“The Best Conversation I Ever Had”

“The Best Conversation I Ever Had”

Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto shares thoughts on her new Minnesota Orchestra position, running a good rehearsal, and the best conversation she ever had.

By Dan Wascoe

In the long history of orchestra conductors, Akiko Fujimoto can claim this unique distinction: During her debut leading the Minnesota Orchestra last November, she was ordered by a stripe-shirted referee into an on-stage penalty box. Her offense: delay of game caused by mischievous musicians. Her reaction: Holding her head in her hands and apparently weeping in despair.

It was, of course, scripted schtick. Minutes later, she returned to the podium to finish the concert in front of hundreds of school kids bused to Orchestra Hall. And although she couldn’t see them while she directed the musicians, several girls in the audience imitated her conducting gestures.

Such is the role of the Orchestra’s new assistant conductor—not only wielding a baton to keep scores of skilled musicians playing together with feeling, but doing the kind of community engagement that builds future audiences. If that requires a bit of slapstick by melding sports and music, that comes with the territory. So does introducing young listeners to musical chestnuts such as Flight of the Bumblebee and the da-da-da-DAH of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

About six weeks after Fujimoto’s debut, she led a mini-seminar for much older concert-goers by interviewing Principal Cello Tony Ross before an all-Tchaikovsky program. But there, too, she added a populist touch—playing a seldom-heard recording of Frank Sinatra singing an adaptation of a Tchaikovsky symphonic theme.

Problem Solving through Rehearsals

As the newest member of the conducting staff, Fujimoto nevertheless has enough experience to understand what she needs to succeed with various audiences, including the Orchestra itself.

“You can never be the one who’s stressed out,” she said, and orchestra members can tell in a hurry. She believes rehearsals should be a blend of priorities, sense of humor and a banishment of boredom. “To manage the sounds they create, you must be positive all the time,” she said. “Rehearsal is a time to come together.”

That’s not always easy because of the limited time available for rehearsals, so “I have to know what I want to address. It’s important to know what not to spend time on,” she said.

An example: She doesn’t dwell on “technical problems” of how musicians are playing—uniformity of bowing strokes by the strings or articulation by the winds—because at this level the musicians can resolve them on their own, perhaps with guidance from principal players in each section.

Because “there are infinite ways of performing even one note,” the crux of rehearsals is to “see where the disagreements are,” she said. Playing in an orchestra is “really a selfless act because you’re constantly accommodating someone else’s opinion….My job is problem-solving in the best way.” And because the orchestra is “very organized” with its own hierarchy, members must play as a team, she said: “There’s no room for prima donnas. They don’t last.”

Building a Life in Music

Born in Japan, Fujimoto began her music education with piano lessons. Then came general music appreciation, playing in a brass band and singing in a children’s chorus in elementary school. After moving to California with her family at age 14, she continued playing the trombone and singing in choruses. In high school, the faculty director “figured out that I could lead the choir in rehearsal and even let me conduct some Christmas carols in performance.” The same director suggested Fujimoto consider a career in music and conducting. It wasn’t an idea that bore immediate fruit.

“I laughed it off because I didn’t know what a career in music would look like,” she said. At that point she was more interested in child psychology.

But when she applied to Stanford University and was asked to write an essay about “the best conversation I’d ever had,” she drew on her Christmas carol performance experience.
“I described the magic moment when I felt connected with the musicians,” she said. Connecting nonverbally with eyes and hands was “the purest form of communication—the best ‘conversation’ I’d ever had.”

By her second year at Stanford “my psych grades were terrible,” she said, and she began taking introductory conducting classes. Gradually, she said, “the scale started to tip” toward music. After a summer conducting workshop before her junior year, the teacher said Fujimoto had potential and “that fall I switched to a music major.”

After Stanford, she attended a two-year program at the Eastman School of Music in New York where she earned a Master’s degree in conducting. The level of performance and creativity there “opened my eyes at a level I hadn’t experienced before. It was a huge shock, in a great way.”

Two more years at Boston University—and another Master’s degree—included “a lot of podium time” with the school’s orchestras. She also became assistant conductor of a mixed choir at Harvard University. Next came work with one of the student orchestras at Harvard. That led to a joint conducting position at the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Symphony.

The next step was five and a half seasons as associate conductor of the San Antonio (Texas) Symphony, a “really formative” experience because she conducted a wide range of music, including classics, pops, baroque and ballet and notably a program featuring violinist Gil Shaham playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

Fujimoto figures she’s “quite unusual — someone with this much experience coming into this job” with the Minnesota Orchestra. She also considers it unusual that she accrued 10 years of conducting in a liberal arts university setting rather than starting from a music conservatory base. Success here will mean growing professionally by “doing what the Orchestra needs me to do,” she said. That includes “covering” for subscription concerts by learning the music and preparing to substitute, if needed, for a scheduled conductor. She describes it as a combination of pinch-hitting, understudying and serving as an insurance policy.

So far, she said, “nobody’s missed a flight.”

Speaking of flights, one outcome of moving to Minnesota is living farther from her husband, Israel Getzov, a conductor and professor in Arkansas. They met during a conducting workshop but have never lived in the same place, she said.

Until that happens, she hopes that during her Minnesota tenure the Orchestra sees “that I have matured in my artistic expression.”

A Fabulous Fit

Roma Duncan, the Orchestra’s piccolo player, said that in Fujimoto’s short time in Minnesota, “One of the things I admire about her is that she really does have confidence and poise.”

That’s important, Duncan said, because “one of the tougher things a conductor does is to interact with soloists. The best can let the soloist’s vision come through.” After one rehearsal for that first November concert, in which Duncan had a solo, “she made me feel very confident. She was very adept, neither really leading or following us as much as she was with us,” imparting an organic “sense of ease.”

Women are showing up more frequently these days on orchestra podiums—Sarah Hicks, for example, is the Minnesota Orchestra Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall— and Duncan said, “I am really delighted Akiko is here. She’s very approachable, a pleasant person.”

She added that during final auditions for the new assistant conductor, Orchestra members “evaluated her as a conductor, not as a woman conductor.”

She is “a fabulous fit for our Orchestra,” said Duncan.

Jessica Leibfried, the orchestra’s director of education and community engagement, said the assistant conductor’s ability to handle many moving parts—including a script with an onstage penalty box—is important. For her first concert, Fujimoto helped tweak the script and asked for an additional rehearsal with the actors on the program.

“She came in with a clear plan about how to use her time,” Leibfried said. “She’s very calm and collected.”

Leibfried added that the assistant conductor’s role as a community ambassador in kids’ concerts and touring performances demands someone who “knows what she’s doing off the podium. The job doesn’t stop at the door.”

It helps, she said, that Fujimoto believes in collaboration, remembers names, greets board members and trusts the Orchestra staff to help her understand “what’s best for students.”

And, Fujimoto said she doesn’t mind if her young listeners applaud before a piece is over or even nod off. “It’s just great,” she said, “It’s so visceral.”

 


Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and co-founder of Nuance/a duo with vocalist Baibi Vegners.

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