Symphony’s leader discusses the collaborative art of conducting

Yutaka Kono knows the creative process as a performer on the tuba and as a composer. As a conductor, for both the UVM Symphony and the Burlington Chamber Orchestra, the assistant professor of music brings another dimension to his creative work — meeting the particular challenges that come with standing, baton in hand, dozens of musicians before him and hundreds of listeners behind him, bringing a composition to life at a moment in time.

As the UVM Symphony prepared for their spring concert we talked with Kono about the collaborative creative art of musical conducting.

Collaborative though it may be, the road to the spring concert likely began in the splendid isolation of Yutaka Kono’s basement home office. That’s the place where, after he and his wife’s two young daughters have gone to bed, he settles in for a 9 to midnight round of work nearly every evening. A good deal of that time is spent studying scores for upcoming concerts. His focus might range from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by nineteenth-century Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky to a contemporary piece by his faculty colleague David Feurzeig that will be performed by the Burlington Chamber Orchestra. “There is always something interesting that I never thought of when I look more deeply at a score, like how the instruments are connected or how the theme is transformed, it is like starting to do a puzzle,” he says. 

In rehearsal, the final sound emerges each time the musicians and conductor run through a piece. “It is always a two-way communication,” Kono says. “Sometimes students will bring an interesting way of playing a particular section or phrase. Say we have a melody played by the violins, clarinets, and flutes. If I like the way the violins are playing it, I’ll encourage the flutes and clarinets to listen to and imitate that way of playing. Ultimately, I see my job as trying to unify the sound of the orchestra,” he says.  

But what might have sounded unified during dress rehearsal can splinter in performance. Asked about riding out such moments, Kono smiles broadly, laughs, and says, “Oh, it is a very stressful job!”

The skill to maneuver through is forged in those late-night study sessions at home where, by poring over the score for hour upon hour, Kono comes to internalize its every nuance. “If I didn’t know the score backwards and forwards, I might start panicking myself if someone came in a quarter-beat too soon. I might think that’s how it goes and I hadn’t noticed it. So I have to have the confidence of knowing every detail,” he says.

And in that confidence, Kono finds the calm to devise a way to get the train back on the rails and communicate the way forward to his musicians. “It is really an improvisation, you just have to think of it at that spur of the moment, and know exactly what you want to do.”

The UVM Symphony performs on Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m. in the Recital Hall. The concert is free and open to the public. The program features “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius; Violin Concerto No. 3, 1st movement, Allegro non troppo by Saint-Saens, featuring the winner of UVM Symphony Concerto Competition, High School Division, David Horak; Clarinet Concerto No. 1, 1st movement, Allegro by Weber, featuring the winner of UVM Symphony Concerto Competition, College Division, Spencer Tse; Hungarian March by Berlioz; and “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky.