It took just a couple hours after her performance for the results to be announced: but the effect of Nodoka Okisawa's victory at the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting will continue to unfold for years to come. Aside from the cash award that comes with winning Asia's longest-running competition in this field, the young Japanese conductor has been thrust into the international spotlight and will undoubtedly see new opportunities develop as a result. And, in the process, has also made history: Okisawa is the first female artist to win first prize in the half-century of the competition's existence. 

“I don't feel anything particular about my gender," Okisawa remarked during a press interview the day following her triumph. (Her English was fluent enough not to require the services of the interpreter who was present.) “In fact I didn't know that I was the first one. To me it's just natural, not something unusual.” Presented by the Min-On Concert Association, the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting has taken place every three years since it began in 1967; in 2014, it became part of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.

While all three rounds of the competition were open to the public, Okisawa, who was born in 1987, has been invited to conduct the Nagoya Philharmonic and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony in May 2019 in a pair of gala concerts intended to introduce the winners to a wider audience in her native Japan. 

Okisawa received not only first prize but the special Hideo Saito Award. The latter is named after the distinguished conductor and cellist (and mentor to Seiji Ozawa), who served as chairperson of the panel of judges for the first three editions of the competition. These wins are accompanied by cash awards of ¥2,000,000 and ¥500,000, respectively. Asked how she plans to spend the money, Okisawa announced without having to pause: “I will pay my student loans back!”

Born in Aomori Prefecture in the Tōhoku Region of northern Japan, Okisawa initially considered following a career as an oboist. What led her to turn to conducting? “I played piano as a child, of course, and oboe in the school band and cello in the youth orchestra in my hometown. But I hesitated to tell my parents that I wanted to become a musician because they were paying for my sister to study cello.” Okisawa thought she would focus on Japanese literature instead, but her first trip abroad – to Sydney, when she was 16 –  provided an epiphany.

“It changed my way of thinking and I became honest about my feelings. I wanted to be an oboe player, but it was already too late, and I couldn’t ask my parents to buy me my own oboe.” She ran across an application form for a college conducting program. “And I thought, instead of an expensive instrument, I would just need a baton!” 

After graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts, Okisawa moved to Berlin to obtain her master’s at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. She was also invited to attend master classes at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The most challenging aspect of conducting at this point in her career, she says, is that unlike mastering an instrument, there’s no way to practice whenever she wants to. “At home I can only study the score.” 

This was not Okisawa’s first attempt with the Tokyo International Music Competition. She entered in 2012 – a year in which all three finalists were women – but didn’t get beyond the first round. In fact, no first prize winner was chosen for the four competitions that were held between 2003 and 2015, when Diego Martin Etxebarria emerged as the victor. 

So what changed in 2018? “Not my musicality, but my mentality. When I tried in 2012, I was afraid of being on the podium in front of professional musicians. I almost panicked and couldn’t communicate at all.” Especially in Japan, she adds, she feared that leading people who were older would be viewed as inappropriate. “That was my misunderstanding. They are so supportive. This time I could listen to the sound more than before. Also, I could sleep more.” Overall, the most important thing Okisawa learned from this year’s experience was “to communicate with people.”

At the start of the competition process, Okisawa was merely one of a total of 238 applicants from some 42 countries (aged 38 or younger). The international panel of nine judges (comprising eminent musicians from Japan, Austria, South Korea, Russia, the United States, and the Netherlands) selected her and 17 other contestants on the basis of video samples and other application materials. Within the period of a single week in October, this group was successively reduced to four finalists. 

Like her colleagues, Okisawa worked with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in the first two rounds (nothing but a Haydn symphony for the entire first round) and was then given rehearsal time before leading the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in a program consisting of two parts: Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture (mandatory for all four finalists) and a work approved by the panel from her submission of a choice of three.

Okisawa was the second of the four to conduct the Mendelssohn. (Each was unable to hear the performances by the other three.) “The sound quality of the very first part of the Mendelssohn, the Adagio, was the most important thing for me,” she recalled. “Everyone is watching, I thought, and I need to show something. But it must be natural here.”

In a later press conference with the entire panel, Herbert Soudant (conductor laureate of the Tokyo Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa) remarked that Okisawa clearly stood out: “The sound she produced in the Mendelssohn changed the orchestra completely. It was so balanced and so beautifully phrased that I was absolutely impressed.”

Okisawa returned in the second part of the finals to conduct Richard Strauss's tone poem Don Juan. It's a choice that has the benefit of spotlighting multiple facets of a conductor's skill –with the tradeoff that it can also all too easily go off the rails and turn into a train wreck. “Yes, there are so many traps,” Okisawa acknowledges, adding that it was ironic that “as the only female finalist, I chose the most masculine piece.”

Regarding her point about the all-important aspect of communication, Okisawa says a delicate balance is crucial: “In the Mendelssohn, I  tried to let them play, but not with too much leading. But in Don Juan I must have lead.” Indeed, her Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage evinced a chamber music subtlety with the players clearly listening to each other.

How did she achieve this effect? “You have to establish a good rapport with the orchestra. When I first met with them, I needed to make sure they feel comfortable; otherwise they won’t support me. But being honest is also important.” Do models from the past help her prepare? “For Don Juan, I watched a video of Karl Böhm rehearsing and learned so much detail – not only about the score but also what he said about working with Richard Strauss and knowing what he wanted.”

Comparing this experience with Western competitions, Okisawa says the Tokyo event is "the most well-organised and the most formal competition.” Even tangential moments were planned in great detail, from the accommodations in the hotel the contestants shared, to press events and photo ops. 

Asked what comes next, the young conductor expresses a desire to conduct opera and to travel internationally in her career. “Opera takes time, so I want to start. For now, I get more opportunities to work with contemporary music in Europe, but to be honest, I want to conduct Italian operas as well. To conduct Italian or French operas in Europe is quite challenging for Asian conductors because of the language.” 

For all the excitement of winning a major international competition, Soudant made a worthwhile observation during the panel press conference. “My hope for all of the prize winners is that they will have time to learn from mistakes and that things will not go too quickly. It takes time to make a career.”


This article was sponsored by the Tokyo International Competition for Conducting.