‘Rising star of the conducting world’: Kensho Watanabe joins DPO at Schuster



A new year brings a new face to the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra as Kensho Watanabe makes his Dayton debut guest conducting the Masterworks Series concert at the Schuster Center Friday and Saturday.

Born in Japan, raised in Connecticut and based in Paris, the 36-year-old is on the rise internationally among a new generation of orchestral conductors. He spent four years as assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and opened the 2023-2024 season by making his Detroit Opera debut with Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Following successful debut performances at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera last season, he’ll return this spring to conduct the full revival run of “The Hours” starring illustrious, award-winning sopranos Renée Fleming and Kelli O’Hara.

The Yale graduate and accomplished violinist has debuted with the London Philharmonic and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. He was also critically acclaimed on the Seen and Heard International website for displaying “a combination of authority, charisma and technical aplomb rarely found in a young conductor.”

Here are five things you should know about the concert, which features Richard Wagner’s Act 1 Prelude from the opera ‘Lohengrin’, Claude Debussy’s Spanish-influenced “Ibéria” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous Symphony No. 2 in E minor.

1. Conducting and football go hand in hand

Watanabe says his primary job as conductor sets the proper pace for each selection while being a leader in other ways.

“One of my conducting teachers told me a conductor is the head coach during rehearsals and the quarterback during the concert,” he said. “So, I set the game plan in rehearsals and become part of the action in performance. I also enjoy communicating the music through my body. I use my face, gestures and stance on the podium to communicate with every bit of my being what I feel the music evokes.”

2. Watanabe met Gittleman as a student

While studying conducting at the Monteux School in Hancock, Maine, Watanabe met DPO Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman. They’ve kept in touch through the years and Watanabe is grateful for the invitation to appear in Dayton for the first time.

“Neal has been incredibly supportive and very kind,” Watanabe said. “Neal has been a great figure in Dayton for a long time. About two years ago we first talked about this concert. It’s been a long time in the making, which amps up my excitement and enthusiasm.”



3. Gittleman praises Watanabe and the program

“Guest conductor Kensho Watanabe is a rising star of the conducting world, and if it were anyone else, I might be jealous,” Gittleman said in a news release. “But I have great respect for Kensho and know I’ll enjoy sitting in the Schuster Center and taking in his concert as an audience member. I love this program, even if I’m not getting to conduct it. Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ Prelude is one of the most sublimely beautiful pieces there is. Debussy’s ‘Ibéria’ is one of my favorite pieces by my second-favorite composer. Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is one of the most gorgeous, thrilling pieces ever written.”

4. ‘Lohengrin’ features an iconic, bride-friendly tune

“The opening work on the program, ‘Lohengrin,’ includes the Wedding March,” Watanabe said. “Probably a majority of all human population has walked down the aisle to it, which reminds us that classical music pervades our everyday life whether we know it or not.”

5. An exquisite centerpiece

The lush, sweeping Symphony No. 2 in E minor premiered to great acclaim in Moscow in 1909. The DPO presents the piece in celebration of Rachmaninoff’s Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of his birth.

“When you listen to his work, you just can’t help but hum something from his music,” Watanabe said. “He’s an incredible creator of earworms. His gorgeous melodies will stay with you for a long time.”

The symphony’s third and fourth movements are particularly among its most beautiful passages and have inspired numerous artists from Frank Sinatra to Eric Carmen. Here’s a sampling:

How to go

What: Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Masterworks Series: Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony

Where: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

When: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton

Cost: $5-$82.50

Tickets or more info: 937-228-3630 or daytonperformingarts.org

Other: Neal Gittleman hosts a Take Note Talk live in the Mead Theater of the Schuster Center from 6:30– 7 p.m. before each evening’s concert. Take Note Talks provide an in-depth perspective of the evening’s programming. After the concert, he’ll also host a Talk Back to answer questions from the audience once most of the crowd leaves the theater.

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