Kensho Watanabe on The Philadelphia Orchestra, upcoming engagements and the relationship between science and music

We are delighted to announce that Kensho Watanabe has joined Askonas Holt for world management. The Assistant Conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra speaks to Nina Large about his relationship with the orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as well as his upcoming engagements and how a person’s character influences their music.

You’ve had a busy year or so having taken on your role last autumn as assistant to Yannick Nézet-Séguin with The Philadelphia Orchestra, and you have just been signed by Askonas Holt – congratulations!

I’m really humbled when I see the brilliant roster of artists Askonas represents, and am really thankful that Terry and the entire team there saw something in me to support my career. Everyone has always been so encouraging; I’m thrilled to be joining this wonderful group of people!

Tell me about life with the Philly, how closely do you work with Yannick?

I get to see a pretty wide scope of his responsibilities as music director. He has been really open about including me in some of the meetings and development events so I have been able to immerse myself in all fields that the orchestra is working on.

More specifically, we did a concert performance of Bluebeard’s Castle and he entrusted me with preparing the sound effects.

Something really rewarding has been a weekly project of planning and delivering the half hour pre-concert lectures. As an assistant you don’t get the chance to ‘perform’ all that often, so I see it as my chance every week; thirty minutes of interacting with the audience, they are a great range both in age and experience and it has been a challenge to tailor my remarks for both of them.

Tell me about your relationship with The Philadelphia Orchestra, it was formed in a fairly unique way

My earliest memory is a CD of Riccardo Muti and The Philadelphia Orchestra doing Tchaikovsky 5. I wore it out! I was just in love with the sound, an iconic sound really. Then when I was a student at pre-college Juilliard the concertmaster of the Phil, David Kim, came to do a sectional with the strings. I was blown away by his teaching and his playing. That night I went to see the orchestra at Carnegie Hall doing Mahler 5 – my first time listening to that orchestra live. I was blown away by it. It was one of those concerts that kind of stays with you.

So then fast forward a little and I am at Curtis, and I am up at Verizon Hall hearing the orchestra every week! I was studying conducting but I still wanted to keep up the violin so I took an audition to be a sub-violinist and I ended up being able to play in the orchestra itself. It was such an honour for me, having had that history growing up with their sound to then be performing as part of them.

At the same time, I was working with Yannick as part of my conducting course, and then a little while later I auditioned for the assistant conductor role. It’s funny how things are circular in that way.

^ Kensho Watanabe © Andrew Bogard

Playing with the strings must have given you an amazing insight into the orchestra

Yes, I have a very tactile relationship with their sound because I have literally been inside it.

It informs a lot about how I mould the sound and perceive it as a conductor – I am able to launch my self into their sound instead of perhaps skating over the top of it. I can feel it physically, even as I’m talking with you.

Your conducting debut with them came somewhat unexpectedly when you had to take over from Yannick at the last minute…

It was one of those absolutely surreal experiences. I had just finished doing an opera rehearsal at Curtis, when I got the call to say Yannick was sick. I was slated to make my debut later that month on a family concert programme and suddenly I had a premature debut happening! The programme was particularly unique including a premiere of Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy, and a Mozart Piano Concerto with Daniil Trifonov which was pretty amazing at that point of my career. But what I remember so fondly was that the amount of calls, texts and emails I got from not only musicians but people who worked for the orchestra, and Yannick called me right after the performance. It’s testament to what a special organisation that orchestra is.

Yannick sounds like a mentor to you

Absolutely, I am not here without Yannick’s mentorship and support. I started out as his student at Curtis. We would sit down as teacher student and talk about scores and discuss some of my concerts but it went so much beyond that as well, he supported me with my own self-criticism and self-doubt as a young conductor. You can only imagine how much his time is demanded of as the conductor in Philly, but when he is with you he has a way of making you believe that you are the only thing that is in front of him at that moment, you have 100% of his attention.

How he interacts and gives all of himself to that person in that moment, is indicative of how he makes music and I think that’s what makes him as special as he is. He is a role model to aspire to, to be that kind of conductor and person.

What engagements have you got coming up?

Later this month I am doing Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn. She is one of my violin heroes so I am very excited to be able to work with her. We close with Bernstein Symphonic Suite, On the Waterfront. We have a full performance of West Side Story later in the season with Yannick so that all ties in.

In October I will also be conducting the Alabama Symphony Orchestra doing two horn concertos, Mozart’s 4th, and Strauss’s 1st. That will be followed by the world premiere of a piece by Caleb Burhans, along with Schumann’s 4th Symphony.

How do you find it working with a completely different ensemble, after being with The Philadelphia?

So much of conducting is striving for that thing which is just out of reach. It’s about finding your concept of the sound and how to produce it. My experience with the Philly is an invaluable gift in terms of being able to have that sound in my brain and my soul and go for it and that process is special no matter who you are working for.

For many years your musical passions ran in tandem with your passion for science, can you tell me about that?

Music and science have always been tied together for me. I think if you are maths and science inclined then there are ways in which you are able to problem solve and think logically which can really help with your approach to rehearsal and understanding music and scores.

I started playing violin aged three, but aged five I lost my grandfather on my mother’s side and that pointed me in the direction of wanting to help those that are sick – it’s a very common reaction in little kids I think. So all the way through I was playing violin and I loved it but I couldn’t stop the science either.

I found a great five-year programme at Yale incorporating a BA in science as well as a Masters in Music. I ended up walking right into a conducting opportunity there so started doing that whilst also playing violin at a very high level and at the same time doing organic chemistry and neurobiology! After my exams I went on a six-week conducting course at the Pierre Monteux School. It was a transformative experience studying with the teacher Michael Jinbo. He taught in a truly inspiring way about bettering the person which in turn improved you as a conductor. It was a real light-bulb moment for me.

I went on to Curtis to study conducting and around that time was my last chance to write a personal statement applying for medical school but I finally knew medicine was not going to be something I could do as my life’s pursuit.

The way you talk about it, a person’s character very much influences their music

Yes absolutely. In terms of being a conductor, and this goes for all positions of leadership, you can study all the hours, know your technique and be ready, but ultimately you are sharing yourself. If I don’t better myself then I am severely sabotaging my ability to make music with others. It’s something that I think about a lot, constantly.

I’ve just been teaching at a chamber music camp, the amount of listening and reacting they have to learn, doing things that’s not quite what they thought, adjusting to what is happening and to another person, these are skills which go beyond music. They are about how to be a better citizen of the world, which is pretty important these days.

I do feel that becoming a conductor has made me a better person, in terms of my overall confidence in myself and also how I communicate with others, all of these are lessons which I have learnt through music which have made me a stronger person. There is a lot to look forward to!

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