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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Mid-Texas Symphony director shares her musical insights

Akiko Fujimoto is the Music Director of the Mid-Texas Symphony, performing in Seguin and New Braunfels.
Mike Grittani
Akiko Fujimoto is the Music Director of the Mid-Texas Symphony, performing in Seguin and New Braunfels.

Since 2019, Akiko Fujimoto has been Music Director of the Mid-Texas Symphony, an orchestra that serves primarily the communities of Seguin and New Braunfels, though many San Antonio musicians and music fans regularly perform at or attend the concerts. Their 2023/24 season wraps up this month.

Fujimoto recently visited our studios, and while recording some commentary for concert broadcasts on KPAC, entertained a few questions about her working process as well. I think you'll find this a fascinating glimpse into the process of great music-making!

Nathan Cone: How are you enjoying your tenure as Music Director over there with Mid-Texas Symphony?

Akiko Fujimoto: I'm having a great time! I started in the fall of 2019 as the music director after a year of audition and interview period. And it's just been a steady growth and lots of success—of course, interrupted or challenged by the pandemic, like it was for everybody. But in some ways, it felt like the pandemic made us stronger and also gave us a chance to kind of review what we thought, or at least I, as a newbie, had thought, about the orchestra, and it gave me time to get to know the patrons in the area better and the organization.

What are some of the things that you may have changed as a result of the pandemic?

I don't live in Seguin or New Braunfels, but I do visit those cities six weeks a year, the weeks of my concerts. And I live there for the week, and I meet with people. I attend events, have lunches, meetings, etc. before I see the musicians. So I do have a limited time in town. Between that and of course having lived in San Antonio for five years prior, I had this assumption about the area. I thought, well, we're all part of South Texas, you know? And I discovered that although my experience in San Antonio has paid dividends like you wouldn't imagine, there's also been discoveries about the area and the people that live there and why they come to the Mid-Texas Symphony specifically that I just didn't know about until I actually started spending time there and performing there. And you plan seasons a year ahead. So when the pandemic happened, I had already published my following season or what I thought it was going to be. It was a great looking and sounding season on paper. But I'm kind of glad I didn't do some of [those concerts]. It gave me time to just talk to people more while struggling to find answers that we all were [looking for] during the pandemic… to adapt to new ways, going digital, and things. I think it just gave me a time to settle into my job and really come back with a bang with our first real season after that.

Yeah, and the programming that Mid-Texas, and for that matter, our colleagues and friends at the San Antonio Philharmonic has been [scheduling is] even more diverse, which I think is great for listeners and audiences. There's lots of new things to hear which nevertheless have familiar sounds. People can make these new discoveries.

Exactly. As you know, in addition to the pandemic that was traumatic to all of us, there was another traumatic event, the George Floyd murder at the beginning of the pandemic and the whole Black Lives Matter movement. And that really impacted the symphony orchestra industry across the nation. And every orchestra and every region deals with it differently. But of course, talking to other colleagues in the country and other orchestras and just my own learning of new repertoire and new composers has definitely changed the way I approach programing. And I'm sure that’s the same with our friends at SA Phil. I think there are some things that will always be classic and always be beloved, and the reason that we all went into this business. And then there will be things that are very specific to the region, um, the area that you serve as a professional orchestra and as a cultural institution. And then the third part is the new the incoming voices. And who are they? It is our job as performers to look for them and match the right music and right composers with our specific regions. So I'm always on the hunt for things that I think our specific audience would like but may not know yet. And I think our audience is getting the taste of discovering something new. Of course, a lot of people want the comfort of the masterpieces that they grew up listening to, and those are reliable sources of inspiration, and we love to perform those. But once in a while, it's wonderful to discover, and we can all surprise ourselves with what we like but didn't know before.

I'm just curious, from a working standpoint, when you open up the score and you are starting to look at something, whether you've seen it many times or it's your first time, what do you as a conductor… you know, what is your eye drawn to first? Your eye and your ear… even if you're not hearing things out loud!

Every time I open [a score], I notice something new that I didn't see last time.
Akiko Fujimoto

When I open a score, my first instinct after going through the title and the composer and time periods and all the things that you can draw from that kind of information is harmonies. I start with the harmonies. I had a trombone teacher in high school tell me that he thought a conductor should know every note in the score in order to deserve to be on the podium, and that really intimidated me. And so every time I open a score, I [hear] his voice (he's passed away since) saying that to me and yelling at me, even though he was very supportive of my going into conducting. So, because an orchestral score is vertical, I always start vertically. What harmonies [are] everyone playing? Because very rarely is only one part playing a note of one pitch. You know, someone is bound to be doubling that, and they're only three or four or five pitches at most, normally. So I go from the harmonies and then I look at its trajectory. A lot of composers, at least in the common practice period, have used the harmonic motion to drive the drama forward. So I see where they take us from this key to that, and how they travel, where they end up and if they bring us back to the original starting point. So I think the harmonic motion is where I start. And then from there I look at orchestration, what instruments are playing what, and rhythm, of course. And melodies. I don't have one reliable method, and I'm constantly kind of revising it, and every time I open [a score], I notice something new that I didn't see last time, whether it's an old piece to me or a new piece to me. So it's like reading a book.

And one more question, speaking of surprises. Can you share with me, when the last time you were on the podium and the orchestra did something that surprised you? In a good way!

I think it happened at the first rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky “Ukranian” Symphony [last fall]. We have a very quick turnaround in our rehearsal schedule. We start Saturday morning at 10 a.m., and we put on the show by Sunday at 4 p.m., and we squeeze in three rehearsals in between. It always feels very, you know, rushed, like, okay, we have this huge thing to put together in a short amount of time, but this time with this Tchaikovsky symphony, it sounded like the piece was written for them and they kind of played it… like I could see the performance, I could hear what the performance is going to be like, even though there were things that we could work on. And I said to the orchestra, I said, “Wow, it sounds like Tchaikovsky wrote it for you guys.” It sounds like it was tailor made for them. So it was a good match. Sometimes I pick things that are good matches, you know, I get lucky… and I had never done this symphony before! And a lot of people in the orchestra told me this was the first time they played this particular symphony. So that's always nice when there's a match made in heaven between an orchestra and a piece, because I think every orchestra is a little bit unique and different in their personality. So this was a good one for our orchestra, and I'm happy about that.

The Mid-Texas Symphony closes their 2023/24 season this month with two concerts, on April 7 in New Braunfels and April 28 in Seguin. Find more information at mtsymphony.org.