The Orchestra’s assistant conductor, Kensho Watanabe, likes to say he grew up with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He fell under its spell shortly after his family moved from their native Japan (where he first picked up a fiddle at age two) to Connecticut. Riding the school bus with his trusty Walkman, he’d listen to the Orchestra’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with Riccardo Muti.
As a precocious violin student in Juilliard’s pre-college program, he was fascinated one afternoon by a sectional rehearsal featuring concertmaster David Kim. “I was really impressed by him as a person and a violinist.” That same evening, he saw the Orchestra perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. “I was amazed by what I was hearing; it reinforced what I’d heard on CD earlier. More recently, when I first heard the Orchestra in Verizon Hall, I finally realized how many connections I had with them even before coming to Philadelphia!”
Yet Kensho almost didn’t make it here. He was a biology major at Yale, in a combined BS/MM program leading to a master’s degree in music (violin) after his undergraduate work. He dutifully studied molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. He even took the make-or-break MCAT med-school admission test. But he’d also fallen into conducting with a Yale chamber orchestra. He teetered on the fence between music and medicine for a while, and had actually begun post-graduate studies at Curtis, when he finally decided to forsake science for music.
He initially studied conducting at Curtis with the legendary Otto-Werner Mueller. But after Mueller retired, Watanabe won the first fellowship in a new Curtis conducting program, under none other than Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “He was so incredibly giving of his time. Any week he was there, he gave me an hour of private instruction, to go over videos of previous concerts, answer any questions I had about a score, anything dealing with music and conducting; he was always available. I couldn’t be more grateful. I just feel so lucky to be able to work with him like that.”
Not only has Kensho studied closely with the Orchestra’s music director, he’s actually played in the ensemble, as a substitute violinist from 2012 to 2016. “Subbing in the string section is a huge part of my Philadelphia Orchestra connection. I was able to learn their approach to string playing; the style in which they play; the energy. To be able to see different conductors from the musicians’ perspective has really informed how I approach things on the podium. And having gotten to know a lot of these musicians, having built up relationships, I feel more comfortable. It’s such an incredible ensemble, with world-renowned status. It can be intimidating to a young conductor like me. Any kind of familiarity helps. So I just hope to continue to build on those relationships and continue to build trust with the musicians.”
OK, so he has the gig. What does the assistant conductor for The Philadelphia Orchestra do?
“It’s a bit of an open-ended job. My primary role is to assist whoever is conducting the Orchestra that week. I’m the extra set of ears for the person on the podium. It’s a big responsibility! Because [the Orchestra is] so good, it’d be very easy to sit in the auditorium and just enjoy what’s happening. But I also need to be able to turn on a different level of listening, where I’ll be trying to improve this already great product. And I have to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice [in case a conductor can’t go on for whatever reason].”
The latter happened on April 8, when Yannick came down with a virus and was unable to conduct that evening’s subscription concert. Kensho stepped in to make his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in front of a packed crowd in Verizon Hall.
Kensho also sees his role as supporting the musicians, “to be available to help with anything that needs to be done musically, administratively, logistically, in any way.”
In his spare time (!), he leads all the pre-concert lectures. He’ll also be conducting a Family Concert on April 22, featuring Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and Philadelphia Orchestra Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition winner Emma Resmini in Frank Martin’s Ballade.
It’s clear that Kensho Watanabe has no second thoughts about choosing a life in music over medicine. “I just think I would have missed out on so much had I gone into medical school. I think I would’ve been so unhappy. For me, it was about discovering something I was incredibly passionate about and having the right collection of people, family, friends, and mentors who allowed me to feel safe in jumping off and saying “this is what I’m going to do!”