Interviews with the Finalists
About the Competition
- Do you reflect upon your performance in the competition from the first preliminary round to the finals, and summarize the experience for yourself?
In total I spent time with the orchestras on five different occasions, for the preliminaries, finals, and commemorative concert. It was an extremely precious experience for me. I felt like I needed to try my best to grasp the personalities and characteristics of each orchestra as much as possible in a short amount of time.
- Did the teachers you study under give you any advice regarding your participation, or was there anything you were careful about yourself?
They gave me helpful advice about the pieces of music, but I don't think I received special advice about participating in the competition. They told me to just perform as I always do. And I did what I always do when I'm in a concert: I made sure I went on stage having done the best possible preparations and rehearsals. I think I was trying to avoid thinking too much about the fact that this was a competition.
- What kind of special preparation did you do in the lead up to entering the competition?
The only thing that was different from a regular concert was that I didn't know who the concerto soloist would be until the day of the competition. Usually you are able to get to know the soloist's performance style in advance, and decide on a direction for sharing nuances and playing the orchestra members off of each other. But that's not possible in a competition. So I listened to the recorded materials more often than I normally would have, and practiced and prepared at home every day until I was able to play the solo part from memory.
- I'm sure you must have been a little nervous at the competition's first preliminary round. Can you tell us how you felt in the lead up to the judging, or anything you felt after your performance?
I've been in three competitions outside Japan in the past, but this was my first one in Japan, so I felt nervous in a slightly different way. It goes without saying that this was an important contest for me, since I studied in Japan and have already started work here in Japan. The judges already knew me well from before, and I knew some of the musicians in the orchestra, plus most of the other competitors were my friends and colleagues. It was a competition where everyone knew a lot about each other, which meant in some ways it, was comfortable to compete in, but there was also some pressure to make sure my performance there led me somewhere positive in the future.
- How did you spend the evening after the judging was over?
The other conductors who had competed in the first preliminary round, and other senior conductors, all got together and went out for drinks. We had some frank and open discussions about how we felt, and it was a very good way to spend time together. I went home and felt that it was really over. I had a bit of trouble sleeping.
- Can you tell us your reasons for selecting the three compositions of choice that you used?
They were simply pieces of music that I like. We already knew the hall we would perform in, so I also thought about what types of pieces would fit well with the acoustics in the hall.
- When performing the required pieces, were you able to express your own preferences and ideas through your conducting?
The overture to the opera "Euryanthe" contains some of the motifs from the full-length songs and scenes in several places, but I hadn't experienced the full thing in a live performance before. So I watched video footage of it and tried playing and singing the vocal score for myself, putting in a lot of effort to understand it completely.
- Is the outfit you wear at the competition (both the preliminaries and the finals) something you prepare especially for the occasion? Or do you always wear it when you are conducting?
All my clothes were the same as what I usually wear to work. For the first and second preliminary rounds I wore what I usually wear for rehearsals, and in the finals I wore my concert outfit. I like to wear things which are easy to move in and don't restrict my body.
- When you are facing an important performance, is there anything you take special care of such as meals, superstitions, or special items you keep with you?
It's the same at regular concerts, or for competitions overseas, but I think about what I can do to maintain my normal lifestyle pace and tempo. That can be difficult though! I look at the things me like, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Also, there's certain aroma oil that I really like the scent of, so I put some on a handkerchief to enjoy the fragrance in my dressing room.
I can still remember exactly how I felt when I heard the results. I felt grateful, disappointed, but accepting.
All the emotions that arose in me at that moment have become heavier with each day that's gone by since the competition.
- Tell us about how you felt when you heard the finals results. Is there any difference in how you felt then and how you feel now?
At the moment, I don't feel any differently. I can still remember exactly how I felt when I heard the results. I felt grateful, disappointed, but accepting. All the emotions that arose in me at that moment have become heavier with each day that's gone by since the competition. But I don't know if I'll still feel the same ten or twenty years from now. Things will probably transform very slowly over time. I think it depends on my work from now on. Certainly, the way I felt is what drives me in my work today.
- After finishing the competition and your first concert after winning a prize, has anything changed in your emotional state or your environment?
Being able to perform with various different orchestras was certainly the most precious experience for me, and the things I learned through this are what make me who I am today. Also, this concert was the first time I conducted an entire symphony with a professional orchestra. I was also featured in the newspaper in my home town of Nagoya, so it let many people know who I am and made me feel I must continue to try my best.
About the conductor profession
I always wonder to myself about how well I, the one who is unable to create music in the performance, can communicate with the musicians in rehearsal, how well I can join together with them, and what kind of preparation I can do for this.
- What was it that prompted you to become a conductor?
