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Takuo Yuasa

“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 been inseparable.

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 some amusement.

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.”


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