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Front Page - Friday, March 24, 2017

Emotion through music

CSO baton gives self-professed ‘wallflower’ a voice to communicate her passion

Kayoko Dan, music director for the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera (CSO), has her conductor’s baton in one hand and the audience at Tivoli Theatre in the other.

Dan is on the podium preparing to lead the symphony in a performance of composer Bela Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” To engage the audience, she explains that the organization rented a bass trombone that would allow one of its musicians to play a famous glissando during that evening’s concert.

At her prompt, the man plays a continuous upward slide between two notes, filling the performance hall with a playful, guttural bwaaaaa. “It cost the

symphony a hundred dollars to play that note, so please listen for it,” Dan says, her smile beaming brightly enough to be seen in the back row.

As the audience ripples with laughter, Dan turns to face the musicians and then drops her arms. The room falls silent, as though she’s conducting not just the musicians but the people within it.

Then, with a slight movement of her hands, Dan summons a slow lifting of the cellos and basses to her right. The performance is underway.

For the next 35 minutes, Dan is confident and energetic as she sets the tempo, cues the musicians and gives vibrant shape to Bartok’s work. As her left hand and baton trace invisible shapes in the air, the orchestra responds to each movement and gesture, demonstrating how she and the instrumentalists are intimately connected in the creation of the music.

During the performance, the audience sees the technical side of Dan at its virtuosic best, as the frequent changes in meter keep her on her toes. But the piece doesn’t beckon Dan’s spirit and soul – the parts of her that stay buried within her until music brings them out.

That takes a Brahms symphony – or any other piece that allows Dan to relax and open up.

“I’m not good at communicating deep thoughts about myself. Maybe it’s because I’m Japanese, but I keep a lot of things to myself, whether it’s love, anger or sadness,” Dan says one week later while nursing a cup of Peachy Keen at Wildflower Tea Shop & Apothecary on Market Street. “But when I conduct, I use the sound to express my feelings. It hurts me right here.”

Dan points to the center of her chest. “It exhausts me,” she says.

Music does more than bring out Dan’s emotions; it brings her sociable side to the fore. “If I didn’t have music, I’d be a wallflower,” she says.

While Dan might prefer to blend into the scenery, when she’s conducting or interacting with audience members before or after a performance, there’s little evidence of the shy, introverted person she claims to be. Rather, she seems charismatic, outgoing and even eager to make people laugh.

The key that unlocks this part of Dan is the same one that guarantees her success on the podium: preparation.

“Conducting a piece of music takes preparation. I need to know the anatomy of the orchestra, the capabilities and limitations of each instrument, and the composition and the background of the composer,” Dan says. “My time on the podium is less than five percent of my job. The rest is preparation.”

Preparation also comes into play during a performance. Right before a big moment, Dan will gesture dramatically; likewise, when the music is about to slow down, Dan will become still one beat beforehand.

“If you’re with the music, you’re late; you haven’t prepared the orchestra,” she says. “A conductor is always preparing for what’s next.”

In the same manner, Dan prepares for her time in the limelight by charging her batteries. “Because I’m an introvert, I have to force myself to interact with people. That takes a lot of energy, so I try to live a quiet life unless I’m working,” she says.

Despite her natural tendency to seclude herself, Dan says her favorite aspect of conducting is the audience and the performers – the other people with whom she shares the experience of the music.

Dan does not consider the people in the seats behind her to be passive participants in a performance; rather, she says the people who attend the symphony’s concerts lift her and the orchestra up.

“We perform better in front of an audience,” she says. “People think they’re just sitting there, watching and listening, but no. The audience brings its energy into the room; it’s a part of the performance. That’s magical.”

Dan is just as enamored with the members of the symphony. “I love when we’re all in one room trying to accomplish the same goal,” she says. “I think that’s cool.”

As a conductor, Dan is more collaborative than authoritarian. In other words, she’s less Leonard Bernstein, who’s as famous for his ego as his conducting, and more Marin Alsop, an unassuming but talented maestro who became the first woman to lead a major orchestra – the Baltimore Symphony.

“I’m not a high and mighty maestro,” Dan says. “Although I’m responsible for the performance, I might ask a musician where he would like to breathe instead of saying, ‘Breathe here, here and here.’ I like the interaction.”