When I was in elementary school, I played the piano for the school choir, and I was in charge of overseeing the practice before our teacher arrived. I found it interesting and fun the way that the ensemble would change according to the things I said or the tempo of my piano playing, which got me interested in conducting. After that, I had several opportunities to conduct the choir, and that is what made me want to study to become a professional in this industry.
- During your journey towards becoming a conductor, where there any difficult times? What about enjoyable times?
The most enjoyable thing was being able to meet so many musicians, even from back when I was studying. I know I caused a lot of trouble for them, but they really taught me a lot and the connections I made are priceless. I am still supported by many people today. As for the difficult times, there are too many for me to write down! I suppose the toughest times were when I felt I was up against a wall because I had to face the truth that I am not the one actually making the sounds of music. I always wonder to myself about how well I, the one who is unable to create music in the performance, can communicate with the musicians in rehearsal, how well I can join together with them, and what kind of preparation I can do for this.
- As a conductor, is there anything you are careful about or try to keep up in your daily life?
I'm not sure if it is related to my being a conductor, but lately I've been putting a lot of importance on "everyday life." I travel a lot, and I interact with different people every week, plus I stay in different rooms and sleep in different beds, so sometimes I feel like I'm constantly alert. With such a lifestyle, I really value the scenarios I can consider "everyday life," so I try to give importance to them and bring my mentality back to a normal state. Lately I feel like by doing this, I able to be even more surprised and impressed by the landscapes and people I come into contact with in other countries, and spend my time more fruitfully. I also read books that are not related to the musical pieces, of course I study foreign languages as well, and I go to chamber music solo recitals. I often go to concerts with formats that I would not normally be involved in as a performer, to enjoy a refreshing and stimulating experience from the audience's perspective.
- What kind of environment do you practice conducting in?
When I first started studying, I used to stand in front of the mirror to check my posture. And during my entire time as a student, I went home every day and practiced the basic conducting movement called "tataki." I also worked on building up my muscles to do so. Everything is done at my home, in front of my piano. Now, I spend a lot more time reading music scores, and doing research.
- What kind of orchestras, composers, and songs (from any genre) do you like?
The orchestral pieces by Strauss I studied with my mentor when I was at grad school, and performed at my graduation concert (Don Juan), and at a showcase concert (Death and Transfiguration) were very difficult, but I would love the chance to conduct more of his pieces in the future. He is a composer who always moves me, whenever I come into contact with his richly reverberating orchestration and bold yet sweet melodies, no matter what kind of a mood I'm in. Last year I visited his summer house in the outskirts of Munich, where he spent his last days, and climbed the mountain that became the theme for Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony). At the same time, I have been involved as an assistant on the opening nights of operas by renowned Japanese composers like Shinichiro Ikebe and Makiko Kinoshita, which were also very moving experiences. I strongly felt the view of the world they possess, which is only describable by Japanese composers.
- Do you have any memories from your childhood about music?
At home, I practiced for my piano lessons, and at school, I was in the choir ensemble. Every day I repeated these two activities. In elementary school, I also loved to listen to records and compare them. I listened to my mother's favorite classical records and especially the choral music from Kodaly, Britten, Akira Miyoshi, Akira Yuyama, and Saburo Iwakawa. Hearing how different conductors could make different sounds made me greatly interested.
- A question off the topic
If you hadn't become a conductor, what kind of job do you think you would be doing? Or is there an occupation you'd like to try?
When I was in my teens, I wanted to become a music teacher and do conducting as a teacher. Also, I always think the work that orchestra and opera stages staff do is really nice, when I work together with them. As for areas other than music, I like to drive, so I would like to improve my driving schools in a professional way and make a living by driving my beloved car every day.
- To conclude
What are your aspirations for the future?
For the time being, I want to keep taking on challenges in a healthy, steady, bold way, in many different genres. I hope that in doing so I can discover a genre which I can explore for a long time, or composers I can spend time learning about. I would also be really happy if I can gradually increase the amount of study and work I do in Europe.
- Can you give some advice to people intending to enter the competition next time?
Being in the competition will definitely open up a world for you which you would not experience otherwise. The paths that are formed before you will also lead you to new worlds. But I think this really has to be an extension of your everyday activities, otherwise it is meaningless. It is a competition with great tradition that will give you a serious review of the skills you have built up over time, so I really encourage everyone to participate.
Yuko Tanaka completed a master's course in conducting at the Tokyo University of the Arts graduate school in 2010. She graduated from the music department of the Aichi University of Education in 2002, and completed her graduate studies there in 2004. That same year, she enrolled in the conducting division of Tokyo College of Music on a merit scholarship, graduating in 2008. A semifinalist in the 51st International Besançon Competition for Young Conductors, she has performed with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra and the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra. Ms. Tanaka has studied conducting under Tadaaki Otaka, Junichi Hirokami, Ken Takaseki and Yasuhiko Shiozawa, and piano under Hiroaki Kumamoto.