The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra today announces that its next chief conductor is to be Kazuki Yamada. The Japanese musician, born in 1979, has been CBSO’s principal guest conductor for the past three years, but in April 2023 will succeed Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who has led the orchestra since 2016.
“On his debut with the orchestra back in 2012 he made a very strong impression” said CBSO’s chief executive Stephen Maddock. “His technique is fabulous, he’s incredibly clear, he has a tremendously wide repertoire. He’s a really, really fine musician.”
Maddock cites a concert just before the Covid pandemic as illustrative of Yamada’s particular musical strengths. “The programme featured all three of Respighi’s Roman tone poems – music that has a reputation for being a bit over the top, tasteless even, but you came away thinking: ‘Wow, these are masterpieces of orchestration and description – those are far better pieces than I had realised!’” A 2019 performance of Elijah, too, found Mendelssohn’s often rather well-behaved oratorio sound fervent and vibrant. “Again, the reactions were, ‘This is a much better piece than I remember!’”
From their earliest concerts together, the CBSO players and Yamada established a warm relationship, said Maddock, consolidated on a 2016 tour of Japan. “In rehearsal he has a laser-like ability to focus on what is the most important thing to get right. The players like that he is demanding, but it’s from a position of good grace, humour and respect.”
But it was when Yamada conducted the British premiere of Julian Anderson’s cello concerto earlier this year that Maddock knew they had found their chief conductor. “New music is such an important part of the CBSO’s identity and when we finally did some with him the last piece of the jigsaw fell into place. It’s a complicated work, and he did it brilliantly. He was completely inside it and so clear. Julian was delighted, as was the soloist, Alban Gerhardt.
“At that point we thought this is silly to extend our search when we’ve got somebody standing here right in front of us who has all that we need.”
“The CBSO is a very special orchestra,” said Yamada, who will become the first non-European to lead it. “I can still hardly believe it!” He jokes that he had not dared consider himself as in the running as, at 42, he assumed he was too old for a role that for the past four decades has been given to conductors in their early 30s and even – in Simon Rattle’s case – at 25. Like the latter, Yamada was a percussionist before he turned to conducting: he first found himself in front of a small orchestra at 17. “Straight away it felt special,” he says, and his future path was clear.
His 20s saw him working mostly in Japan but at 30 he won the Besançon international competition for young conductors, which led to European dates and a UK debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was principal guest conductor of Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from 2012-2017, and has appeared with such orchestras as Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Orchestre de Paris, Bergen Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra. He is currently principal conductor and artistic director of Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and in Japan holds the titles that include permanent conductor of Japan Philharmonic and music director of the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo.
“For me, the best thing about the CBSO is they know how to enjoy music,” he says. “We always create something fresh and exciting. There is always a very warm atmosphere. I am always happy to see them, and am so happy to be part of their family.”
One of the first commitments in his new role will be to take the orchestra on tour to Japan. A Proms debut for summer 2023 is in the diary, and he hopes to introduce (or reacquiant) audiences to Japanese composers, citing Toru Takemitsu, Akira Miyoshi and Toshiro Mayuzumi as three whose work he particularly admires. “I’d like to introduce Japanese culture through music,” he says. Mozart’s music, too, is a particular favourite. “Big symphony orchestras don’t often play his music [written for smaller forces] but I’d like to do more of it. The late symphonies … Magic Flute,” he suggests.
“French music is a strength of his, likewise Russian music and his Schumann (the second symphony) was revelatory,” says Maddock, “and we’re hoping to do some Mahler. Choral, contemporary and British music will, of course, feature, too, in our programming. He’s still discovering Elgar – he did the first symphony with the youth orchestra pre-pandemic.”
Yamada lives in Berlin with his wife, an orchestral musician, and their two children aged 11 and six. He already knows Birmingham a little and loves its mix of old and new – and the city’s huge and varied array of Indian restaurants, he laughs, admitting to a partiality for a Birminghamcurry.
He emphasises the vital role orchestras play in bringing young people to classical music through education, family and children’s concerts. “But first, we on the stage have to enjoy it. We have to entertain, we have to give 100% energy for every concert. If audiences see us enjoying ourselves, they will come again. We have to always present music as a gift.”