"Oh, you're with the symphony - what do you play?" It's a sweaty August afternoon and Kayoko Dan, the new 33-year-old music director of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, is signing up for yoga lessons. Her sleek triathlete's form, stone-smooth skin and 5-foot-short stature have misled the friendly NorthShore Yoga Studio clerk to guess she might play flute (which she does) or violin (which she doesn't much anymore) but probably wouldn't lead the band. "Most people don't think of me as a conductor," Dan observes. "I don't fit a certain mold."
For 20 years, Chattanoogans reveled in the baton play of another maestro who - with completely different methods - broke the mold. A former all-star baseball player with a slapstick bent, Bob Bernhardt juggled in his tuxedo and cracked jokes on stage. Under his direction, fun was the CSO shtick. This June, Bernhardt decrescendoed to a part-time Music Director Emeritus position, now leading only the Pops series. Dan, the former music director at the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra in Lexington, was selected, after a two-year search among 250 candidates, to become the symphony's 8th Music Director for classical and chamber music. She will be the first woman and the youngest person to gain that position.
This season, which opens Sept. 24, Dan tackles the repertory's fullest works: "Carmina Burana," Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 4," "Beethoven's Fifth." "He picked all these awesome pieces for this season," gushes Dan. "I'm not nervous. I'm really happy about it."
When she was 3, Dan asked for piano lessons. Neither of her parents has a musical background, she explains, but her 5-year-old neighbor enrolled at the Yamaha School "and whatever she did, that was the world." During her youth, her father, a Japanese banker, moved the family to Kyoto, Tokyo, Houston, New York and, finally, back to Houston. Her musical studies "were frequently interrupted," she notes. Yet she says she fell in love with classics while playing the flute in youth orchestra. "I felt like it was my voice at the time."
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, she took the program's only conducting class then implored Professor Glenn Richter for more. "I felt the conducting classes we were required to take weren't enough," adds Dan. "So I begged to create more classes, and he agreed."
A decade later, Dan was working as Assistant Conductor for the Phoenix Symphony and Music Director for the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra while being scolded by her agent for not being more "aggressive" in her career. Then an opportunity appeared - she was asked to audition for Music Director for the CSO.
When she arrived on tryout day, like so many other visitors, Dan headed straight for the river. "I put on my running shoes and ran to the waterfront - it was just awesome," says Dan. "I totally fell in love with the city. The energy I felt was just great." Her audition was also "great," she added. "I go to one orchestra and I feel like I'm lifting a 500-pound weight - because they're not reacting to what I'm doing," says Dan. "But with the CSO, we had great chemistry."
She took her post on June 1, and debuted as the new maestro at the July 3rd Pops on the River concert. "I liked that, that was crazy," says Dan. "I've never seen so many people in one space before."
A conductor's work is "really internal and not very flashy," explains Dan. For the past month, she has been studying Dvorak's "8th Symphony" for several hours a day. History, context, musical influences, social milieu, are as critical to conducting, she says, as mastering notes, keys and pacing. Particularly for a young composer, knowledge is power. "There are seasoned players who have played this piece maybe 50 times," says Dan. "I need to be able to justify why I want it this particular way - and I think it's an insult for a conductor to stand in front of all these musicians and not know the score."
Dan will be searching this month for a handful of "fantastic" replacements for orchestra positions while developing a "standard mission" for the education department. "Hopefully we will have one strong set of guidelines so it will be easier for everyone else to do their job."
In future seasons, she plans to transport local audiences to France through the works of Ravel and Debussy, and add contemporary works from such composers as neo-romantic Christopher Rouse and the jazz-and-minimalist-influenced Michael Torke. "Let's face it, Beethoven used to be new," says Dan. "We may have another Beethoven coming up, but we'll never know if we don't expose these new pieces."
Back at the CSO, Dan is unpacking a couple of small boxes in her high-ceilinged cubbyhole. Her predecessor had lined the white walls with autographed pictures and favorite event posters. "I'm not sentimental," says Dan, waving her hand and smiling.
That may be a good thing. A modern conductor's tenure is tenuous. Most orchestras rotate maestros every few years. "People like to keep things fresh, and music is evolving," says Dan, "so they don't keep conductors too long."
Adding to the tension, Dan, still a Japanese citizen, may find it challenging to harmonize sleek black outfits, rapid-fire and multicultural speech patterns and a global viewpoint with pastel-preferring, honey voweled, traditional vibes of the New South. But Dan, who describes herself as both "shy and stubborn about getting what I want," vanquishes such concerns. While leading youth orchestras, she was occasionally "yelled at" by adults who mistook her for a student. Untroubled, she points to Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and JoAnn Faletta, the longtime leader of the Buffalo Philharmonic.
"The generation before us paved a road for us," says Dan. "We're not being revolutionary here."
Dan is, in fact, surfing a wave of young female conductors, from Xian Zhang, conductor of Milan's Orchestra Sinfonica 'Giuseppe Verdi' to the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra's Music Director Laura Jackson. "Once rehearsal starts, people - especially musicians - don't see me as a young, Asian female," says Dan. "They see a person standing on the podium, conducting."
Like Janus, the Roman God of beginnings and transitions, the CSO podium will be shared by two faces -light and dark, male and female, smooth and grizzled, senior and junior, extrovert and introvert, sports buff and solitary marathoner. While Bernhardt tells funny stories, Dan dons an invisibility cloak - a basic black suit -deflecting the audience's attention from her to the music. And where Bernhardt pitched no-hitters, Dan practices with pressure cookers - recently trying out steelcut oats, stews and pork shoulder.
"When I was little, I was always the last one picked for the soccer team," she says, laughing. "I watch baseball, but I don't play it. I'm a terrible athlete - I'm afraid of balls."