Conductor Yukari Saito spoke with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series celebrating female players in the country’s entertainment industry. The WIM initiative in Japan began in 2022 to honor artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to music and inspired other women through their work. The first 30 interviews in this series were published in Japan last year as a “Billboard Japan Presents” collection by writer Rio Hirai, who continues to speak with women to highlight their stories.
Saito moved to Dresden in 2013 and gained experience in Europe conducting the Lille National Orchestra and the Vienna Tonkunstler Orchestra. She returned to Japan in 2021 and this year, is set to conduct the Tokyo Philharmonic Billboard Classics Orchestra at Billboard Japan’s Women In Music Vol. 2 concert on Feb. 8 featuring singer-songwriters Reo Ieiri and Miliyah Kato. The 40-year-old maestro looked back on her career dedicated to the world of classical music and shared some experiences that changed in her life after spending time in Dresden.
First, could you share your thoughts on the upcoming WIM concert in February?
I’m interested in various genres of music, so I’m really looking forward to performing with two different types of musicians like Ms. Reo Ieiri and Ms. Miliyah Kato.
You usually work in the world of classical music. What opportunities do you see in the collaboration between pop and orchestral music?
First, I feel grateful to be tapped to participate in this precious opportunity. We’re still in the process of working out the details, but I have a feeling I’ll be able to find a new style within myself that’s different from my usual work. The way I feel about this concert is the same as how I usually feel about creating classical music together with everyone, but depending on the rhythm and mood of the piece, there will be changes in my conducting style and the sound expressed by the orchestra, so I’m excited about that. I look forward to seeing what positive effects the synergy produces.
This concert is part of Billboard Japan’s Women in Music project. What do you think about this kind of event focusing on women’s empowerment?
It’s something that’s been relatively uncommon (in Japan), isn’t it? Some people might come because the project interests them, so it makes me glad to think we’ll be able to bring our music to a wider and more varied audience.
I understand you originally wanted to be a pianist. How did you come to be a conductor?
At some point while studying at music school to become a pianist, I began to feel that it might be hard for me to become a professional. I became interested in conducting around then and met various teachers who told me, “You might be suited for it.” I then met Mr. Seiji Ozawa, who nominated me as a conducting trainee. That’s how I got started.
Why do you think you were suited for the job?
Maybe I always had a good sense of rhythm. I conducted in a choral competition when I was in junior high school. At the time, I only did it because I didn’t want to sing, [laughs] but the teachers praised me and told me I did a great job.
Does being a woman have any influence on doing your job?
I haven’t experienced too many moments where I thought, “This happened because I’m a woman.” When I wanted to become a pianist growing up, I’m sure there were times I thought, “I wish I could be like that” when seeing female concert pianists wearing beautiful dresses. I also remember thinking how awesome the pianist Martha Argerich was.
As a conductor, I believe I’m capable of flexible expression with meticulous attention to detail, even if I can’t compete with men in terms of physical size and strength. So I’d say I’m aware of the differences but don’t let it bother me. There are plenty of female players in classical music and it’s a merit-based industry, so I don’t think women are rejected as a member just because of their gender.
Because the world of classical music values tradition, I’d imagined there might still be some elements of sexism left. It’s nice to know it’s merit-based. So you’ve never encountered any gender imbalances?
Well, I’ve had experiences where I went to greet an elderly male concertmaster and he seemed surprised that I was going to conduct, but at the time I thought maybe it was because I was acting intimidated and not because I was a young woman. I think I might have accepted such moments as a net positive because the gap between that first encounter and my actual high level performance on stage would result in a good impression.
You know what though, this isn’t about sexism, but unfortunately some racism might still be around. There are no Asians at all in some orchestras, or if there are, only Japanese are included for some reason.
I see. So you didn’t encounter sexism but you did witness some leftover Western-centric values. Outside of the classical music world, do you see any differences in values between Germany and Japan?
In Germany, I often encountered protests. The sight of LGBTQ people asserting their rights, for example, is striking in its earnestness. I didn’t come across such scenes in Japan very often before I left for Germany, which made me think that such problems were hidden. Things seem to have changed now, though. Also, a lot of women (in Germany) clearly express their opinions. In Japan, many people are somewhat modest or reserved, but the culture in Germany doesn’t consider that to be a good thing.
Did you change after spending time in such an environment?
I think I did. The first thing that took me by surprise when I went to Germany was when I was told during a lesson, “Don’t you have your own will?” When we were asked, “What do you think?” the people around me would express their opinions, but I was at a loss at first.
How did you manage to change from not being used to expressing your opinion?
By being honest with myself, I guess. If I think too much about what will happen if I say something, I won’t be able to say anything, so I try not to think about it too much. What’s also important, along with naturally expressing what I feel, is delving deep within myself to figure out why I feel that way. I think this makes my words more convincing.
Is being convincing a necessary skill for your work as a conductor of orchestras?
I think so. In my case, I taught myself how to think in order to overcome that initial setback of not knowing what my own will was. I’m glad I’ve gained experience by repeatedly making such gaffes.
When do you find your work as a conductor most rewarding?
It is rewarding, but I work pretty hard to get there.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
It goes without saying that I have to use my brain and convince everyone in the orchestra. It’s a lot of work, but there comes a moment when things just click. The players and I make eye contact and we’re like, “This is the sound, right?” and the sound comes out exactly as we intended. It’s hard to put into words, but I guess it’s like having a dialogue with sound. When that happens, I’m like, “Yes! We did it!” and pump my fist in my mind.
—This interview by Rio Hirai first appeared on Billboard Japan