Kensho Watanabe on Leaving the Lab for the Stage

Kensho Watanabe
Photo courtesy of Kensho Watanabe

Kensho Watanabe is Assistant Conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra. He has lead or served as conductor in numerous operas, such as for the Curtis Opera Theatre and the Montreal Opera. He received his master's degree in music from the Yale School of Music and a bachelor's degree in biology from Yale College.

Editor's Note: I first saw Kensho Watanabe conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra last October at its annual Free College Concert. I was amazed by his biography and wondered how he made what seemed to be such a drastic switch in interests.

We found your career path particularly interesting, shifting from biology into music. Can you tell us about how that happened?

I started playing violin around the age of two, so very early. Music was a huge part of my life growing up. But I lost my grandfather on my mother's side to colon cancer when I was five, and this was maybe six months after my family had moved from Japan to Connecticut. Losing a close relative had a pretty profound impact on me. He was also the one that was supporting me very much in learning the violin. That moment kind of inspired me in the way it commonly does—a lot of doctors have the story of pursuing medicine after losing a family member to an illness. I was very similar to that. So growing up, my parents and I both kind of understood that I was going to go into medicine.

So all through high school I was going from private lessons in New York City to working in a lab in Hackensack, New Jersey. I was like many Penn students before they get to college: doing everything and not sleeping much. In terms of picking a college, I wanted to go somewhere that offered enough musical activities along with very strong academics. Aside from Yale, I was looking at joint programs like Juilliard, Columbia, and Harvard. But I just fell in love with Yale when I walked in. Without even knowing so much about the music program or how good the orchestra was, just the action of the campus and also the community felt right to me, so I just jumped in and hoped that it would work out. Luckily it did.

What was your experience at Yale like?

Yale had this amazing 100 million dollar plus grant for the Yale School of Music, which made the music school free for their students. As an undergrad that doesn't really affect you, it's just that over the years that I spent at Yale, the quality of that school was rapidly increasing. I decided to apply for this five-year, combined bachelor's/master's program, where they basically allied the first year of your master's with your senior year. This was really appealing to me because, of course, all throughout this time I had been playing the violin at a pretty high level. Even in the larger scheme of becoming a doctor, I felt that taking an extra year to get a Master's in music was a perfect bookend to my musical career before starting my medical school path. So that was my plan.

On the other hand, conducting was not a thing until I got to college; I had taken some classes during high school but it wasn't ever an aspiration of mine. At Yale, there were many student run ensembles other than the Yale Symphony that were just spread across campus. And so I was actually looking for an ensemble to play viola in because I had picked up the instrument a few years before that. So to maximize all my music making opportunities I wanted to audition for a smaller group so I could play viola. That smaller group was also in need of a conductor at that time — it was an interesting thing where a bunch of seniors asked the freshman whether he could conduct.

I had never met them before, and I was just like, "Yeah, I've taken some classes." So this is how I got started with conducting.

Once I started conducting, I noticed that this was something that I really enjoyed doing and had a passion for.

Basically a year later I was the assistant conductor of the Yale Symphony and as part of those responsibilities I got to conduct one piece on a program every year. So from my sophomore year to senior year I got to conduct quite a bit.

Meanwhile I was still doing the biology degree thinking I'm going to be a doctor. As many biology majors do during the summer, I took extra classes. I took physics over the summer to get my premed requirements out of the way. I actually spent two summers working in a lab on neurobiology. After my senior year I took the MCATs, planning to go to med school and after taking the MCATs, I certainly did not want to stay and work in a lab. I needed to do something different.

Kensho Watanabe
Photo courtesy of Kensho Watanabe

So I took that opportunity to look for some music festivals. I found this great conducting festival called the Paramount Conducting School in Maine. I spent six weeks there and this was the first time I really had any kind of formal instruction in conducting and this was a way for me to immerse myself completely in that world and see if I came out enjoying it or hating it. That kind of changed my life — at that moment I was like, "OK, this is my interest and this is serious enough that I should really looking into furthering my studies in conducting." I started to think, maybe this was an option for me to at least explore. And so having taken the MCATs already, I had a score that was valid for three years. I thought, why don't I see what happens with the conducting thing and I can always go back.

