NACO’s Yosuke Kawasaki steps out of the dark and into the light

Yosuke Kawasaki. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Yosuke Kawasaki is the strong, silent type most of the time. But every now and then the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s concertmaster steps forward into the spotlight.

He’s doing that this week when he will be featured, along with NACO’s principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a performance of a humorous piece called Moz-Art à la Haydn by the 20th century Russian-German composer Alfred Schnittke. And later this month Kawasaki will be all by himself when he solos in a performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). 

While very different musically, both the Schnittke and the Strauss have a theatricality about them, Kawasaki says.

“I played (Schnittke) awhile back at a summer festival in Aspen.

“The piece is actually written for a very small ensemble. Two violinists and 11 other string players. When I performed it,” he said, “they wanted to include the whole orchestra. So we actually did it with 20 players. It’s possible to just double up on the parts.”

The piece takes excerpts from Mozart and from Haydn.

The performance asks the musicians to almost be actors as well as players. In Aspen, Kawasaki said, the performers started playing in the wings and walked onto the stage to take their seats. At the end, to the strains of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, they walked off stage and down the aisles to surround the audience.

It’s supposed to start in the dark but that couldn’t happen in Aspen, he said, because the concert was during the afternoon in a tent.

But “we are going to try to do it the way that Schnittke intended in Southam Hall. It is supposed to start in complete darkness. It opens with fragments from an unfinished piece by Mozart” called Music to a Carnival Pantomime.

A minute in, the lights will turn on and everyone will be seated, he said.

Kawasaki is a firm believer in the value of being open to different ways of performing.

“I have never actually incorporated anything like that to end any other piece, but when the score calls for it we should go all out and do it.”

In so doing, the barriers that exist in concerts between players and audience break down.

It is surprising that this is a piece from Schnittke because his music is usually not all that accessible. But here, Kawasaki says, he was paying homage to the composers who came before him.

It also reminds Kawasaki of another  piece that NACO has performed recently called Earworms by Vivian Fung. The contemporary Canadian composer introduced a lot of musical quotes in her composition too.

And, in a way, Strauss does the same in Ein Heldenleben, he says.

“There is a moment in that piece where Strauss starts to pay homage to himself. Which is hilarious.”

Ein Heldenleben is a “huge piece. It involves the whole orchestra and has an extensive concertmaster solo in it. It is one of those pieces that people audition with.

“It’s pretty schizophrenic, the way it is written,” he says, noting that there are explicit directions, in German, for the player to be, for example,  yearning at one point and scolding at another.

“There are a lot of characters that I have to portray with my sound.”

Strauss, in some ways, is easier to do, he says, because the composer is quite specific.

Theatricality in performance and contact between the players and the audience, is expected in classical concerts these days, he said.

“Performers talk to the audience about what they will hear, not to tell them what to feel but to share how we feel about the music.”

He believes it helps people apprectiate what is going on on the stage.

He also doesn’t mind stepping out for a solo or two.

“I enjoy them. First of all, it keeps me on my toes. And, sometimes when we are playing in a big group, maybe we feel that our voices get lost a little bit and pieces such as these give us an opportunity, not just me… but everyone in the group, to get little moments in the sun.”

While he admits to being reserved, “we all have our musical soul. I’m reserved if we are in a group. When I am playing I do feel very passionately about the sounds I am making. It’s everything I am not when I am not playing. When I pick up my instrument I’m able to channel all those other personalities.”

Kawasaki has a very busy life outside NACO. He is an active chamber music player and he’s a concertmaster with two smaller orchestras in Japan. He also guests with other orchestras. In fact he was recently in Houston filling in as concertmaster.

He has no plans to move to Texas however.

The American born Kawasaki, who is married to another NACO violinist Jessica Linnebach and is helping raise two young children in Ottawa, is working towards his Canadian Citizenship.

In Houston “I just tried to fit in. I made sure things didn’t go off rails. I was really there to facilitate the process and to try to convey what conductor wanted.”

A concertmaster is a key role in any orchestra. The person is the point between the music director and the musicians in the group.

What does that mean? For Kawasaki, who has done a lot of this sort of thing, it means a lot of listening.

“One of the first things, when people started asking me about the role of the concertmaster, was they assumed I am leading all the time. But really the answer that I gave them is that I basically listen all the time. That’s all I do.

“Sometimes to really be able lead well, we have to be able to follow well. That is the balance we need. We have to follow a conductor and we have to lead a section.”

That said, he has no interest in becoming a conductor.

“Oh man, no way. Conducting requires a lot of things that I currently don’t have. I can’t look at a page of Strauss and see what is happening in a glance.”

But there is more to it than that.

“My biggest fear is the fear of people not liking me. Good conductors don’t care about that. It’s impossible for the entire orchestra to like you. You will always have at least one person who’s not your friend. I could probably never live with that. It’s not in me, man.”

NACO presents Mozart à la Haydn
Where: Southam Hall
When: May 10 & 11 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.