Shizuo Kuwahara ’98E—or, “Z,” as he likes to be called—came to conducting by what seems an unusual route.
But according to the one-time saxophone performance student, his path mirrors a reality common to conductors: There is no one, or even two or three, well-trodden paths to success.
And at age 32, Kuwahara is earning recognition as one of classical music’s most prominent up-and-coming conductors. In November he won first prize in the Georg Solti International Conductors’ Competition in Frankfurt, Germany, beating out a record-breaking 540 contestants from over 70 nations. In 2007, he placed second in the prestigious competition.
Kuwahara, who moved with his family from Tokyo to the United States when he was 10, laughs as he describes his first exuberant encounters with the world of music, a world he recalls he “didn’t know anything about.” He was drawn to music, however, because his English remained shaky and he was able to form bonds with his peers by making music together.
Shortly after his arrival at Eastman as a music education and saxophone performance student, Kuwahara heard the Eastman Philharmonia playing Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It was a watershed moment.
“I realized how beautiful orchestral music was,” he says. He was so taken by the performance that he took what he remembers as a bold move: Introducing himself to Eastman conducting professor David Effron. But Effron, who now is a professor of conducting and chair of the instrumental conducting department at Indiana University, already knew the young Kuwahara.
“I knew he was a great musician because I heard him play saxophone in Pictures at an Exhibition,” Effron recalls, referring to an Eastman Philharmonia performance of the famous work by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.
Soon Kuwahara was attending all of Effron’s rehearsals, and before long, had founded an “ad hoc” orchestra with Eastman friends and had begun conducting concerts.
Watching Effron at work was the best education in conducting he could have received as an undergraduate, Kuwahara says.
Aspiring conductors focus on fundamentals at the undergraduate level, where there are rarely degrees in conducting. Kuwahara earned a graduate degree in conducting at Yale, but he insists that “the basic idea of conducting is very simple”: It’s about communication with the orchestra.
Effron attests that, in addition to “a lot of energy and excellent technique,” Kuwahara has “a wonderful way of communicating with musicians.”
“Something special happens aesthetically,” Kuwahara says, that can’t be reproduced by following a series of technical edicts or described by formulas. Kuwahara,for example, never uses a baton. “I needed to get closer to the orchestra,” he says. “The baton kept getting in my way.”
Such close communication is especially important today, since conducting is no longer dominated by an “old school” in which maestros dictate to orchestras, and musicians disobey at their peril. In describing the changes that have taken place in the field, Kuwahara notes that “the era of the maestros like Toscanini and Bernstein really was the golden era.”
But the respect for the maestros was so great, he adds, that “they took advantage of their position.” Able to fire musicians at will, they are one reason orchestral musicians have since formed unions.
The modern approach, perfected by the best of today’s conductors, is collaborative. Good conductors, Kuwahara stresses, know how to motivate musicians and to establish the kind of trust that bonds, for example, two parties in an intimate conversation.
Even with the finest musicians, that exchange can turn either lively or flat, depending on the conductor’s rapport with the orchestra.
Effron suspects that among the reasons Kuwahara excels in comparison to many others in his generation is that “he’s a terrific person—and humble—which is more rare than not to see in a young conductor.”
Young conductors must also be versatile, since they may spend years performing with multiple orchestras as guest conductors, associate conductors, or conducting fellows.
In the past several years, for example, Kuwahara has conducted as either an associate, guest, or fellow, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and many others.
And he expects 2009 to be another busy year. In addition to 15,000 euros, the Solti prize included invitations to a series of conducting engagements throughout Germany. Kuwahara is looking forward to the tour, not least because it allows him to spend time in Europe, where the esteem granted classical music, he finds, “brings so much joy to life.”