Music

Okisawa sets firsts for international conductor competition

Young, up-and-coming Japanese conductor Nodoka Okisawa won first prize at the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting earlier this month.

Launched in 1967, the competition has been held every three years and has developed into a competition that, in Asia, represents a gateway to global recognitions. Many former contestants are internationally active in conducting first-class orchestras. Since 2014, it has been a part of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.

This year was the first time since 2000 that a Japanese conductor won first prize, and the first time in the more than 50-year history of the competition, that a female conductor was awarded first-prize.

In total, there were 238 applicants from 42 countries and regions from around the world. After the strict screening process of written applications and video recordings, 18 applicants from nine countries and regions took part in the first preliminary round on Oct. 9; eight of these advanced to the second preliminary round on Oct. 11.

On Oct. 14 at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, four conductors competed in the dramatic finals — Earl Lee from Canada, Okisawa and fellow Japanese conductors Masaru Kumakura and Kanade Yokoyama.

In addition to the required piece, the “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn, the candidates conducted one more piece of their choosing; Okisawa conducted Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Don Juan.” All four were able to fully demonstrate their daily studies and efforts, clearly reflected in their performance styles and the music performed by the New Japan Philharmonic.

Kazuto Ito, president of Min-On Concert Association who served as chairperson of the executive committee for the 18th competition, awarded first prize to Okisawa, second to Yokoyama, third to Kumakura and the honorable mention to Lee at the awards presentation ceremony following the finals.

During the ceremony, Japanese conductor and composer Yuzo Toyama, who served as the chairperson of the panel of judges, gave favorable feedback to the young conductors and delivered words of appreciation to the organizer, who has built the history of the competition, which is the oldest in Asia, and a legacy of pioneering Japanese musicians such as conductor Hidemaro Konoe, composer Kosaku Yamada and great educator Hideo Saito.

“The participation in the strict and impartial competition is a valuable experience for young conductors. I am sure that all the contestants will be active internationally in the future,” said Toyama at a press conference the following day. The three Japanese awardees also expressed their feelings about winning and wishes for the future.

The panel of judges included international musicians from Austria, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

Among the comments from the judges, Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant highly praised Okisawa, while noting that judging was free from any kind of favor or discrimination. “Her conducting of Mendelssohn’s overture was absolutely balanced and so beautifully phrased that I was very impressed,” he said.

Born in 1987, Okisawa graduated at the top of her class in the department of conducting at Tokyo University of the Arts, and is further studying in Germany and beyond under prominent conductors.

Responding to questions from the press, Okisawa spoke on her past and her mentor Tatsuya Shimono, a Japanese conductor who won the 12th competition in 2000.

“(Because I) initially learned to play musical instruments, I started to study conducting seriously only after entering university, and that was not easy for me, (as I was) surrounded by talented peers. I even suffered mental health issues in the process of my studies,” Okisawa said. “However, maestro Shimono’s words of encouragement greatly supported me in overcoming the difficulties and continuing as a conductor.”

Okisawa also said that she does not see any gender bias against women. “Never pretend” is what she always keeps in mind when conducting. “Because it would be noticed immediately,” she said.

The winners’ debut concerts are scheduled for May 18, 2019, in Nagoya and May 22 in Tokyo to celebrate the young, promising conductors and introduce them to the public.