also previously served as the assistant conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2009, and the assistant conductor for the 2005 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California.
Today, Hotoda is based in central Illinois, but travels widely for performances. She enjoys working with different musicians. She considers auditioning for the musical conductor position with the Kennett Symphony to be a good opportunity, and one that she is grateful for. She said she has learned something from all her professional experiences.
“What’s great about conducting,” Hotoda said, “is that the more you do it, the better you get.”
She said that standing on a podium in front of the orchestra always excites her. “Every time I’m in front of an orchestra, I feel like I am on a roller coaster,” she said. “I never know what to expect. The best thing is when you have a group of musicians who are eager and willing.”
She found just that when she worked with the Kennett Symphony Orchestra for the holiday show, which included the “Die Fledermaus Overture,” by Strauss, Vaughan Williams' “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” and a selection from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite."
Hotoda said that the holiday program was very eclectic and it was a fun way to get to work with the musicians in the Kennett Symphony.
When each of the finalists comes in to audition with the Kennett Symphony, they meet with various groups in the community and tour the area. Hotoda said she was very impressed with Kennett Square. “It’s been great,” she said. “I really love the people here. They are friendly, warm and embracing.”
She called the downtown shopping area beautiful, and said that she liked all the restaurants in town.
Once Rahbee takes his turn leading the Kennett Symphony in March, the search committee will begin the process of making a final selection. “We are getting feedback from all sorts of constituents,” Buffington said. “All of this will inform the committee’s decision. The committee will meet and make its final selection. Then that candidate’s name will be presented to the board for approval. We expect that to be happening in April of 2014.”
That will clear the way for the new conductor to be in place in September of 2014 for the start of the 2014-2015 season. The new conductor won’t have to wait long to play a vital role in the Kennett Symphony’s history as he or she will be in place in time for the organization to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2015.
By the time a new conductor is named, the search will have taken 16 months or more. “It’s a long process,” Buffington said. “It’s understood that in order to build an organization, it takes more than one year. We need our artistic leader to be an integral part of our three- or five-year plan.”
To learn more about the the Kennett Symphony's conductor search season or to purchase tickets, call 610-444-6363 or visit www.kennettsymphony.org.