Dreaming Big; the Perfect Conductor

rainbowI’m still pinching myself. I’m sure I’ll wake up and find it was all a dream. In all my 17 years as principal clarinetist of the Columbus Symphony, I’ve never been this optimistic about my career.

Four years ago I was chosen to be on the search committee to choose a new music director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. The music director is much more than a conductor, especially in the US. He not only shapes the musical product of the orchestra, but fashions the image of the organization to draw financial support. The music director IS the organization to the public eye. Big shoes.

Oddly enough orchestral musicians have not traditionally been asked to help choose the MD (music director). We are obvious choices, considering our experience and skill in the orchestra, and since it’s our jobs which are at stake. Who better to choose our musical soul mate than us? But we are perfectionists. Our relationship with the MD is intimate, and the glamor sometimes wears off. Hirokami even joked about it, saying “I hope the honeymoon lasts”. Something tells me it will last this time.

The search had been rocky, with some candidates popular among the elite supporters of symphony and not the orchestra. The point was to choose someone who could flourish both on and off the podium. We were all worried that a universally loved candidate would not appear.

The very last candidate was Junichi Hirokami. He is Japanese, 4′2″ in height, and spoke broken English. But the musicians loved him. His natural ability with musical phrasing, rhythm and style elicited our best playing. His charisma was infectious. My friends who attended that first weekend raved about him. So after only two “dates” with him, we used our newly acquired clout to recommend him the sole candidate.

As a committee member, I felt the responsibility of my position in shaping the future of the orchestra. There were some contentious meetings where reasonable doubts were raised about Hirokami’s ability to raise money and commune with needed donors. I wondered myself. He had never run an American orchestra. But he promised full attention to anything necessary for us to succeed and flourish. He really, really loved us as an orchestra and desired to take us to the next level. I believed him. So did most of the orchestra.

In response to the non-musician committee members doubts about his ability to flourish off the podium, I used a business model to clarify my point. I asked them which is more important in the long run: a great marketer or a great product? Ultimately, the quality of the product is what sells it. My arguments, along with the excitment of the other musicians on the committee must have had an effect. They chose to take a chance and agreed to hire him. I was elated, but uneasy.

The negotiations took several months. The musicians became apprehensive, perhaps a lover’s fear of being jilted. Understandably we were nervous that our dream would pop. Hirokami was slated to appear in February, and only two weeks before his engagement it became official. Finally. He was to be our next music director. We were relieved. But I still didn’t exhale.

In the first rehearsal his familiar, friendly way of leading continued from the two “dates” we had with him before “marrying” him. In fact, he was almost too friendly. He kept saying, “Just relax and trust yourselves.” Why? Now that he was our boss, shouldn’t he criticize us more to improve the product? His tempos were relaxed. Perhaps too relaxed. Where was the excitement? Uh-Oh! Were we merely drunk with love on the first two dates? Was I the nervous bride with cold feet?

A press conference was held after the rehearsal to splash the news of his arrival around town. President Bush happened to be in town, so the press crowd for us was bare minimum. Lucky for us. In responding to the first question asked of him by a reporter, Hirokami became confused and had trouble understanding. My spirit sank. This wasn’t looking good.

Thankfully he perked up soon after and gave an impressive interview to Barbara Zuck stating clear goals for the orchestra. At the many hobnobbing parties held through the week, he was direct about asking for money. He began to fashion an iconography, using a green handkerchief to symbolize peaceful world relations. He hailed the American principal of “freedom” as the reason for his being hired and emphasized the value of international connections. He was building bridges artfully and skillfully. His wife and daughter were a big hit. His charm and charisma reached beyond his differences. This relieved me, but I was still apprehensive about the musical product.

Friday night arrived. I showed up early to work on reeds and warm up thoroughly. I wanted to play my best, especially since the we in the orchestra had chosen him. Junichi Hirokami walked out on stage. The musicians all stood in the traditional respect for the conductor. The maestro was dwarfed among the towering American bodies. He stepped onto the podium, and after acknowledging the audience, he smiled at us. He lifted his baton and gave the downbeat.

The first piece was Dvorak’s Carneval Overture. Though the tempo matched what he had rehearsed, the spirit was fresh. Maestro Hirokami exuded control and confidence far beyond his diminutive stature. He was larger than life. He knew exactly what he was doing. The orchestra played buoyantly, as someone who jovially laughs in celebration of great fortune. Music was encouraged and allowed to flow from us. Our desire to play well rose up to meet the maestro’s geniality. The audience seemed to agree, judging by the enthusiasm of their cheers.

After the concert, I remembered a question Maestro Hirokami had asked us rhetorically; “Why isn’t your orchestra more famous?” Now, rather than doubting him, I was thinking, “Why not?”

Pinching myself never felt so good.

