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Always With an Ear for Order

The Philharmonic's assistant conductor chooses his programs carefully, looking for links between works

July 14, 2002|CHRIS PASLES

In the middle of an interview, Yasuo Shinozaki hands over typed notes about his programming choices for an upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic's assistant conductor talks music, he turns thoughtful and then locks eyes with his listener. When he conducts, the critics say, he minds order and shape.

All of which make one thing clear: For Shinozaki, music is in the details.

"If you look at this paper," the Kyoto, Japan-born conductor says backstage before a recent Bowl concert, "you can understand why I choose this program." It's the agenda for Shinozaki's Tuesday concert with the Phil at the Bowl--Beethoven, Mozart and new music from Karen Tanaka.

Two things in particular draw the works together: Paris and the relative youth of the composers when the works were written. The opener is "Guardian Angel" by Tanaka, 41, a friend of Shinozaki's who has been living in Paris and working at the computer-music think tank IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique, for about 15 years.

The piece was inspired by a passage from Exodus. "I imagine an angel is falling down from the sky," Shinozaki, 34, writes in his notes. "What a beautiful situation that is."

The Paris connection for Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony is a little more indirect: It was inspired by a Parisian, Napoleon, and written when the Austrian composer was 32. Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, composed just after he got back to Salzburg from a sojourn in Paris, was written for himself and his sister, Nannerl. He was 23.

"He must have felt so happy playing this concerto," says Shinozaki, a smile breaking over his face.

Sister connections figure importantly in Shinozaki's life. Born into a nonmusical family (his parents operate a restaurant in Kyoto), the conductor first encountered music when his sister, Ryoko, started studying ballet.

"What that means is that every day when I was a child, there was a lot of ballet music in the house," he said. "I was moved by 'Swan Lake,' conducted by Seiji Ozawa, but only on CD, of course."

The first symphony he heard, likewise on CD, was Schubert's "Unfinished," conducted by Bruno Walter. "I've heard this music by others since then," he said, his hands poised in the air. "But I couldn't forget him. I don't believe that music is made only by notes, the sound of tones. With Bruno Walter, something else happened. It became music. It was magic."

His hands drop when he tries to remember exactly when he decided to pursue conducting. "When I was a student in kindergarten," he said, "sometimes I was conducting to the stereo. When I was a junior high school student, I went to many concerts. But it's difficult to say when I felt, 'Oh, it's my life, to be a conductor.' "

He studied at the Toho Gakeun University in Japan from 1986 to 1994, making his opera debut with Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" in Tokyo in 1993 and subsequently conducting at other opera houses in Japan.

To complete his conducting studies, he decided to go to the Vienna Musikhochschule, where he worked with Leopold Hager from 1995 to 1998. He also studied with Myung-Whung Chung and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, and with Ozawa and Bernard Haitink at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.

"I was interested in Japanese music, but I'm very interested in European culture," he said. "That's why I went to Vienna. I had to learn a lot more music and I had to learn music in the center of European musical culture."

Everything lived up to his expectations. Well, almost everything.

"I was disappointed only in the weather," he said. "All the time in winter, it's always cloudy. But then I realized, spring in Austria is very, very beautiful because it comes after such a long winter. Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, you know, they were so inspired by spring because it comes after a long winter. Before I got to Vienna, I didn't know that."

In 1993, Shinozaki won second prize in the Antonio Pedrotti International Conducting Competition in Trento, Italy (no first prize was awarded that year). He was 25. But his career took a more dramatic turn when he won second prize at the Second International Sibelius Conducting Competition in Helsinki in 2000. Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen was chairman of the jury and invited him to audition for the post of assistant conductor here. When Shinozaki's two-year appointment was announced in April 2001, Salonen called him "a wonderfully talented young conductor."

"From the very first moment," said 20-year Philharmonic clarinetist David Howard, "there was weight and a richness to the sound of the orchestra that seemed shocking considering that no word had been spoken to indicate that. It was a mysterious moment. There was something about his body language. He had us playing with a wonderful depth of sound."

"It was an amazing time," Shinozaki said. "I had felt I had done well."

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