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Debut Concert

The Bold Challenges of the Three Young Conductors

Text by Akio Miyazawa

The three young conductors soared in their performances at the Debut Concert for the winners of the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting in 2018 (held at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on May 21, 2019).

It is still fresh in our memory that the Japanese monopolized the first, second and third prize as well as having the first female winner at this Competition last autumn.

238 applicants from 42 countries and territories worldwide ambitiously aimed to become the apex of the contestants. Hence, it is only natural to be absorbed and focused on the evaluation of the conductors’ development after receiving their prizes. Expectations were high especially on the winner, Ms. Nodoka Okisawa, who fulfilled her important role as a deputy conductor for an opera, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji)” presented by Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation in Japan this February.

This expectation was represented by the opening words from the chairperson of the jury, Mr. Yuzo Toyama. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not applaud if you did not enjoy their music. You are most welcome to stomp out of the venue.”

His serious look was filled with self-confidence founded by his dedication to select the winners in every competition, and his astringent voice reflected his strict and yet passionate encouragement to the winners. His words derived from the thorough knowledge of the hardships to live as an artist. I could feel that his words stemmed from the lessons learned from his long career as a musician, his wish for the audience’s honest reaction, his expectations towards the musicians who will be shouldering the world of music to uphold the resolution and awareness to become the contributor of culture, and his anticipation as their senior to work in the front line with them.

The winners conducted Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra this day. It is the fourth orchestra they have worked with since the beginning of the Competition. It is a valuable opportunity for the young conductors to actually conduct an orchestra, even more so when they are all first-class orchestras in Japan. It must be an extremely intense experience and a valuable opportunity beyond our imagination to face these orchestras and learn from them.

Mr. Masaru Kumakura (3rd prize winner) was the first on stage. Born in 1992, he was the youngest of the four finalists and his piece was Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy “Romeo and Juliet”.

I was surprised at the remarkable sound of the low keyed string instruments from the first subject soon after the introduction. In the final round when he conducted Dvorak, this seemed to be his weak spot but he had overcome it completely. In the competition, it seemed like he was disadvantaged against others who were 9 years older than him, but the movement in his arms had also become smooth. His left and right arm recognizably became independent from each other and his left hand eloquently sought for musical expression.

In his interview after the concert, he told me, “After receiving the award, in order to build up more experience, I approached The Kyushu Symphony Orchestra, Gunma Symphony Orchestra and Hyogo Performing Arts Center Orchestra so I could conduct them.” When I mentioned about his skillful moves in his left arm, he straightforwardly responded, “That is what I’ve always been good at so I try to bear in mind not to rely on it too much.” I am looking forward to seeing his future.

Next up was Mr. Kanade Yokoyama (2nd prize winner). His proficient skills in his performance for the required piece in the final round of the Competition, based on his experience from age, remains impressive. The piece he conducted this day was Kodály’s “Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (The Peacock)”. As he had mentioned, he “chose a difficult piece”. The variation that developed one after another flowed somewhat monotonously. It surfaced his future challenges on varying tempos and the dynamics of various sounds. Nevertheless, his selection of this piece was very challenging and ambitious. When I asked him why, he told me that he chose Kodály to demonstrate his true ability as he grew up in his hometown Sapporo learning “Kodály’s method” from an early age. Someone with a character who values the origin of their music is attractive. I hope he will become successful.

Last but not least was Ms. Nodoka Okisawa (1st prize winner). She chose Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor “Scottish”. There is an instruction of “attacca” between all movements in the score and her enthusiasm to choose a piece with four movements says it all. The entire piece is also twice as long as the previous two so how would she handle this?

The music weighed heavily in the beginning, possibly due to its minor key or from too much avidity. However, there was a complete change in the flow as soon as she found a breakthrough. This must be her special ability.

As soon as the tempo was accelerated in tutti in fortissimo, she grabbed the orchestra’s heart at once and took the lead of the music. Each part gained momentum where the strings became enticing, the woodwinds made the melody prominent with their splendid resonance, and the sound of the flute poured in. It seems like Ms. Okisawa has an aptitude to convert the driving force of the piece into the centripetal force of her conducting.

This type of conducting does not make the music tiresome. The more piece progresses, the more it becomes euphonious. In one of the features of this piece, which is the general pause in the final movement (coda), Ms. Okisawa paused the raised baton. And then, the horn responded with a magnificent roar soon after with her change of melody. I am sure many audiences must have shuddered as they listened to this invigorating sound that seemed to have pierced through the sky. As soon as the performance ended, the voices of “Bravo” filled the venue at once. Her performance had made an overwhelming impression on the audience.

When I asked Ms. Okisawa her impression after the concert, she told me that “she couldn’t initially capture the music during the rehearsals”. However, she added, “I was helped by everyone at Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra who warmly and enthusiastically responded to me. The beauty of this piece helped me, too.” Nevertheless, I am sure that everyone at the venue strongly felt that it was her ability and skills that allowed her to touch people’s hearts.

The three conductors challenged their pieces by employing their own special abilities. After the Debut Concert, Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation announced the appointment of Ms. Okisawa as the conductor for their new production, “The Merry Widow”, next year. My expectations grew stronger for the bold challenges upheld by these three conductors.