My dream is to give Asian artists
the chance to succeed much like I got.
ATSUSHI YAMADA is the Artistic Director of New York Asian Symphony Orchestra, as well as its Principal Conductor. He is the first Japanese conductor in the history of the New York City Opera and only the second Japanese conductor at Lincoln Center (after Seiji Ozawa). Born in Japan, he is a graduate of Waseda University.
Maestro Atsushi Yamada is the first Japanese artist to conduct for the New York City Opera, and only the second Japanese to conduct at Lincoln Center. This talented and self-taught musician defied all odds – a Mineralogy major at Waseda University, he honed his skills as an “amateur” for years after graduating, until a chance audition in New York City led him to the forefront of the conducting profession. He graciously spoke to Chopsticks NY about his career, the upcoming New York Asian Symphony Orchestra performances, and his plans for the future.
You never once attended Music School, and your University major was in Mineralogy – how did you end up choosing the path of a musician?
That’s a very long story [laughs]. I’ll try to be brief about it. When I was at Waseda University, I met my teacher, Maestro Yoichiro Fukunaga. He was the conductor of the university’s Glee Club, of which I was a member. I first became interested in conducting as I watched him direct the singers in the club, and I tried to learn as much as I could by also watching him conduct the orchestra and opera performances. While at university, I expressed my desire to also become a conductor. Unfortunately my teacher didn’t think it was a viable career, and advised me against it. I listened to him – not having attended a conservatory, it was probably the most practical advice at the time. But it was when my teacher passed away, that I was inspired to pick up the torch and continue conducting. I did it, in many ways, to honor his legacy.
Please tell us about how you became a conductor for the New York City Opera.
I spent a number of years after University as a salesman for IBM and then for Sony Life Insurance. My schedule allowed me to pursue music in my spare time on the amateur circuit – conducting the Tokyo Academia Symphony and the Chorus Philharmonia Association were my earliest experiences, which culminated with organizing the concert series for the Great Hanshin Earthquake Relief, and also being invited by the Consul General of Japan in Honolulu to conduct at the U.S.-Japan Goodwill Concert of Prayer for Peace (the 50th anniversary concert marking the end of World War II). After these experiences, I was looking to grow again, but I wasn’t sure that starting over at a conservatory in Japan was what I wanted. I came to New York because I was toying with the idea of applying to either Juilliard, or the Manhattan School of Music. While I was in town, I heard of an opportunity to assist the Music Director of the New York City Opera, Maestro George Manahan. I auditioned for him, and was accepted – this was the beginning of my experience with New York City Opera – about a year later I was conducting for the U.S. tour and soon after at Lincoln Center.
It is a very rare occurrence to have a Japanese conductor join the New York City Opera – did you find that you had to struggle?
Actually, in terms of the music, I felt no struggle per se, as I was doing and pursuing what I always wanted to do. So all those years of conducting, it has never been a struggle – it has always been an enjoyable journey. I have learned so much during my time at the New York City Opera. I had the chance to watch Maestro George Manahan conduct and learn how he handled an orchestra. I also witnessed incredible productions at Lincoln Center and all over the city. No struggle at all. Perhaps I had to struggle a tiny bit with speaking English when I first got here [laughs].
So what were there fun experiences – things you could not have experienced in Japan – that you would like to tell us about?
Well what I admire about New York City and the US is that you are judged on your talent, not just your pedigree and reputation. I find that there is more equal ground here for talented people with little experience to get noticed as much as talented musicians who have had a little more traditional training. What bothered me about pursuing my career in Japan was that there is still a very traditional system in place there, where your skill – as well as the level of respect you receive – is determined by the school you have attended, or even the company you work for. It’s not like that here in New York City. I would not have achieved what I did if I wasn’t here.
Can you tell us a little more about the event you are currently producing with Asian musicians?
We started New York Asian Symphony Orchestra in 2006 to give young Asian musicians – representing all the countries of the world – an opportunity to perform at a professional level in some of New York City’s most famous venues. By exposing young artists to this level of production, it gives a boost to artists who are struggling or just starting out. What I want to give young artists is hope. So many talented young musicians are out there – that’s both great for the profession but also makes it very competitive. Making a living at it is difficult, and it can be especially tough for anyone’s confidence to go on audition after audition – this way, underrepresented artists have a chance to show their stuff with more established professionals and get the exposure they deserve.
Any dreams for the future?
My dream is to give Asian artists the chance to succeed much like I got, through programs like New York Asian Symphony Orchestra. That would be great. Personally, I will always enjoy conducting, but my own dream is to continue producing concerts and creating more opportunities for talented musicians to pursue their dreams. I’m also putting a lot of energy into my production team for young artists at Pinnacle Arts Management International Division. I want to keep evolving – not being stuck doing one thing forever is certainly something I think about constantly.
Finally, for Chopsticks NY readers who are interested in Japan, is there a place that you would recommend for people to go? And why?
There is one place in Japan that I absolutely adore. It’s called Kanazawa (the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan). It’s incredibly beautiful there, and the history and culture of the area is precious. It’s really unlike a lot of parts of Japan, especially the more modern areas, and I find it to be incredibly relaxing and inspiring to spend time there. It’s definitely worth a visit. I’ll be going there on my next trip.
——– Interview by Nobi Nakanishi
On September 24, 2008 – Maestro Atsushi Yamada’s brainchild – the New York Asian Symphony Orchestra – will open its Fall Season with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concert No. 5 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Featuring an orchestra of 52 young musicians from all over the world, this series will expose audiences to new talents performing alongside world-renowned professionals and soloists.
Maestro Yamada will conduct the season opener, which will feature a special guest – the acclaimed pianist Walter Hautzig. This performance will kick off an incredible program that also includes works by composers such as Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, and Barber. Venues will be all over New York City, including the New York Society for Ethical Culture and Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.
The NYASO will also hold its “KIDS @ NYASO” series this year on October 18th (and March 21, 2009), focusing on introducing children to classical music. This year’s piece is the Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, the classic children’s story that is as much a delight for the ears as well as for the imagination.
For more information about the concert schedule, visit www.nyaso.org