WALNUT CREEK -- The Diablo Symphony Orchestra is marking its 50th anniversary season by marching into the future under the baton of a different drummer -- or in this case, a string musician.
After a yearlong round of five guest conductors and an intricate interview process resulting in enough data to fill a symphonic score, 33-year-old Matilda Hofman has been named its music director and conductor.
Succeeding Joyce Johnson Hamilton, a widely-respected trumpet player and the symphony's leader for 31 years, Hofman appears to be Hamilton's young, wiry antithesis -- a viola player; devotee of new, contemporary music; conductor with a fiery determination behind her buoyant demeanor.
No one would suggest Hamilton wasn't enormously devoted, but after 31 years, even Diablo Symphony musician Bill Eich, in a 2011 interview, said Hamilton was eager to loosen the ties and expand as a trumpet player.
"There comes a time when a change is in order," Eich said.
Charged with selecting their new leader, the musicians stuck with a thorough process, despite concern the deliberate schedule would place the winner in a serious time pinch.
Diablo Symphony Association President Patrick Campbell admits the anniversary season constitutes a "major step" and needs to "set the next 50 years off with flags flying." With a decision in May 2012, the new music director had just one month to plan.
In an interview two weeks before Hofman's Oct. 14 debut, Campbell appears relieved, even celebratory, saying, "The musicians were looking for a bright spirit, a new approach, which Matilda just had. She brought vivacity, joy, musicianship. It was obvious she knew her business."
Hofman recalls the initial rehearsals with the orchestra as a jet-lagged blur.
"I had to go straight to Berlin, perform, then return and go straight to my second rehearsal. I have to say, I feel much more relaxed now," she says, laughing at the memory.
Her "audition performances" were also marred with muted atmospherics when a power outage in Rossmoor prevented the first appearance.
Perhaps that is why she was surprised, when Campbell called to inform her she had won the job and ask if he might come up to her home in Davis to discuss the future.
"I think they liked how I rehearsed ... and what I was going to do beyond conducting. How I would show leadership," she says, speculatively.
Campbell agrees, adding, "It was the music-making, bringing the orchestra to an exciting level of musicality. Despite all the many other responsibilities a director has, the primary one is to build the musicians."
To do that, Hofman insists she will stick to tradition, with familiar repertoire audiences will recognize and she will find satisfying.
"I've been working in contemporary music. I was missing this classical repertory in my daily life."
Hofman says listening is a primary skill of an excellent music director. In addition to listening to interpretations of other conductors -- a practice she insists is more mind-opening than imitating idiosyncratic gestures or style -- her ear is tuned to community.
"From the musicians, I heard they wanted to have a lasting, high-quality orchestra while still having fun," she said. "They wanted to give back; through education and programs for younger people."
Hofman believes community orchestras generate less-divided loyalties than professional orchestras.
"They don't play for money, but music is a vital part of their busy lives. They play because they love it and that's the only reason."
With plans to appear at the Walnut Creek Farmers Market, expand their outreach to schools and introduce co-productions with other music organizations, Hofman highlights favorite parts of her inaugural season.
"I chose the theme of journeys, because the orchestra was certainly going on a journey!" she exclaims. "The Samuel Barber is obscure, reflective: I wanted to give the audience a chance to know this beautiful piece. The Schumann is close to my heart. It's intelligent and fantastical and unsurpassed. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" -- this is a piece inspired by places other than the composer's home country."
Hamilton is the featured soloist in the Oct. 14 season opener, and Hofman is nearly giddy as she explains the significance.
"I can't wait to conduct. She's going to have so much to offer and to teach us. Plus, the Haydn Trumpet Concerto is a bold bit of music."
Between the weekly rehearsals and the DSO performances, she will continue to lead the new music Empyrean Ensemble at UC Davis, and spend time with her family in the outdoors.
"Dante is 4 and intends to play the bassoon, tuba and double bass. Lorenzo is 2 and hasn't expressed anything specific. My husband is a composer and conductor," she explains rapidly. "We spend time out in the natural world. It re-energizes me. With all the chaos in the world, music and nature are the two places we can go and recharge."
If you go
Diablo Symphony Orchestra opens the 50th Anniversary Season with "Arabian Nights," Sunday, Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Featured soloist will be Joyce Johnson Hamilton on the trumpet. Tickets are $25 adult, $10 age 17 and under; go to http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?orgid=23939 or call 925-943-SHOW (7469)