Tomomi Nishimoto: 'I conduct to collectively realise a dream'

The conductor talks composing and being a female conductor in a man's world

Tomomi Nishimoto is a music partner with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, music director and principal conductor of the Royal Chamber Orchestra, and the visiting professor at her alma mater, Osaka College of Music, among other distinctions. This month she leads the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of Smetana’s The Moldau, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, and the Nutcracker Suite. She answered some questions about her life as composer and conductor, and about being a role model for others in music.

I understand you first studied composing? How did you move from composing to conducting?

After I received a degree in composing from the Osaka College of Music, I went on to St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia and enrolled in symphonic orchestra conducting. Try to imagine that music is an architectural object invisible to the human eye. The composer serves as the architect, and the conductor oversees and directs the construction site. When I’m reading scores, the first thing I do is to apply compositional theory to do an analysis. After the analysis, I engage with the orchestra in rehearsal to concertise the work. But the analysis takes up most of the time.

What do you like about conducting? And do you still compose at all?

About conducting, it is not only that I personally like it, or that I like to stand in the centre of the stage. It is more that I wish to collectively realise a dream. I like to use artistic means to express our ideals. And by that I don’t mean my own ideals, but an integrated artistic ambition that is most honest to the realities of human society. It is following that ambition that allows me to stand firmly on stage with a clear task. I also still compose. I’ve composed work for the Japanese pop group NEWS, which was quite a challenge. In order to bridge the distance between today’s youth and classical music, I used classical music as a foundation to write a pop song called 'Four Gunmen.' This song was a big success after its release in Japan.

When you told people you wanted to be a conductor, did anyone try to talk you out of it, saying it would be difficult for a woman in that field?

Gender discrimination is quite serious in Japan compared to the rest of the world. The expressions glass ceiling, glass walls, and glass door exist for a reason. Therefore, I never mentioned what I was up to when I was young. Now that gender consciousness of Japanese has improved, there are many Japanese women working and gradually breaking the layers of glass.

How was it being the first foreigner in two Russian orchestras?

A wholehearted thanks to all the musicians that have – regardless of my humble talent – helped train me to become a conductor. Because of Russia’s economic instability at that time, as a foreigner, I had to face numerous difficulties. However, as far as using diligence to improve my own practice, I didn’t find it challenging or exhausting.

What advice would you give young people who want to follow your path?

I have received many letters from people that enrolled into the conservatory after they had attended one of my concerts. Also, I have a lot of childhood friends and colleagues from the conservatory that bring along their children to my concerts. Although I have no kids myself, this makes me really, really happy. In those moments, I experience a feeling of responsibility towards them. I now serve as the artistic director and principal conductor of the IlluminArt Philharmonic Orchestra, and I hold open rehearsals for all children who don’t have the opportunity to attend recitals or concerts.

Can you say something about your programme for Beijing and Shanghai?

So far I have visited 45 countries, and I currently hold invitations for 30 more. Almost everywhere, I’m considered a Russian conductor of Japanese nationality, which means I’m mostly asked to perform Russian repertoire. The same request holds true for these Beijing and Shanghai concerts. These works are a fusion of the people’s songs of the whole nation, but being symphonic compositions, they are songs without words. I have deep respect for, and great interest in the Chinese culture, and Beijing and Shanghai have such rich cultural heritage. My dream is to relate and link to these cities’ audiences through music. As an encore piece I have prepared a symphonic version of Li Xianglan’s Ye Lai Xiang. I would be very honoured if the audience would take part in it.

Tomomi Nishimoto and the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra are at Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, on Sunday 18 December at 7.30pm, tickets 180-980RMB.