Conducting The First Movement
Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
Playing in a youth orchestra in high school at a summer camp in Michigan called Interlochen, I took part in performances of big works like Debussy’s La Mer, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, and was overwhelmed by the fact that pieces written in distant lands far in the past could come to life so vividly. For the first time, I had the experience of sharing the stage with sixty, seventy musicians. Being able to connect with so many people at once, and to share our mutual passion for music, I realized that there is nothing more magical in life. I wanted to become someone who nurtures and enables this wonderful environment, so I chose the path of conducting.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
The most influential figures in my life are my parents who live in Osaka. My maternal grandfather’s name is Hidemitsu. My maternal grandmother’s name is Yoshiko. I call them with affection “ojīchan” and “obāchan” which are grandpa and grandma in Japanese. I lived with them and my parents in Osaka when I was a toddler, and as I grew up in Tokyo, I loved visiting them every spring break and summer break. Ojīchan is a very philosophical person and a deep thinker. Obāchan is someone very energetic, funny, and positive. They are also two of the kindest people I know. When they were little, they immigrated from Jeju Island in Korea to Japan. Growing up was hard for them. There was a lot of political tension between the two countries, and they faced discrimination at school. But now, they’ve built an incredible community in Osaka full of people from diverse backgrounds. When I moved from Japan to the US, they really supported me, and community building became an important theme in my life. This urge to bring people together and to transcend boundaries made me interested in conducting.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
When I stand up on the podium there is no place to hide. The orchestra is always aware of the conductor’s presence, movements, and emotions. So the challenge is always to be as authentically myself as possible. There is no use in trying to be someone else. The parts of myself that I am proud of, and the parts of myself that I dislike all come through and affect the musicians. This can be scary, but learning to accept this fact and being vulnerable opens up the possibility of meaningful communication and collaboration, which can be incredibly fulfilling.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
I try to use non-verbal communication as much as possible, and use words to clarify ideas that are not sufficiently described by my conducting gestures. I try to influence the orchestra’s sound through parameters like volume, color, changes of tempo, character, emotion, and pacing the larger musical form. I admire orchestra musicians for their intelligence and sensitivity—it often feels like they’re reading my mind.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
The role of the conductor is changing all the time, and I need to constantly ask myself what is needed most in the moment, depending on the piece of music, the orchestra, the time of day, etc. This will inform how I will move my body, how I organize the rehearsals, and what I choose to say to the orchestra. I found it’s more effective to focus on being inspired than trying to inspire people. When I’m truly excited by the composer’s musical materials and by the abilities of the players, I have the best chance of transferring that enthusiasm to the people around me.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
One of my bucket-list works to conduct is Wozzeck by Alban Berg. The opera portrays the brutal daily experience of the lives of soldiers who fought in the second world war, and the sounds Berg uses incredible colors to portray the characters’s emotions, especially Wozzeck who is intoxicated by a sense of doom, and Marie who grapples with her feelings of maternal love, and a sense of sin from infidelity. The score is full of madness, mystery, and indescribable beauty.
Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in?
I love Davies Symphony Hall. It’s home to the San Francisco Symphony. In high school, I was a cello section member of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and got to rehearse and perform there every weekend. The place has a lot of sentimental value to me. It would be a dream to return there one day, this time as a conductor.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Activities that let my mind wander freely. I walk in nature often, and I also enjoy cooking, although I’m not very good at it. Usually the best ideas come unexpectedly, when I’m going through the motions of daily life, relaxed and unfocused.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
We need to develop a convincing argument for why attending live classical music concerts is a huge benefit to people’s lives today. The pandemic left a scar in many of us and instilled in us an urgent need to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. There are divisions and conflicts happening all around us, and more than ever we need orchestras to be the shining beacon to represent an ideal society.
Each member of the orchestra comes from a different background and carries a completely unique life experience. This reflects in the instruments they play. The contrabassoon creates a rich low resonance that is completely different from the brilliance and clarity of a trumpet. Yet every member has to listen to each other, and bring their sound together in harmony, creating an artwork that no single individual can on his or her own.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are increasingly becoming a norm in orchestral life, and doors are gradually starting to open for female musicians and musicians from ethnic minorities. This change is much overdue, and the process has only begun, but as a conductor I’m excited to collaborate with musicians from all walks of life. This is a very exciting time for classical music.
As a conductor, one of my responsibilities is to create programs that tell a story. When I choose pieces to perform, my goal is to make a particular concert an unrepeatable experience. I want audience members to fall in love with pieces that were previously entirely foreign to them, and I want to shed new light on familiar “masterworks.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I don’t think about success that much, because I then start to feel lost. The path of the musician is so varied, and finding the path that suits one’s own personality is an important process. I’m happy if I’m able to work on music that I love and I’m able to continuously challenge myself in order to grow as a musician and as a person.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?
Don’t let go of the love you have for the music. Every time you perform, it should be like it’s the first and last time— don’t hold anything back! If there is a devil on your shoulder, whispering words that makes you feel diminished, you need to have a conversation with him, and then ask him to leave.
What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?
We often talk about how to bring audiences in and how to fill seats in concert halls. We don’t talk enough about how to make audiences want to come back for more. We need to strive to remove the boundaries that separate the music and musicians from the audience. For this, classical music has to shed its layer of self-importance, and create music that is more reflective of the lives and values of the community.
What is your present state of mind?
I’m full of excitement as I am about to start a new chapter of my life. Next week I am flying from my home in San Francisco to Manchester, England, to begin my two year engagement as Assistant Conductor under Sir Mark Elder for the Hallé Orchestra and Music Director of the Hallé Youth Orchestra. I can’t wait to start assisting Sir Mark Elder in his rehearsals and concerts, leading outreach concerts with the Hallé to connect with members of the local community, and helping the youth orchestra players thrive, as they embark on an extraordinary musical journey in their formative years.
Meet the Artist, Francis Wilson
Published: November 6, 2023