In the past two weeks, three television programs, each on a different network, covered conductor Yutaka Sado’s debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. Though Sado’s one-off gig would normally mean little outside the rarefied world of classical music, TBS and NHK each decided it merited an in-depth special. The third network, TV Asahi, featured the event on its regular classical music program, “Daimei no Nai Ongakkai” (“Concert Without a Name”), which happens to be hosted by Sado.
The three shows, as well as extensive media reports in general, drove home the significance of the event: The Berlin Philharmonic is considered by many to be the greatest musical ensemble in the world, and Sado is only the second Japanese person to be invited to conduct it. Making the story even better, it is literally a dream come true. When Sado graduated from elementary school, he wrote in his yearbook that his stated aim in life was to someday stand on the Berlin podium. Most budding Japanese conductors never dream of anything loftier than directing the NHK Symphony, at least out loud.
Such seemingly limited expectations may strike some as an expression of an inferiority complex, a stereotype that continues to resonate long after Japan became a world economic power. The idea that Japanese people can only find their full potential in Japan is one that embraces the greater stereotype of Japan being a homogeneous society. Consequently, when Japanese people do make successes of themselves in the larger world, there is a mixture of outward pride and concealed resentment in the way they are treated by fellow Japanese. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in the world of classical music, which is still considered a Western dominion despite the thousands of Japanese who enjoy full-time livelihoods, both at home and abroad, playing music.
Irrespective of Sado’s obvious talents, his fellow countrymen may have already considered him peculiarly suited for overseas success based on his outward appearance and general disposition. Sado is tall and bulky, tends to perspire freely and converses in a jokey, relatively informal fashion. More significantly, he achieved success via an unusual route, and not just for a Japanese person.
Though Sado studied music diligently in high school (where he played flute) and attended the University of Fine Arts in his hometown of Kyoto, as a conductor he is mainly self-taught. He volunteered for jobs with amateur orchestras and choirs during his college days. Then he went to the Tanglewood Festival in the United States and eventually apprenticed with Seiji Ozawa, the musical director of the Boston Symphony at the time. However, the turning point in his career came when he was selected by conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein to be his assistant. Sado was, in fact, Bernstein’s last assistant. At that point, Sado no longer belonged to Japan but to the world. He moved to Vienna.
The second turning point came in 1989, when he won the Grand Prix at the International Competition for Young Conductor’s in Besançon, France. He was suddenly in demand, and was asked to conduct almost every major orchestra in Japan.
According to writer Norio Koyama, who has known Sado for years and had a book published about him, the conductor was driven as much by anxiety as he was by ambition. He spent weeks by himself in a hotel room studying for Besançon, letting himself go to seed (“I didn’t even flush the toilet”), and realized that everything he did “was for music.” Sado revealed this epiphany to his wife, telling her that he decided he would have to “live selfishly” to be a success. She understood and, like the good spouse of a great artist, said she would support him in any way she could. The best way she could help him, he said, was to grant him a divorce, even though she was pregnant with their first child. (He has since remarried.)
Willfulness seems to be a salient trait of the best conductors. Bernstein was famous for his sexual appetites and political obsessions. A legend attached to the Berlin Philharmonic’s “musical director for life,” the late Herbert von Karajan, has the imperious maestro getting into a cab in New York and the driver asking him, “Where to?” Von Karajan supposedly answered, “It doesn’t matter. They want me everywhere.” Sado has never been quite this intense, though he’s Mike Tyson compared with Ozawa, the first Japanese conductor to be invited to direct the Berlin orchestra. Ozawa’s success was based on his encyclopedic memory and amiability, but many insiders felt he overstayed his tenure in Boston, since he never made an effort to be part of the community. He was the classic passive expat Japanese.
Sado is more driven. In 2009, he bought a condominium in Berlin, only three minutes from the Philharmonic, specifically as a means of helping him achieve his dream, and it seemed to work. A year later he received the coveted invitation to conduct the world-famous orchestra, and not just as a guest conductor, but as one of only two or three per year that are invited by the orchestra to guest conduct a subscription concert series. The ensemble’s musical director, Simon Rattle, asked him to perform a Toru Takemitsu composition, and the orchestra members requested something Russian, so he decided to do Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5,” Bernstein’s favorite work.
After the first of three performances on May 20, Sado told Aera Magazine that conducting the Berlin Philharmonic was akin to “pressing down fully on the accelerator while driving a Rolls Royce.” Local newspapers judged the concert to be “a triumph,” though Japanese fans will have to wait until later this summer for Avex to release the CD/DVD of the concert to see and hear for themselves. None of the three programs broadcast any of the pieces in their entirety. The story of Sado’s achievement was the focus. The music itself was secondary.