Dan’s approach was influenced by the conductors she performed under during her formative years as a musician.

She recalls the youth orchestra conductor who was fun but got the job done, and fostered an atmosphere that made Dan want to play well.

Dan also has vivid memories of the conductors who intimidated her and motivated her through fear. “I played well because I didn’t want them to yell at me, but I didn’t play my best because there was no room for me to take chances,” Dan says. “I don’t want to create that kind of environment.”

Although Dan is a humble maestro, she’s earned the right to brag. When she joined the CSO in 2011, she was its youngest and first female conductor. Now Dan will have the opportunity to join the ranks of its longest-sitting conductors, as the symphony has renewed her contract through the 2021-22 season.

Upon making the announcement, CSO Board Chair Don McDowell praised Dan, saying her “conducting skills, instincts and insight translate the passion of our musicians into balanced orchestral performances of real significance for the community.”

In other words, the CSO loves what Dan has done with the place.

Dan is pleased to have the freedom the five-year extension will give her as she plans future orchestra, ballet and opera performances.

“When you don’t have a long-term contract, you feel pressured to cram in the pieces you want to do,” Dan says. “But now I can form well-rounded seasons because I won’t be thinking about one season; I’ll be thinking about multiple seasons.”

For the 2017-18 season, Dan has programmed symphonic music from throughout history – including the Classical era, Romantic period and music from today. While she’s looking forward to conducting Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1,” she’s just as excited about taking the stage with 16-time Grammy Award winning banjoist Bela Fleck, who will perform his new composition.

Further down the road, Dan aspires to conduct Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote.” This is where her long game comes into play, as she doesn’t believe she’s ready to conduct a piece on the scale of Strauss’ massive tone poem.

“It’s on my bucket list, but it will be awhile before we can tackle it,” Dan says. “I’m not mentally ready, and I don’t want to do a bad ‘Don Quixote’ because it’s one of the pieces I love.”

To prepare, Dan says she’ll need to conduct more of Strauss’s other works.

Dan has been preparing for “Don Quixote,” and to lead the CSO, since she was a child.

Born and raised in Japan, Dan moved to Houston, Texas, where her father took a position with a bank when she was eight. Her inability at the time to speak English made her a target for her classmates, who often made sport of her. She responded not by lashing back but by pulling into a shell of silence.

The first time Dan’s classmates heard her voice was when she auditioned for a solo part in choir.

“Music was the only thing that gave me the confidence to stand in front of people and express myself,” Dan says. “But vocal music didn’t feel right for me, so I took up the flute.”

The flute clicked with Dan, who became a skilled performer. Dan also began to develop leadership muscles as she took charge of rehearsals for woodwind quintets or other small ensembles. “I was always the one deciding when and where to rehearse, getting the music together and organizing things,” she says.

Dan became obsessed with the flute, and for several years, she thought she had found her path. Then she discovered orchestra music.

“It resonated with me. I didn’t become a conductor because I liked being the center of attention; I became a conductor because a part of me connected with that role,” she says.

Dan graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in flute performance and music education. When she applied for graduate school, her goal was to teach for a living, not lead orchestras.

Still, Dan felt compelled to pursue her interest in conducting, so as part of the process of applying for graduate school, she put together groups of musicians and videotaped herself leading them. As these acquaintances began to see Dan as a conductor, they invited her to lead their recitals and other performances.

Dan’s journey took her to the University of Arizona, where she continued to study music education as well as conducting as she earned her masters and doctorate degrees.

Communicating with people was still difficult for Dan, though. But instead of writing her off, her teachers taught her to use her securities to break off the barriers that were holding her back.

“During graduate school, I hated speaking to the audience, so my teacher told me to take a speech class,” she says. “I was never nervous performing music because I was always prepared. The same thing applied to speaking. When I was prepared, I was less nervous.”

When Dan realized she didn’t have the vocabulary to talk with the members of a chorus, she joined a choir; when she felt intimidated conducting strings, she learned to play the cello.

As Dan’s teachers nurtured her and brought her capabilities to the surface, she gradually became a more fully-rounded musician and developed the skills she would need to conduct.

During this time, Dan came under the tutelage of Timothy Russel, the conductor of Ballet Arizona. Each year, the ballet would put on 14 performances of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” One season, the symphony hall in which the ballet performed was being renovated, so the production was moved to a smaller venue.