So I ended up trying and grappling with conducting and I ended up at the Curtis Institute of Music. After my first year at Curtis, I had to either decide to apply or give up the med school thing. So I thought, "I'm just gonna apply." I started writing my personal statement about why I want to be a doctor and all this. I finished writing it, and reading it over and I just realized that all of it was kind of a projection of what I had thought when I was maybe ten and not really exactly how I felt now. I couldn't really imagine myself not doing music and not conducting. This was when I committed fully to it.

It took a long time. From entering school when I first started conducting till I was 22, I was pretty unsure as to what my career path would be.

You talk about some of the personal obstacles you faced and still having this desire to be a doctor even as you pursued music. Were there any external obstacles you faced, like family or anything else?

Not so much. I mean I think that when I told my parents that I want to pursue this conducting thing, it was more of a shock than anything. And neither of them are musicians so they have no idea what it means to be a conductor. They have a little bit of a better idea now. But at that point it was very much "The Unknown" and I think that they were just worried about what the future would be like. But they could clearly see that I was really passionate about what I wanted to do. So of course there was no issue of like, "Oh, you shouldn't be doing that."

But there was definitely a time where I felt personally that I was kind of figuring it out on my own without much support. But you know, this was a span of maybe a few months. I think they came to one of my first concerts at the Curtis and it was very clear to them that this is what I should be doing.

You said that you felt you didn't have much support as you were going through this. Was there anyone that helped you realize that you really wanted to be in music or was it all internal?

There are many people that helped—-it was interesting. I was lucky to have people that advocated for both sides—there are people that thought that I would be great in medicine and that I had a good personality for it, and the determination and the drive to get through med school and become a doctor. And I think people were encouraging in that sense. And then of course I had great musical mentors, even at Yale and also at Curtis, encouraging me musically. It wasn't like there was an overwhelming pull from outside forces. It really was a decision that I had to make internally which I think was pretty tough on me. But I'm really glad that I was able to go through that myself.

I think it's important that when you make a decision, you know that it's organically made and it's just from you and that helps you be 100 percent committed, instead of wavering.

You are now the assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a lot of articles talk about the night that the current conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, was sick and you had to step in and lead the orchestra. Can you talk a little bit about that night and like what that was like for you?

As the assistant your responsibility is exactly that, if anything happens to the conductor. So I was actually in a rehearsal for an opera that I was doing at Curtis in the morning, and around maybe two or three o'clock I got a call from Jeremy Rothman, our vice president of artistic planning. And the call was basically, "Hey Yannick is really sick right now and not sure if he can lead the concert. So just a heads up that you may need to step in tonight." But it wasn't an official kind of notice at all. It was just a heads up.

Kensho and Yannick
Kensho with Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo courtesy of Kensho Watanabe

So my job every week is to be ready. And you are ready, but when you get that kind of call you obviously want to start re-studying everything and making sure everything is in the order. I spent the majority the afternoon reviewing things and around 5pm I got a call saying “Okay, you're definitely on, so be ready.”

After that it's very much a blur. I was making sure I was ready and then getting to the hall. And it's interesting, somebody told me that Leonard Bernstein, who was a very famous conductor, also had a similar moment in New York when he was an assistant at the New York Philharmonic and he stepped in for an ailing conductor. And somebody told me that after he came off the stage he said that he blacked out for a moment and didn't really remember much. I feel the same way - I don't exactly remember so many things about that night because it was such a surreal moment to be making my debut with the orchestra in this circumstance.

So there are some moments that I remember, some feelings. I just felt incredibly emotionally and musically supported by the orchestra, and from the moment I stepped onstage everybody was really ready to help me get through it. And so that was the feeling that I will never never forget in terms of moments that I've kept to myself. That's one of them.