28 thoughts on “Dreaming Big; the Perfect Conductor

  1. Oh Garnet,
    How wonderful it sounds.

    “Why isn’t your orchestra more famous?” Now, rather than doubting him, I was thinking, “Why not?”

    You invested such care and so much of yourself in the search for something great and you had every reason to wonder . . . I’m delighted that you received back fully and more on your investment. I hear the joy and energy in what you wrote. May your music play.

  2. Thank you Mark! Arigato!

    Liz- Nice to see you. Yes, it’s been a special and highstrung last few weeks. I feel deeply drained by the anxiety and anticipation. I wanted to publish my story in the local paper, but was discouraged by colleagues for fear that someone would use my gentle doubts as ammo against the new maestro. What a strange world we live in. Now I’m relaxed and relieved, but drained.

  3. Garnet, what a lovely story… Congratulations! I’m happy to see all is well with you. I have missed you, my friend… Stay happy!

  4. David, what a wonderful lesson you have wrapped in a true story. Expectations can be so very powerful, both good and bad. I can feel the energy in your post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Bravo David! Bravo!

    It’s so funny…I dropped in to tell you that my daughter and I attended last Sundays concert, and here you are writing about it. (Syncronicity again.)

    Anyway, we loved the show. The dance of the dying Swan was beautiful, and I loved the moment where I wrapped my arm around my daughters shoulder and whispered in her ear, the meaning of this dance, and it’s special status among ballerinas. We also had great fun being silly while bobbing our heads to “The Chicken Dance.”

    What a Blast!

    (Could you hear us clapping for you when the conductor mentioned your name?)

  6. Yemanja- Nice to see you. I hope you’ve been well. I’ve been so out of touch. I apologize.

    Trée- I always apreciate your kind and thoughtful comments. Yes, expectations can really color ones perception. You went right to the heart of my meaning. Thank you.

  7. Kelly- We also had fun at the Family Concert on Sunday. I played the cuckoo backstage, and afte I finished the movement, all my colleagues who were hanging out backstage clapped playfully, even though I only played two notes over and over.

  8. Oh how wonderful that all worked out well. Now you can publish an edited version of your story in the local paper and tell of the maestro’s triumph. No worries–all of those behind us. Just in time, might I say, for the crocuses to show up in your front yard!

  9. Why not, indeed? Here’s to you and the maestro! May you make beautiful music together. Congratulations!

    Ciao for now.


  10. Dave,
    I’m really beginning to appreciate how expressive your voice is becoming through your writing. You’re spending more time reflecting on your ideas and taking more care with writting in a manner that is balanced with incredible focus. But more than that, I sense you’re beginning to enjoy the experience of growing into your voice, like a musician, such as yourself, who discovers that the “tempo {matches} what he had rehearsed, the spirit. . .fresh” and inviting. Bravo.

  11. Scot- Thank you for the encouraging words. I think this essay worked, and it appeals to a general audience. Perhaps this is a good direction for me.

    Jackal- Thank you.

  12. That was a wonderfully written article, almost music with words. I really enjoyed it, it was like a short story in a novel but all the better because it was true and recently happened. I wish I could have heard the performance, good luck with your orchestra (and writing).

    you should do like Liz says and publish it in a local paper or musical magazine

  13. Hi Garnet,

    Just to say that this is the Holi week- so go ahead shed some inhibitions, dunk your self in the rainbow colours and send some all around too! 🙂

  14. Shankari- YAY!!!!!!! Too bad it’s too cold where I am!

    Wren- Thank you. I popped by your blog and like your spirit. seeya, Garnet

  15. Congratulations, Garnet! I’m thrilled for you, and wish you many years of joyous exploration and collaboration with your new director –

  16. Hi Garnet! I’m new. Got here by way of Shankari, through the reign of ellen.

    Your post brought back memories of performing in my rinky-dink high school band, saxophone. I know, so not even the same, but I cheer and applaud your happiness.

    My husband once told me I was an 8 cow woman…I know, what? Yes, an 8 cow kind of girl. He had heard a story of a man offering 8 cows to a father of an ugly, uneducated woman that no one wanted to marry. A time and place in which the wealthy and beautiful women went for 2 cows.

    A year after they were married, they came back to her home. She was knowledgeable and beautiful. All the people asked how was this possible and she said he treated her like an 8 cow woman. (She wanted to be more for him.)

    Of course, I had to joke about how my husband wanted me to be more beautiful and work harder in the morning just because he said that?? Anyway…your conductor may treat your orchestra right into fame! Best of luck with him, he sounds wonderful.

  17. Hi Kat- What a fun and appropriate story. Yes, I feel like an 8 cow musician. That’s exactly how I feel about our new music director. You came to my blog through a series of high quality sites. I’m flattered, not only that you landed here, but that you took the time to read and comment so fully. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.


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