Leading the way

Conductor Tomomi Nishimoto lives her dream


In 1995 Tomomi Nishimoto was regularly sneaking into an auditorium to watch an esteemed Bolshoi maestro rehearse. Seven years later, she was appointed the first Japanese chief conductor of Russia’s state-run Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra Millennium.

The recent chapters of Nishimoto’s career might sound like something out of a fairy tale. But the more you learn about how she arrived at that podium, the more you realize that it wasn’t pixie-dust that got her there. It all comes down to hard work and an iron will.

In person, the 32-year-old conductor is a calm, confident and open individual, belying the intensity and sternness that she often must display when the baton is in her hand. She is obviously passionate about music, but when speaking about her profession, she is a level-headed pragmatist, who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it.

Born in Osaka in 1970, Nishimoto began learning piano at age 3 under the tutelage of her mother (a voice major herself) who was giving piano lessons at home. Long before she could read music, Nishimoto was playing the pieces she heard other students play by ear.

From an early age, Nishimoto was fascinated by Russian ballet and opera performances, which she had seen with her mother. She dreamed of traveling to Russia one day and once wrote in an elementary school essay: “[Someday] I want to become a composer and a conductor, and create music that comforts people.”

Her active pursuit of this dream, though, didn’t come until later.

“It is like you have this dream, but you don’t know how to make it come true,” Nishimoto said in a recent interview. “Let’s say you want to be an astronaut, but how do you become one? You can’t even imagine where to begin. Can you be a writer if you study literature in college? That’s not guaranteed. It’s the same for conducting. There is no specific way to go about it, and for me it was just a dream and the thought was put aside for a long time.”

Nishimoto did continue with her music studies, however, and practiced piano diligently after school until 9 p.m. and sometimes for up to 10 hours on Sundays. While the hours were long, she has fond memories of this formative period.

“It was great fun,” she said. “Of course I had to practice the pieces for my lesson, but then I’d pick up some orchestra scores, play a record [of that particular piece] and play the piano along as I looked at the details on the scores. In this way, you discover so many things. It is also close to what a conductor does, which is to read a score.”

By the time she was into her third year of high school, Nishimoto had decided to go to music school — but not to become a pianist.

“My desire to become a conductor was growing so fast,” she explained. “But it wasn’t like, from one you go to two, and then from two to three. It was more like cell division: Two became four; four became 16 . . . it was that fast. Maybe I had that desire all along and I had been suppressing it, thinking that it was impossible.”

After entering the Osaka College of Music, she involved herself in several different opera projects. She gravitated toward opera first instead of symphonies because opera involved a larger staff and afforded her more opportunities.

“In Japanese society, you can’t just walk in and say, ‘I want to be a vice-conductor,’ in front of all sorts of people, many of them older than you and working professionally. I was just a student. So my strategy was to go every day, and if anyone needed anything, I tried to do whatever was necessary to help them.”

Her first job was transcribing the scores for each part of the orchestra from the master copy written by the composer. The staff took notice of her abilities and asked her to give cues to lighting technicians (who often can’t read music). Eventually she was promoted to assistant director.

Because Nishimoto undertook many tasks unrelated to music, she gradually learned how an opera is made.

“Sometimes vice-conductors would come in late and I would be asked to conduct,” she said. “But even just watching them was a great experience because I could observe the politics. For example, a particular singer would be a professor and the conductor would be younger and so he couldn’t say anything about a poor performance.

“At this time, I was able to look at everything objectively, but I kept having thoughts like ‘If I were conducting, I would use music like that or like this’ more and more each day.”

Eventually, her hard work paid off and the project members officially made her a vice-conductor. This led to a performance of a Polish opera in front of the director of the Warsaw Theater, who immediately acknowledged her potential and invited her to study with him in Poland. She turned him down, though, because her sights were set on Russia.

A few months later, she learned that Bolshoi conductor Aleksandr Kopylov was going to be rehearsing for a ballet performance at her college’s music hall. Every day, she sat in the back of the auditorium, following along with her score and watching in fascination.