This necessitated doubling the number of performances. Russell, knowing he’d be physically unable to conduct every performance, gave half of them to Dan.

It was her first professional conducting gig.

This led to an audition for assistant conductor with the Phoenix Symphony. Dan secured the job, which lasted three years. When her contract expired, she returned to Texas for a year to find herself. During this time, she met her husband, Andrew, and learned something important about herself.

“The year of not having a position made me realize I wanted to conduct,” she says.

Dan’s next gig took her to Kentucky, where she served as the music director of the youth orchestra of the Lexington Philharmonic for two years.

Then, Dan says, she got lucky.

“The last candidate for conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony withdrew her application because someone else hired her,” Dan says. “I know her. She’s incredible.”

The CSO board thought Dan was incredible, and in 2011, at the spry conductor age of 34, Chattanooga became her home.

Today, Dan feeds off the city, drawing from it the strength she needs to do the job it has called her to do.

“Some cities have no energy. But everyone in Chattanooga is focused on creating an amazing place. There are people who grew up here and saw the city improve over the last 20 or 30 years, and there are people who chose to move here because of what the city has to offer,” Dan says. “Their pride and love for Chattanooga produces a lot of energy.”

In return, Dan is giving back to her community. As part of her role as an advocate for music and music education in Chattanooga, she has created an annual conducting scholarship that she will fund beginning with the 2017-18 season.

Dan will be doing more than investing her personal resources in the scholarship; she’ll be giving the recipients conducting lessons and inviting them to watch her rehearse with the CSO.

Dan says the way the people of Chattanooga have embraced her and taken ownership of the symphony were part of what inspired her to create the scholarship.

“I had a lot of help to getting to where I am. But when you’re not in a stable place, it’s not easy to give something of yourself to others,” she says. “Now that I’ve been here five years and will be here five more, I feel more rooted and am at the right place mentally to offer something.”

Dan hopes to take someone who has not already perfected his or her training – someone with potential – under her wings. (The CSO will announce more details about the scholarship, including how to apply, at a later date.)

Unsurprisingly, Dan lives a quiet life when she’s not attending to her duties as music director of the CSO – or at least as quiet a life as the parent of a one-year-old can live. Although her son occupies most of her free time, when she’s not chasing him down, she trades her baton for a pair of knitting needles.

Dan started a weekly knitting group to force herself to interact socially with others. Then she discovered the therapeutic benefits of her new hobby.

“Music is an endless endeavor. I conducted the Bartok piece last week, but I’m still thinking about the performance and how to improve it,” Dan says. “But when I finish knitting something, it’s done. Whenever I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything, I knit something, like a hat, I can make in a day.”

While Dan prefers simple leisure time activities, her taste in music hues close to its most complex forms. In addition to orchestral music, she loves jazz, but has not made any effort to learn about it because she simply wants to enjoy it.

Conversely, she has no affinity for today’s popular music. “My husband likes it, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it,” she says, laughing. “I’m either at zero percent or 100 percent with everything I do, and I don’t want to use the space in my brain for that information.”

Dan gazes into an empty cup as she shifts back to reflecting on her career. The word that comes to her mind is the same one she associated with landing the conducting job in Chattanooga: lucky.

“Many conductors are unable to live off what they make, and 91percent of professional orchestras are led by men,” she says. “I’m amazed to be in the nine percent of women music directors.”

“I wasn’t part of the pioneering generation of women conductors, but I am walking the path Marin Alsop and others paved for us. They proved women can conduct well. Now we need to live up to their example and not give people a reason to think women conductors are less skilled than men.”

Although Dan has become part of the fabric of Chattanooga, she doesn’t expect to conduct the CSO until she retires. She says orchestras eventually need new blood to lead them and believes it’s unhealthy for musicians to play under the same conductor for decades on end. So, while Dan and the symphony will enjoy another season of stability, she knows the day will come when she steps down.

But not yet. Within the mind of this wallflower whose dimensions could not be contained and whose colors were too vibrant to blend in, a portion of Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” is being tightened up. Strains of “Don Quixote” are beginning to stir; and locked away emotions are waiting for that painful – but liberating – moment when the music opens her up; and she expresses herself through the musicians who give her a voice.