But overall I don't really remember what happened, honestly. It was such a rush. And I'm just glad. I think Yannick called me right after the concert and I told him, "No one died and the building is not on fire. So I think we're doing OK." And that's kind of how I feel.

Just to backtrack a little bit how did you get involved with the Philly Orchestra and how did you become the assistant conductor?

My first interaction with the orchestra was as a substitute violinist. When I got to Curtis having been a pretty serious violinist, I still wanted to have opportunities to continue to play violin. I auditioned for a spot on the substitute list and I luckily made that audition so that I could play in the orchestra. There are times where musicians take vacations or have a sick day or whatever - those are the days when substitutes are called to play. I got a chance to play a lot of concerts with that orchestra.

So I was doing that while I was studying at Curtis and then in the spring of 2016, I took an audition to be the assistant conductor here with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was an audition where six people were invited after a big application around the screen, CVs and all that. Luckily I won the audition and was offered the position. It was great because before I was conducting the group I got to be a part of the group as well. I got to know the orchestra inside out which really helps me now as a conductor.

Is there anything in your background, as you pursued your biology degree, that helps you as a conductor and as a violinist?

I think there are two ways of answering this and I think both are valid. One is just that generally, it's sometimes more about your own personality or bringing your own experiences to the music and that's what makes that moment or performance special. Having a diverse background in something else other than music helps me, has helped put my personality and my being together.

More specifically for me, I think because I am math and science oriented, I think that I'm able to bring that aspect to the rehearsal process or even studying music, in that I'm able to analyze and diagnose certain things that need to be improved. I think that we're trained to do this in the sciences. There's not a real direct correlation but I think that approach or that mode of thinking really helps me be efficient and clear and communicative on the podium as a leader.

What advice would you give to Penn students?

When I went into college there was just an expectation, I don't know if it was my own, of becoming a doctor. Even when I was talking to my advisers and stuff, they were all saying "Oh yeah, well you have to take these premed classes anyway so why don't you be a Bio major?" And it wasn't really like "What do you want to study, what classes do you want to take?" It was more like, this was the expectation that if you want to be a doctor you have to do this. And I knew many people that majored in humanities and ended up going to med school afterwards because they managed to take their prerequisites or did it postbac.

So I wish in a way that I had more of a well-rounded education at Yale because a lot of it was specified to fulfill the prerequisite for the bio degree, and also this five year program had prerequisites in terms of the music classes I have to take. That severely limited the diversity of my classes at Yale.

I think no matter how serious you are about what you want to be doing in school, you should just diversify as much as possible in terms of what classes you take.

I think it's great to go against the grain in that sense because I think a lot of people around me were just doing the same thing: they were going to go to medical school and were taking all these classes and of course you want to be the same. You end up doing the same thing and you end up taking the same classes and I wish that I actually had a little bit more of a stronger individualistic spirit to do other things and still fulfill those requirements. I alos think that being able to communicate with many different kinds of people is obviously very important nowadays and diversifying what you study really helps with that.

I'm so thankful that I at least had another education outside of music that I bring to this world because I don't know how I would be communicating with such a strong, diverse array of people. I do these pre-concert lectures before concerts in Philly. I talk to patrons every day and they are often of very different backgrounds and careers. I meet with them and relate to them in a way that I don't think I would've been able to do if I had just locked myself in a room and studied music all day.

Kensho and Yannick
Kensho with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Kensho Watanabe

Last question. Do you have a favorite piece?

Oh geez! No I don't, just because in a way you're not allowed to. Just kidding, it's more just that. I can give you one, or at least a style - I'm really a fan of French impressionist music. But also I think what I have in front of me in a given week has to be something that I love and even if I don't naturally get drawn to it, I have to find something in the music that I like about it. Because if you're not motivated or passionate about what you're performing that week, it's going to come across in the performance.