Akiko Fujimoto plans to showcase conducting strength in second ASO ‘audition’

Arkansas Symphony officials do not confirm that the current season’s guest conductors are finalists for the vacant music director position, saying only that these are the conductors the orchestra members wanted to experience.

However, Akiko Fujimoto, who first conducted the orchestra in April 2022 and is on the podium at this weekend’s Masterworks concerts, makes no secret of considering it a prelude.

So, she says, she adjusted the program originally announced for those concerts — 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Robinson Center Performance Hall in Little Rock — to better suit her strengths as a conductor to bring to bear. “[The orchestra was] very kind to let me change the program,” she adds.

For example, she replaced Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, a piece she had not previously conducted, with Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3.

No one doing Beethoven 4 for a recital,” she explains, and certainly not when they conduct it for the first time. “I’m almost afraid of it.”

It is the least-performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, and often “gets lost” between the “louder” and more celebrated symphonies, the Third (“Eroica”) and the Fifth, she noted.

Fujimoto says she’s building her confidence in Beethoven by recently conducting the composer’s Sixth Symphony for the first time with her own orchestra, the Mid-Texas Symphony in Seguin, Texas.

In the meantime, she says, she has the Beethoven overture in her repertoire, but this is also the first time that she has conducted it in a performance.

It’s a bit of a beast for an overture – around 14 minutes – and Fujimoto describes it as “a wordless summary of the entire opera”.

“It’s an intimidating piece,” she says, “not just a prelude but more of a symphonic poem.”

(Beethoven wrote only one opera; originally entitled Leonore, he revised it over several years and wrote three overtures before completely revising it, renaming it Fidelio and adding an entirely new overture. The Overture No. 3 sometimes performed during the opera as an entr’acte or between the two scenes of Act II, and much more often as a free-standing concert piece.)

photo Arkansas Symphony Principal Harp Alisa Coffey performs solos in Gabriel Pierne’s “Concert Piece for Harp and Orchestra” with the orchestra and guest conductor Akiko Fujimoto this weekend. (Special issue of the Democrat Gazette) For the rest of the program she works with Alisa Coffey, principal harpist of the orchestra since 2011, who can be heard as a soloist in Gabriel Pierne’s “Concert Piece for Harp and Orchestra”.

“It’s a beautiful piece and I didn’t know Pierne,” she says before beginning to learn the concerto. (Pierne, born 1863, died 1937. This one-movement work dates from 1901.)

And she conducts her own selection of movements from the three suites compiled by Sergei Prokofiev from his ballet Romeo and Juliet.

“This is music that will showcase my skills,” she says firmly. “It’s the kind of music that speaks to me.”

Prokofiev, she notes, uses the music, not the dancers, to drive the drama. “Ballet music can’t get any better,” she adds.

Her suite cuts the 150-minute ballet down to 42 minutes, but includes “all the greatest hits.” She says she rearranged the order of the plays from Prokofiev’s selection “to tell the story chronologically”. It ends with the death of Juliet after the death of Romeo, as William Shakespeare did in the play the ballet is based on. It adds four minutes to the entire piece, she says, “but we’ll see how it works.”

occupation of leaders

Fujimoto, a native Japanese who moved to California from Tokyo as a teenager and studied at Stanford University, Boston University and the Eastman School of Music, is also the wife of former ASO Associate Conductor Israel Getzov, now music director of the Conway Symphony.

In April 2022, she conducted the Arkansas Symphony in the premiere of “Pasajes” by Cuban-American composer Tania Leon; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with pianist Martina Filjak; and the tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” by Richard Strauss.

Before taking over her current orchestra in May 2019, she was assistant and later assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra from 2017 to 2019. During this time he also served as cover conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She was previously Associate Conductor of the San Antonio Symphony.

She is one of four guest conductors returning this season, pending consideration for the position of music director for the Arkansas Symphony. There are two other candidates: first-time guest conductor Vladimir Kulinovic, who took the podium in October, and the orchestra’s artistic director Geoffrey Robson, who has headed the orchestra’s musical affairs and performed the bulk of conducting duties since former music director Philip Mann left the company at the end of the 2018/19 season.

Still this season:

◼️ February 25-26 will see the return of Andrew Crust, Assistant Conductor of the Vancouver Symphony, who was Assistant Conductor of the Memphis Symphony and conductor of the Memphis Youth Symphony from 2017-2019. He conducts Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with piano soloist George Li; “Montgomery Variations” by Margaret Bonds; and Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American Symphony”) by William Grant Still. In the Masterworks concerts from April 30 to May 1, 2022, he conducted an all-Russian program with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (with violinist Shannon Lee), the “Polovtsian Dances” from Alexander Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

◼️ From April 1-2, Robson will be on the podium with cellist Zuill Bailey as the soloist in Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, plus the Overture in C major by Fanny Mendelssohn and Symphony No. 3, “Rheinisch”, by Robert Schumann.

◼️ Matthew Kraemer, Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, will conduct the Concerto for Piano and Strings by Doreen Carwithen, the Prelude to “Irmelin” by Frederick Delius and the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz.

Arkansas Symphony Orchestra

  • What: Stella Boyle Smith Masterworks Concerts. Akiko Fujimoto, guest conductor. Orchestra Principal Harp, Alisa Coffey, solos in Gabriel Pierne’s ‘Concert Piece for Harp and Orchestra’. Also on the programme: “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven and excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo & Juliet”. Fujimoto will participate in a concert talk one hour before each concert.
  • When: Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 3:00 p.m
  • Where from: Robinson Center Performance Hall, 426 W. Markham St. on Broadway, Little Rock
  • Sponsor: Sissy’s cabin
  • Tickets: $14-72 (subject to change), $10 for students and active military, Free for students with adult ticket purchase with Entergy Kids’ Ticket
  • Information: (501) 666-1761, Ext. 1;

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