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

by Eric E. Harrison | January 26, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Guest conductor Akiko Fujimoto makes her second appearance with the Arkansas Symphony Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Performance Hall. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Mike Grittani)

Arkansas Symphony officials aren't confirming that the current season's guest conductors are finalists for the vacant position of music director, saying only that these are the conductors the orchestra members have requested to experience.

Akiko Fujimoto, who first conducted the orchestra in April 2022, and who is on the podium for this weekend's Masterworks concerts, makes no bones, however, about considering it an audition.

So, she says, she tweaked the program that was originally announced for these concerts — 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Little Rock's Robinson Center Performance Hall — to better show off her strengths as a conductor. "[The orchestra was] very gracious 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.

"Nobody does Beethoven 4 for an audition," she explains, and especially not if they're conducting it for the first time. "I'm almost scared by it."

It's the least performed of all of Beethoven's symphonies, and is often "lost" between the "louder" and more famous symphonies, the Third ("Eroica") and the Fifth, she noted.

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

Meanwhile, she says, while she has had the Beethoven overture in her repertoire, this will also be the first time she's conducting it in performance.

For an overture, it's a bit of a beast — approximately 14 minutes — and Fujimoto describes it as "a wordless summary of the entire opera."

"It's an intimidating piece," she says, "not just a curtain-raiser, but more like a symphonic poem."

(Beethoven only wrote one opera; originally titled "Leonore," he revised it over several years, and wrote three overtures, before overhauling it altogether, renaming it "Fidelio" and adding an entirely new overture. The overture No. 3 is sometimes performed during the opera as an entr'acte or between the two scenes of the second act, and much more often as a free-standing concert piece.)

  photo  Alisa Coffey, the Arkansas Symphony’s principal harpist, solos in the “Concert Piece for Harp and Orchestra” by Gabriel Pierne this weekend with the orchestra and guest conductor Akiko Fujimoto. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)  For the rest of the program, she'll work with Alisa Coffey, the orchestra's principal harpist since 2011, who is soloing in the "Concert Piece for Harp and Orchestra" by Gabriel Pierne.

"It's a beautiful piece, and I was not familiar with Pierne" before she started learning the concerto, she says. (Pierne, born in 1863, died in 1937. This single-movement work dates from 1901.)

And she's conducting her own selection of movements out of the ones in the three suites that Sergei Prokofiev compiled from his "Romeo and Juliet" ballet.

"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, rather than the dancers, to drive the drama. "Ballet music doesn't get any better than this," she adds.

Her suite boils down the 150-minute ballet to 42 minutes, but it has "all the greatest hits." She says she has rearranged the order of pieces from Prokofiev's choices "to tell the story chronologically." It ends with the death of Juliet, following the death of Romeo, as William Shakespeare did in the play on which the ballet is based. It lengthens the entire piece by four minutes, she says, "but we'll see how it works."


Fujimoto, a native of Japan who moved from Tokyo to California 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 the music director of the Conway Symphony.

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

Before taking over her current orchestra in May 2019, she was assistant, and subsequently associate, conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra from 2017-19. During that span he also served as cover conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And before that, she was associate conductor of the San Antonio Symphony.

She is one of four guest conductors making return appearances this season, under the presumption that they are under consideration for the Arkansas Symphony's music director position. There are two other candidates: first-time guest conductor Vladimir Kulinovic, who was on the podium in October, and the orchestra's artistic director, Geoffrey Robson, who has helmed the orchestra's musical operations and carried the bulk of the conducting duties since former Music Director Philip Mann left at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Yet to come this season:

◼️ Feb. 25-26 marks the return of Andrew Crust, assistant conductor of the Vancouver Symphony, who served as assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony from 2017-19 and was the conductor of the Memphis Youth Symphony. He'll conduct the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Sergei Rachmaninoff with piano soloist George Li; "Montgomery Variations" by Margaret Bonds; and the Symphony No. 1 ("Afro-American Symphony") by William Grant Still. In Masterworks concerts April 30-May 1, 2022, he conducted an all-Russian program in 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.

◼️ April 1-2, Robson takes the podium, with cellist Zuill Bailey as soloist in the Cello Concerto by Antonin Dvorak, plus the Overture in C major by Fanny Mendelssohn and the Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish," by Robert Schumann.

◼️ Matthew Kraemer, music director and principal conductor of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, conducts May 6-7, with pianist Samantha Ege as soloist in 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. The orchestra’s principal harpist, Alisa Coffey, solos in the “Concert Piece for Harp and Orchestra” by Gabriel Pierne. Also on the porgram: “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven and selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo & Juliet.” Fujimoto will take part in a Concert Conversation an hour before each concert.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Robinson Center Performance Hall, 426 W. Markham St. at Broadway, Little Rock
  • Sponsor: Sissy’s Log Cabin
  • Tickets: $14-$72 (subject to change), $10 for students and active-duty military, free to students with the purchase of an adult ticket using the Entergy Kids’ Ticket
  • Information: (501) 666-1761, Extension 1;

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