Rising conductor Nodoka Okisawa faces music naturally

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nodoka Okisawa

With a baton in her hand and wins in major classical music competitions under her belt, Nodoka Okisawa is a flourishing up-and-coming conductor living in Berlin.

The path was not easy. Okisawa struggled along the way and was tormented by an inferiority complex. However, while studying in Germany, she learned the importance of diversity and grabbed an opportunity to leap into a conducting community still largely male-dominated. She listens to her inner voice, nurtures creativity and acts naturally when performing.

Keen ears

In October, the audience applauded as Okisawa finished conducting Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. She successfully drew rich sounds from the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, which she was conducting for the first time, filling in for an indisposed conductor. A sense of accomplishment hung in the air.

Nobuteru Sakuda / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Okisawa conducts at the Besancon International Competition for Young Conductors in France on Sept. 21, 2019.

As she conducted veteran members of an orchestra that offered her the opportunity to lead them, Okisawa’s innate qualities were relentlessly tested.

“I’m excited,” the petite 34-year-old said. “Even if my techniques are still maturing, I can get help from experienced people if my vision is clear.”

Since 2020, Okisawa has had busy yet fulfilling days. She is also an assistant to Kirill Petrenko, the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

“He’s a perfectionist. His concentration is so intense that I cannot even talk to him on the first day of rehearsals,” Okisawa said, adding that Petrenko becomes completely different at concerts and liberates the orchestra with sublime control.

But it’s not the case that the maestro teaches her directly. “I feel that I now have more precision by just being in the same place as him,” Okisawa said. “My ears have become quite keen.”

Born in 1987 in Aomori Prefecture, Okisawa earned bacelor’s and master’s degrees at Tokyo University of the Arts as well as a master’s degree at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin. In 2018, she became the first woman to win the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting. She also won the grand prix at the Besancon International Competition for Young Conductors in France in 2019.

Okisawa’s father is a public servant, and her mother a homemaker. She took cello and piano lessons as a child and played the oboe in her high school brass band. She decided to become a conductor in the winter of her second year in high school. Okisawa originally wanted to study linguistics in college, but then realized she was eyeing universities reputed to have good student orchestras. So, she decided to major in music.

“I thought it wasn’t too late to enter the conducting department, unlike the departments for instrumentalists,” she said. “I was so naive.”

Okisawa somehow mastered the music for the entrance exam enough to pass it. But difficult days awaited her. The other students were more advanced, and Okisawa even had trouble climbing the conductor’s podium. Music scores looked like an unknown language to her. In her junior year, Okisawa became mentally and physically exhausted, and returned to her parents’ home for six months.

Okisawa now thinks she tormented herself because of an odd pride. “When I became able to see my ignorance as something I can’t help, I changed,” she said.

Leaping forward

After finishing graduate school, she studied in Germany. The experience led to a major turning point.

“I began to think I might fit in,” Okisawa said upon seeing the diverse group of people in the music world. “I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to be successful.”

She also found the lessons at the Hanns Eisler music school exciting.

“Conducting an opera is a multifaceted task requiring many hands. It’s a pity a conductor has only two arms,” an instructor once joked to her. The instructor then pulled from his bag a photo of a multiarmed Buddhist statue and said, “This is how you should conduct.”

Okisawa felt mentally liberated in a country that is forgiving, a feeling pertinent to her subsequent hard work and brilliant success.

In the classical music world, which is said to be dominated by men, a paradoxical phenomenon of a boom in female conductors has been seen.

Under such circumstances, Okisawa noticed that there is a divide between male and female conductors. “I’ve been told, ‘Women are given unfair advantages,’” Okisawa said. “Eliminating that [situation in which female conductors are said to be given unfair advantages] would be good.”

It’s often said that Japanese musicians lack individuality, which Okisawa does not deny. In fact, while taking a masters class overseas, Okisawa thought she was breaking out of her shell. However, those around her said there was no expression in her music. “I was shocked at the gap in our thinking.”

What’s her vision for the future?

“I’d like to work in theater,” she said. “Taking into account my personality, I can’t imagine myself flying around the world conducting top-notch orchestras one after another. I want to narrow down the number of my engagements and concentrate on them. I hope to work in the opera world for a while.”