interviewed for the job of assistant conductor with the San Antonio Symphony last fall, Akiko Fujimoto was asked to deliver the same lecture twice, once with an adult audience in mind and the second time as if she were speaking to children. This was important because her duties include delivering educational talks to both grown-ups and kids. “The lectures are informal,” she explains. “Sometimes the guest artist joins me, and we talk about the music and the composer, but I also talk about the orchestra, give people insight into the rehearsal process, relate an anecdote, tell them about the challenges and kinks that had to be smoothed out in the rehearsal process. “When I speak to kids, I simplify a lot. I want everything to make sense to them. Behind the wall of masterpieces there are real human beings who want to tell stories through music, I tell them. Things that happen to 3rd- and 4th-graders also happen to composers, no matter what century they lived in. I want the children to feel like Beethoven could have been their friend or their uncle. In the end, classical music is about the human experience. I focus on the human elements of the music so that everyone can relate to it.” We are discussing these issues a day after the musicians and management have settled their differences and the first rehearsal of the season was allowed to proceed. As a conductor, Fujimoto stood outside such negotiations, hoping for the best. Needless to say, she’s relieved that the season will proceed as planned.
This fall she is scheduled to conduct the symphony in The Nutcracker, performed with Ballet San Antonio Nov. 23-Dec. 2; and two holiday events, the Holiday Pops and Christmas Baroque. The latter is the first of the three-concert Baroque series that is entirely under her control. All three will take place at the San Fernando Cathedral. “Many members of the San Antonio Symphony are knowledgeable about Baroque,” she explains. “It’s a great way to highlight soloists from the orchestra.
“They make me feel so honored to be here. The San Antonio Symphony has a national reputation for excellence.”
And there’s a lot of wonderful Baroque music.” The Christmas concert on Nov. 25 will feature holiday music — Christmas concertos by Corelli and Torelli — as well as Bach’s violin concerto in A minor and a couple of other pieces. The sacred and the secular will mix at the Holiday Pops, too. That’s the repertoire she knows well, but The Nutcracker represented a bit of a challenge. Conducting with dancers on stage is a different setup altogether. To prepare, Fujimoto spent a week in Boston this summer talking to the Boston Ballet conductor, who gave her a few pointers. No. 1: Make sure that you recreate the tempo that the dancers are used to. In addition, she is also in charge of family and young people’s concerts and must be always ready to step in and conduct any classical concert on the schedule should any of the guest conductors fail to show up. That’s called serving as a cover, which also means she must learn the entire repertoire for the season and be present at all rehearsals. It seems like a lot of responsibility, but that’s what she’s here for. “The symphony musicians are unbelievable, amazing. They are my No. 1 inspiration,” she says with enthusiasm. “They make me feel so honored to be here. The San Antonio Symphony has a national reputation for excellence.”
Crazy About Music
That reputation is what attracted her to the job. That, and the opportunity to work with and learn from music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing. And San Antonio itself was an attraction. “It’s my kind of town, not a cookie-cutter city, but authentic, with its own history and culture. And the weather is warm, and I like Tex-Mex cuisine,” says the slim, petite conductor, who was born in Japan. Though her family was not particularly musical, her mother was a classical music fan who signed her daughter up for piano lessons at age 5. The young girl became “crazy about music,” eventually playing with a variety of ensembles and sometimes taking charge if necessary. The Japanese have embraced the Western classical genre in the course of the past century at the expense of their own traditional styles. Fujimoto doesn’t even know much about authentic Japanese music. Because of her father’s job, the family moved to California when she was 14, and when years later her parents returned home, she decided to stay in the United States. “I was in the middle of college,” she explains, “had assimilated here. I don’t think I could function in Japanese society. Professionally, I wouldn’t know the code (unwritten rules of behavior).” In college, Fujimoto first thought she would study psychology, but a music professor spotted and nurtured her talent for music and conducting.
It became clear that this was what she was meant to do. Even rejections along the way did not faze her. She went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in orchestral and the other in choral conducting from Boston University and the Eastman School of Music, respectively. Prior to coming to San Antonio, she served as conducting associate for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and music director of the William & Mary Symphony Orchestra from 2007 through 2011. As guest conductor, Fujimoto has also appeared with several other symphonies in the United States and in Canada. She is married to another conductor, Israel Gittzov, who works in Arkansas. For them to find jobs in the same city is rather unlikely, but for the time being they are pursuing their respective dreams while seeing each other as often as possible and spending summers together. Given that most people’s idea of a conductor is probably a lanky man that projects authority with each gesture, did she find it difficult to be accepted as the leader? we wonder.
“The era of the dictator man is gone, not just on the podium but everywhere,” she says matter-of-factly. “In fact, people told me that it’s good to be a woman now. It’s almost an advantage. Musicians couldn’t care less whether the conductor is a man or a woman; they look for musical authority and leadership.” How does she see her leadership role? “As a conductor. you are not a teacher. My role is closest to a movie director. There’s a script, but he has to deal with all the elements of a production to make that script come alive,” she says. “The score is our script, but there are many ways to perform even a simple phrase. It’s up to me to make those choices. You have to know not just the score but also the musicians and the hall (you are performing in) and the whole situation. I make the executive decisions on how the musicians ought to play, but, like actors, they make the decisions on how to carry it out.”