“Brilliant”, “deeply expressive”, “gutsy”, “exceptional”, “empathetic
conducting”, “first-rate leadership”. These are just some of the
accolades that music critics around the world have used to celebrate the
conducting of Takuo Yuasa, Principal Guest Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra
in Northern Ireland and guest conductor at a multitude of the world’s
leading orchestras. The tributes would swell the head of many a
conductor if his work were merely a search for public recognition. But
for Takuo Yuasa, music is more essential than that. Yuasa is aware of
the tributes, of course: he has spent his life performing in the public
domain, and the accolades he has garnered are the deserved reward for
his skill and dedication. So he does not demur when asked about the details
of his success. "Look on the internet, do a search for my name,
you will find many sites," he says confidently.
A trawl through the websites does indeed turn up one warm review after
another, and not a single negative one. Tellingly, though, almost
nothing appears about Yuasa's personal life.
Speaking on the telephone from his home in Glasgow, Scotland, where
he lives for part of the year, the man behind the impressive titles and
rave reviews seems somewhat elusive, though perhaps not intentionally
so. Ask him about his life as opposed to his music, and he finds it difficult
to answer. His conversation always leads back to music and it becomes
clear that he doesn’t really understand the question. The contours of
Yuasa’s life have been shaped by his enormous musical curiosity, and the
milestones that mark his memory are all musical ones. The mistake is to
search for a man instead of a musician: for Yuasa, the two have always
Yuasa’s voice is lively and self-assured, with an accent that is hard
to define, a product of his years of travelling the world and his polyglotism.
He speaks Japanese, German and English, and is learning French. “I’m learning
the Glasgow accent,” he says, although there is no trace of that notoriously
difficult brogue in his own voice. “My neighbours all have a lovely accent.”
Yuasa grew up in Osaka, Japan, and he remembers his childhood as being
surrounded by music. “I was always involved in music. I never considered
doing anything else. Music has been part of my heart.” His earliest
exposure to music came through his mother and her extensive record collection
which he listened to constantly as a child. He doesn’t recall being inspired
by any single type of music or instrument. “I wanted to touch every instrument
that I could get my hands on. I wanted to get my hands on anything to
do with music.” One by one, he took them on, first the piano, then the
clarinet, the cello, the trumpet and the flute. At the age of 18,
he won a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of
Music, and left Japan. “I went as a flute major but changed to composition
in the second year.” He graduated with a degree in theory and composition,
and moved to Vienna, Austria, where he studied under Professor Hans Swarowsky
at the Vienna Hochschule. It was the start of a lifelong love for the
city and its composers, and he lived there for 15 years. He also studied
and worked in France, Italy and Monte Carlo. Then he became Principal
Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and moved to Glasgow.
His career as an exclusive Naxos artist began in 1996 when he came to
Hong Kong to conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic. There, he met Klaus Heymann
of Naxos. Up until then, most of Yuasa’s work had centred on German and
Austrian composers. “[Heymann] mentioned the possibility of Japanese composers.
It was then only a seed of an idea,” recalls Yuasa. Now, Yuasa’s
Naxos discography includes works by Yashiro, Yamada, Moroi as well as
works by other international and his beloved Viennese composers, in all
about 30 CDs. “I’ve crossed the border with Naxos,” he says, with
One of his most recent recordings is Koehne’s Inflight Entertainment,
made with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and released by Naxos in March
this year. Yuasa recalls the hectic preparation and around the world dash
to make the recording with an insouciance that suggests much of his work
comes to fruition in a similar way.
“I was in Oslo when I heard the news that I had to go to Australia.
The harbour was frozen in Oslo, in January. It was summer in Australia.
I had the music shipped to me in Oslo a few days before [I left]. I managed
to learn the piece on the plane and in the hotel.” The recording took
about three days to make.
The Koehne recording was easy because, says Yuasa, "it was easy
for me to get into it, from looking at his score. Koehne is an excellent
orchestrator. His use of Latin rhythm with a metallic sound makes a very
effective, massive impact. It's easy listening modern music. It’s one
of the most exciting and light-hearted virtuoso pieces you can imagine."
But the likes of Koehne’s “easy listening” music is not typical of the
music he conducts. “My speciality at the moment is mainly twentieth century,
very heavy and serious music, a quite intense and powerful sort of music.
I like the intensity of those pieces.” He is referring in particular to
the work of Honegger, whose Symphony No 3 "Liturgique"
he recorded with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra last year. “I’m very
proud of that,” he says.
His family lives in Osaka. “My wife is a singer, a soprano. In the very
early years, we worked together,” he says. Their 20-year old daughter
has inherited her father’s musical curiosity. “She plays piano, violin
and the bagpipes,” her father says. His own career is “more or less in
the UK. I live in Glasgow and Japan. My time is spent one-third in Japan,
one-third in the UK and one-third in the rest of the world.”
Despite his success outside his native country, the Japanese music scene
still clearly plays a role in Yuasa’s professional life. Last year, he
recorded Moroi's Symphony No 3 with the National Symphony Orchestra
of Ireland. When the recording was released in Japan, he says, with evident
pride, that it became a best seller, topping the charts there for several
weeks. He visits his homeland “enough not to miss it. It’s almost a commute.”
But the location is largely irrelevant. Yuasa goes, and has always gone,
where the music takes him. Aside from his family, his connection with
Japan is professional rather than personal. He has recently been working
extensively with Japanese orchestras and has recorded works by several
Japanese composers. “I have not been active in Japan for many years because
I didn’t live there long enough. I had no teachers, friends or colleagues
when I returned to Japan after school, so [musically] I was a little bit
of an outsider. My career was more or less launched in Europe, which I
like. I love to work with European and Australian orchestras, I love working
outside Japan. For me, it doesn’t matter anymore where I am.”
Glasgow, though, is perhaps an exception to his indifference to his
location, maybe because it offers him both a retreat from and inspiration
for his music.
“I have my flat in Scotland. I am basically here because I enjoy going
hill-walking around Loch Lomond, alone or with friends. I read mostly
non-fiction, biographies and all sorts of things. I enjoy cooking at home.
You name it, I do it. I cook Japanese, Thai, French and Italian. But not
chips. I have to enjoy what I cook.” And he paints oil paintings of landscapes
and musicians. “I focus on the hands and the instruments,” he says. “They’re
to hang on my empty walls.”