It just seemed natural

Chuhei Iwasaki is a born conductor. The first sign came at the age of four, when he was playing violin in a student recital program. Suddenly he stopped, turned, and started conducting the pianist.

“I donʼt know why I did it,” he says with an embarrassed laugh. “It just seemed natural.”

So does the choice of Iwasaki, now 30, as one of the Prague Spring Debut artists this year. Accompanied by pianist and fellow debutante Marek Kozák, Iwasaki will lead the Hradec Králové Philharmonic in a challenging program of Husa, Bořkovec and Dvořák. Itʼs a high-pressure slot – his first performance with both Kozák and the orchestra, in a concert freighted with expectations. But Iwasaki doesnʼt seem worried. “If you work with good musicians, itʼs great fun,” he says.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Iwasaki attended conservatory there, and decided early on that to study classical music properly he needed to go to Europe. Exactly where was determined after he saw the Czech Philharmonic during one of its tours of Japan. He vividly recalls the conductor (Zdeněk Mácal), the program (Janáček, Novák, Dvořák) and his reaction.

“I couldnʼt stand up after the concert,” he says. “I just sat there for five or six minutes in amazement. I thought, thatʼs where I will go.”

Iwasaki was 19 when he began his studies at Prague Conservatory, focusing first on violin and composition as building blocks to being a complete conductor. He trained with student ensembles, including one that he helped organize, the Prague Conservatory String Orchestra. Iwasaki sent out offers throughout Bohemia to have the orchestra play for free if sponsors would cover expenses, which many people accepted – without knowing exactly what they were getting.

“About 90 percent of the time they would look at me and ask, ʻWho are you?ʼ” Iwasaki says. “But I got a lot of very good experience, which is the most important thing for a conductor.”

Iwasaki still leads that orchestra, along with conducting opera and ballet performances at the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Plzeň and musicals at Musical Theatre Karlín in Prague. He also works with the City of Prague Philharmonic, the FILMharmonie orchestra, Nadačni fond Harmonie (the Czech version of El Sistema) and maintains a busy guest conducting schedule with orchestras throughout the country in cities like Zlín, Pardubice, Ostrava, Liberec, České Budějovice and Prague.

He has grown to love Czech music, in particular the work of Martinů. “You can use everything in the orchestra to create those incredible colors,” Iwasaki says. “Itʼs my dream to one day conduct all of his symphonies.” In the meantime, he has his hands full with an all-Czech program for Prague Spring that begins with an important anniversary piece – Karel Husaʼs Music for Prague 1968, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the invasion.

“Itʼs a great honor to conduct this work at Prague Spring,” Iwasaki says. “Itʼs difficult, because I never had the experience of living under communism, as many Czech people did. So I have very big work to prepare this piece properly.”

Both Iwasaki and Kozák are fans of Pavel Bořkovec, whose Piano concerto No. 2 will get a rare airing. “Itʼs an unjustly neglected work, fascinating for its energy and folk inspiration,” says Kozák, who has a personal connection with the piece through Bořkovecʼs granddaughter, HAMU professor Noemi Zárubová–Pfeffermannová. “She spoke with me many times about her grandfather. I would like to see this composition assume its rightful place among the piano concertos of the world literature.”

Asked about the finale, Dvořákʼs Symphony No. 5, Iwasaki says “I have it here” and pulls a fat score out of his briefcase. He starts flipping through it, noting that many conductors make a cut in the first movement, then pauses. “I need to get to the Czech Museum of Music to see Dvořákʼs markings on the original manuscript,” he says.

How is he feeling about making his Prague Spring debut? “Nervous,” Iwasaki admits, quickly adding thatʼs not a bad thing. “Iʼm nervous before almost every concert, which is a good feeling. It means you care about the outcome. Itʼs also very good for the diet.”

Tall and thin with long, slender fingers ideal for conducting, Iwasaki doesnʼt look like he needs any help in that department. And once heʼs onstage, he tries to disappear. “The spotlight on my back is not important,” he says. “The concert is not about me, itʼs about the music. My job is to make it beautiful.”

Author: Frank Kuznik