Then one day, she was called backstage. She expected to be scolded for not having permission to be there. “But instead [the maestro] said, ‘You’re here every day, aren’t you? Are you a conductor?,’ looking at the conductors score I was carrying.

“Then I said, ‘I’d like to be one.’ “

Kopylov asked Nishimoto how she thought the rehearsals were progressing. Having been a ballet dancer herself between the ages of 3 and 15, her opinions came pouring forth. The maestro then asked her to play some of the ballet practice music, and Nishimoto impressed him further.

Kopylov recommended that she study under him in Moscow. Once again, though, she refused, since she had planned to go to St. Petersburg, primarily because it is a city of strong traditions. The conductor asked if she had any contacts in St. Petersburg; Nishimoto had none.

“He said, if things didn’t work out in St. Petersburg, come to Moscow. And he actually did send me the application form to study at St. Petersburg National School of Music. I was happy because then I knew it wasn’t just talk.”

Nishimoto graduated from the Osaka College of Music in 1994 and, a few years later, continued her education at St. Petersburg National School of Music, studying with accomplished conductors such as Viktor Fedotov and Ilya Moussin.

When she finally arrived in the land of her dreams, she was wide-eyed with amazement. She marveled at the large staff, the high standards and the beautiful stage of the Mariinsky Theater in Kirov, where she was a research student of conducting.

“Bolshoi has 2,000 people, including singers and dancers, and at Kirov there are two floors in the opera house. On one floor musicians can be rehearsing while underneath a real performance is going on. And each day, there’s a different opera being performed. It was then that I thought, ‘this country is not at all poor. This country must be rich if it can provide such labor and money for art’.”

Life as a student in St. Petersburg wasn’t easy, however. She was given long scores that she had never seen and was told that she must conduct them in a few days, and she had to keep up with the pace.

“The practice sessions were hard and the winter was severe, and sometimes I just felt numb,” she recalls. “I had to keep telling myself that I was actually studying in the St. Petersburg of my dreams.”

While completing her formal education, Nishimoto began to conduct professionally and display the fruits of her experience in St. Petersburg. Her talent was officially recognized in 1999 when she was awarded Russia’s St. Stanislav Medal for her highly acclaimed performance of a Mozart program with a chamber orchestra of musicians from the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Over the past few years, Nishimoto has been making more appearances on Japanese stages and, not surprisingly, in the media. Atsushi Yamao, a leading classical music critic, says he’s excited about her future. “She’s just now standing at the starting line,” he said in an interview. Yamao has been watching Nishimoto’s progress closely for the past two years. “Her style has the characteristics of what Japanese people would consider Russian. The low tones resonate deeply. It’s a very solid, well-balanced sound,” he said.

“At the same time, the expressions are rich, just as in Tolstoy’s literature. These are not found in other young Japanese conductors. However she is young, and there are so many things she can do [in the future]. I look forward to seeing how this special color in her music will produce some sort of ‘chemical reaction’ when playing pieces by composers other than Tchaikovsky [or other Russian composers.]”

Indeed, when Nishimoto conducted the New Japan Philharmonic on Jan. 11, playing romantic pieces by Debussy or Ravel, the audience was treated to the other side of her musicality.

These days, Nishimoto says she spends about half the year in Japan and the other half in Russia, which puts her in a good position to compare the classical music worlds of both countries. One aspect that troubles her is the one-way relationship Japan has with the rest of the classical music world. She observes that when orchestras from overseas perform here, all expenses are customarily paid by the Japanese side, though this is never the case when a Japanese orchestra tours abroad. She hopes that Japanese orchestras can perform more overseas and receive their due recognition.

Because Nishimoto knew well how money flows in the classical-music world, her appointment to the Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra Millennium was wonderfully surprising. Often when orchestras or conductors are invited, their sponsors are also invited.

“When I was told that I was appointed as the chief conductor, the first thing I said was ‘But I have no sponsors.’ They said they knew that and yet, they still wanted me to conduct.”

And conduct she will.

Displaying wisdom beyond her years, Nishimoto states that in order to achieve something, three things are necessary: “First is talent, second is luck and third is willpower. But you’ll learn that in terms of priority, willpower comes first, because it is your willpower that ultimately conducts your talent.”