Maestra Kayoko Dan was an admittedly shy child. Her family moved frequently from town to town, so she learned early on to communicate with new friends through music. Throughout her life, she continued to channel her love of music and ability to express herself through the medium. She studied flute at the University of Texas at Austin and led instrumental ensembles as a marching band director. Kayoko also pursued music education at Arizona State, where she received her master’s degree and doctorate in conducting. Although she planned on conducting higher–level orchestra groups, she was offered the opportunity to be the assistant conductor at the Phoenix Symphony and has followed that line of work ever since as music coordinator at a youth orchestra and now as the conductor for the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra (CSO).
What conductor has influenced your style?
Kayoko: I admire two different types of conductors. People like Riccardo Mutti of the Chicago Symphony and Robert Spano of the Atlanta Symphony command a room’s attention when they walk into the room. You know who is in charge. Giancarlo Guerrero in Nashville has the same persona. You gravitate towards these types of people because you know that they’re in command of the space that they occupy. I admire them because they have something I don’t naturally have. I wish I had 1/100th of their charisma. And then, there are conductors like Peter Oundijan from Toronto and Peter Bay in Austin. These people are closer in temperament to me, but they’re really down–to–earth people who gain and maintain the respect of the musicians they work with. That is the type of conductor I want to be. I wish I had the charisma of the former, but I look up to the latter because my personality style is more in–tune with theirs.
What has been one of your favorite things to work on while at the CSO?
Kayoko: I’ve met so many incredible people during my time here. One of my favorites was working with Fletcher Bright and the Dismembered Tennesseans. The first concert I ever worked was the 4th of July concert, where 40,000 people converged to celebrate. It was crazy. Molly Sasse, the director at the time, told me that a bluegrass band always played with them for that concert, which was not something I was used to working with. If that was what was regularly done, I wanted to be sure we followed common practice. It was an amazing experience because it took me out of my comfort zone. We had a concert with Bela Fleck later that year, and that was really cool, too. I saw many people in the audience that I have never before seen at a classical music concert – people wearing shorts and flip flops, all convening for the love of music. Bela Fleck was able to draw such a diverse crowd, which was really cool.
Of course, I love working with all of the soloists and musicians we hire. Our volunteer chorus group is amazing, as well. They meet every week because they love singing. I love that collaborative aspect of it. Having that kind of relationship is very special. There’s so much I love about working with the CSO, I could just go on and on.
What challenges have you faced as a conductor in Chattanooga as opposed to other places you’ve conducted?
Kayoko: I think that the biggest challenge is my personality. I’m pretty friendly with the musicians I work with, so it’s really difficult for me to make tough decision. I think that’s the hardest part of my job. If you’re in any position of authority and you’re a nice person, it’s just difficult to make hard, personal decisions.
What is one piece that you want to work on that you haven’t yet?
Kayoko: My favorite piece is Strauss’ Don Quixote, but I don’t think I’m ready to lead the orchestra in that yet because it’s so special to me. I don’t like to settle for doing an ok job.
How has being an instrumentalist helped you become a better conductor?
Kayoko: I was trained as a flute player and still play occasionally. I played a duo with a local guitarist, Michael McCallie, and started a partnership with him a few months ago. There was a point while I was attending UT Austin where I remember being in ten different ensembles over the course of a year. I hated practicing, which is why I’m not a performer, but I loved to play with other people so I never said no when other people asked me to play with them. Being involved with so many ensembles requires a lot of organization, so I ended up bossing people around to determine when and where practices would occur. I hated dilly-dallying, so I made sure that there was a goal set for each rehearsal and I ended up running them most of the time. It was a natural progression from performing in ensembles because I was developing those leadership skills in a smaller capacity.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a conductor? What experiences would you encourage them to pursue?
Kayoko: Play as much as possible. Don’t say no to opportunities because you don’t know where they’ll lead. I wasn’t initially a candidate for the position here in Chattanooga, but the last person withdrew a month or two before her audition to take a job somewhere else. The man responsible for the search, Henry Fogel, who happens to be one of my mentors, suggested that the CSO give me a call based on times he’s seen me conduct. They gave me a chance and then hired me. You never know who is watching or what opportunities will arise. But also know what your limits are with how much you can take on because bad news travels fast.
Performing your instrument or voice to the best of your ability is also important because it’s really hard to tell people how to play their instruments if you don’t know how to do that yourself.
Photo Credit: Brad Cansler