Spotlight #1: Yoichi Udagawa

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An Interview with Yoichi Udagawa
Submitted by Deb Walsh, MSO Treasurer & Board Member

On a warm August day, I had the pleasure of speaking with our beloved conductor, Yoichi Udagawa, asking him a variety of questions and having a few laughs along the way. Several years ago, I interviewed Yoichi for an article for the Melrose Free Press, but I still learned a few new things about him this time around!

Yoichi first came to the MSO in 1997. “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. Time has gone by so quickly!” Yoichi said in amazement.

In this Q&A format, you’ll learn a lot about Yoichi, and I can honestly say, the energetic, funny, and easy-going conductor you see on stage, is the same person off stage. When you watch Yoichi conducting, you’re seeing the real Yoichi!                 

- Deb Walsh, MSO Treasurer

Can you tell us about your very first encounter with music?

Growing up in Austin, TX, his parents wanted his brother and him to appreciate music, and although Yoichi did naturally like music, and his mother was an amateur singer, he didn’t consider himself in a “musical family.” His parents never pushed his brother or him into music.

In the 1970’s, when they were young kids, their parents took them to the Austin Symphony. At first they didn’t love it…true statement! It wasn’t until Conductor Akira Endo, a Japanese/American, took over conducting the symphony, that something shifted. Yoichi was amazed! The orchestra sounded so much better. Yoichi needed to find out why, and this was a real turning point for him. How was it that a conductor could change the sound of an orchestra? At that point, he was already playing the violin (he began playing around age 5). By the time he reached junior high, he asked the orchestra conductor if he could conduct. She happily obliged. He continued conducting (and playing the violin) throughout high school. It was probably in the middle of his teenage years when he knew he wanted to become a professional conductor.

Where did you study music? Did your teachers influence you?

His dad taught nuclear physics at the University of Texas at Austin and that’s where Yoichi went to school, receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music. He also began playing the viola in college. Knowing how to play the violin made the transition to the viola easier - it’s not the same as playing the violin and deciding to play the flute, for example. Although he doesn’t presently play the violin or viola, with a month of intensive practice, he’s confident he could return to his original playing abilities.

There have been lots of wonderful people who have had a tremendous influence on him. There are too many to name, but besides his parents, some friends, Gunther Schuller (a conductor who has been a MSO guest conductor) and Seiji Ozawa, the many teachers throughout the years including Elizabeth Brady & Nancy Drifmeyer (junior high/high school orchestra directors) were the biggest influences on his life.

What did you do after your college graduation?

Thanks to Mr. Endo’s recommendation, Yoichi was hired to conduct a small community orchestra in Austin (a much smaller orchestra than the MSO and no longer in existence). He was lucky to be hired at 22, and by then he had a true love for conducting! He received an incredible amount of experience at a very young age.

After this job, and thanks to a family friend (who is a distant relative of Seiji Ozawa’s!), he was able to study in Japan for six months, and then traveled to Berlin for a year. It was there he immersed himself in the day to day activities of the Berlin Philharmonic… an orchestra on the same high level as the BSO. He was able to attend rehearsals, concerts, recording sessions, everything! It was truly amazing! What he learned in Berlin was priceless!

After moving to Boston, he was contacted by the Melrose Symphony Orchestra, thanks to a recommendation by MSO principal clarinetist David Halpert, who also played for the Newton Symphony where Yoichi was a guest conductor. The rest is history! Yoichi is also the conductor of the Quincy Symphony, the Cape Ann Symphony, guest conductor for various orchestras, and a cover conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra.

What does it mean to be a cover conductor for the Boston Pops?

It’s a real honor.  If Keith Lockhart cannot conduct, a cover conductor is called to take his place. There are a few regular cover conductors and Yoichi is grateful to be one of them.

What is your favorite part of the MSO rehearsals (they take place every Monday night for three hours during the concert season)?

 “That’s a tough question…I love the whole thing and don’t think I have a favorite part,” but went on to say that “helping to move up the orchestra's understanding and playing of a piece during a three hour rehearsal is tremendously satisfying. The musicians are all super intelligent and often fix problems themselves. If they hear something wrong, they usually pick up on it right away and fix it. They usually don’t need me to point it out. However, if a section is tricky and the orchestra repeatedly has problems with something, I’ll focus on it and we’ll work together to make it better.”

He loves the whole process of seeing the musicians and himself improve during a rehearsal. “I love working with the musicians - there is so much talent there. It’s wonderful to be involved with a group of people who all want to go in the same direction! You don’t always have that privilege in life.”

What happens when, during a concert, you hear a musical mistake?

“We just keep going!” he said laughing.  He shared a funny memory about what happened when a mistake was made during a concert, but was very sure to say this didn’t happen with the MSO.  “This was a rare, rare event,” Yoichi explained. During a concert, there was a section in the piece that repeated about 8 or 10 bars. A group of instruments was supposed to begin at the fourth bar, but even after he cued them, they didn’t come in on time. The musicians didn’t realize anything was wrong due to the repetition in the music, but Yoichi knew it would only be a matter of seconds before the audience would because there would eventually be a moment when things were going to sound off. So, Yoichi had to think quickly and decided to cue a group of musicians earlier than expected. Although confused, the musicians complied and after a few seconds, order was restored. Phew! 

“This is an example of why conducting is so exciting! It is truly a collaborative effort. No one instrumentalist or conductor brings a great symphonic piece of music alive. When everyone is working together and focused on the music in an atmosphere of mutual respect, it’s a wonderful thing!”

What are some of your favorite things?

Believe it or not, Yoichi has some passions in addition to music and conducting. He is a huge fan of exercise and yoga and does both daily. Although cake, pie, and ice cream are not part of his diet (even occasionally!), he does love chocolate!

Downton Abbey was and The Crown is currently a guilty pleasure! As a kid, he described himself as a “Treky!”

As a teen he was very fond of Mahler’s 5th Symphony (he listened to it many, many times!), but as an adult, he says he truly doesn’t have a favorite….he doesn’t have a favorite music genre or music era. He really loves all types of music (and yes, even rap!). As a music professional, “it’s important to be open to all types of music and be open-minded about changing our minds about music. Attitude is key! It’s important to learn as much as you can about something.

For example, the more you know about a music genre, the more you appreciate it,” he explained. Although he couldn’t name a favorite orchestral piece, a favorite composer, favorite performer, a favorite MSO concert, or favorite concert he had seen, he did say, “There are too many excellent composers and performers to pick a favorite. It’s a lifelong pursuit to study musical genres and eras and find differences and commonalities, and look at them from a historian’s point of view.” A great source of happiness for him as a conductor is all the incredible music he is exposed to, and being able to take apart a piece and put it back together with the musicians." Conducting and working with the musicians of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra are endless sources of fun!”