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Four concerts, four conductors, one future: Last season, the Mid-Texas Symphony undertook a public audition process to find a new music director, with four finalists each leading a concert.
After the competition wrapped up in March, Akiko Fujimoto emerged as the winner, becoming the first female director to lead the Seguin-based orchestra since its beginning in 1978.
“I feel very lucky that I was chosen,” said Fujimoto, who was selected from an initial field of more than 100 applicants.
She believes her feel for the musicians and audience is one reason she was chosen to lead the 42-year-old orchestra into its future, Fujimoto said. According to Jason Irle, the new executive director hired the same day in May as Fujimoto, her local connections also helped. Fujimoto was associate conductor for the San Antonio Symphony from 2012-2017.
“Akiko really is ideally 100 percent the type of music director that we were needing,” Irle said. “She has roots here.”
The musicians of the Mid-Texas Symphony are drawn from the region, commonly playing with other nearby orchestras in Austin, Laredo, Houston, and other cities. They gather the Saturday morning of each concert weekend to rehearse, then perform Sunday evenings, with educational outreach concerts to area schools on Mondays.
Like many of the musicians, Fujimoto will travel to Seguin, New Braunfels, and the orchestra’s other performance locations for each concert. She will maintain her current position as associate conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, based in Minneapolis, during her tenure as Mid-Texas Symphony conductor.
The symphony recently expanded from its Seguin base to include New Braunfels as second hub. Irle said the symphony’s reach, in terms of audience and educational programming, extends west to Bulverde and Boerne, south to Schertz and Universal City, east to Gonzales, and north to San Marcos.
The symphony’s audiences also played a role in the selection of the new music director, by responding to post-concert surveys during the season of auditions. In putting together a program to perform, each candidate was given a list of classical compositions to choose from and could add a work of his or her own choosing. A colleague of Fujimoto’s, pianist Jeffrey Biegel, had introduced Fujimoto to Peanuts Gallery, a 1996 piano concerto by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich dedicated to Charles Schulz’s famous cartoon.
“I felt like the audience would love it,” Fujimoto said of her decision to include the piece, and her instinct proved correct. “We sounded great,” she said of the orchestra’s performance. “The audience loved it, the program was great for the orchestra. It was a mix of old and new.”
Though she is eager to begin programming for the Mid-Texas Symphony, Fujimoto said she is hesitant to think too far ahead. During her current weeklong visit to Seguin and New Braunfels, she said she’s “on a listening tour to find out what makes people tick in those two cities” and will program appropriately.
“Today’s professional orchestras’ No. 1 challenge is to make themselves indispensable and relevant to their community,” she said.
For now, she is focused on the upcoming season of five concerts, beginning in the fall. The programs were chosen by the organization’s musicians and stakeholders in advance of her hiring, to help create a smooth transition period.
The Sept. 15 concert, A Postcard from Spain, features Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas sung by contralto Ana Maria Ugarte. The program of Oct. 6, A German Celebration, is anchored by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and is particularly relevant to the New Braunfels community, she said.
The annual Holiday Favorites concert in December will feature the Seguin Children’s Chorus, and the String Fever! concert in February, the orchestra’s first visit to Spring Branch, will join the Mid-Texas Symphony strings with students from the Smithson Valley High School Orchestra.
Lastly, the Rhythm of Life concert on April 5 offers an opportunity for a reunion between Fujimoto and Eric Gratz, the San Antonio Symphony’s concertmaster. The program is based on noted contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico.
Individual and season tickets are available here, along with location information for each concert.
Fujimoto said she looks forward to the challenge of continuing the strong tradition of symphonic music in Central Texas.
“Those of us who perform it, we know why we think its great, and we know why we can’t live without it, and why society can’t live without it,” she said. “There’s nothing like symphonic music that covers the gamut of human experience. … If performed right, with passion, precision and meaning, there’s nothing like … experiencing it live, and hearing that direct message from its creators coming off the page.”
Ellen Salyers, the symphony’s board president, expressed enthusiasm for the new conductor. “We recognize her talent as a rising star, and we are eager to welcome her back to Central Texas,” Salyers said.