A month ago Akiko Fujimoto was eagerly anticipating what she called “the capstone” of her period as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra — her debut in the orchestra’s mainstream subscription series.
Then the hammer blow of the coronavirus fell, wiping out all concert activity and scrubbing the biggest date of Fujimoto’s career so far.
The disappointment was acute, but Fujimoto isn’t dwelling on it. “Now is not the time to expect anything,” she says.
Instead, she is focused on the future — including three free outdoor performances Aug. 3-6 that will return the orchestra to the concert stage — as well as the many good things that have happened in the 2 ½ years since she arrived in Minnesota.
The orchestra members “have this warmth and integrity, and a goodwill toward music-making which so many guest conductors comment on to me,” she says. “They bring their own truth to every performance, and as a conductor you can literally just tap into that, ever so lightly and in the right way.”
Fujimoto is in her 40s — a relatively late age to be an associate conductor with a major orchestra, a job that aspiring conductors typically do in their 20s.
Her duties include conducting young people’s and high school concerts; leading outdoor community events, and acting as cover conductor (i.e., the understudy in case of illness, etc.) for subscription concerts.
She admits that in a ferociously competitive business she has not been as single-mindedly career-driven as some peers in seeking a fast-track path to musical directorships.
Before coming here as assistant conductor (she was promoted to associate a year later), Fujimoto held associate positions with the San Antonio Symphony and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. She also has master’s degrees in conducting from both Boston University and the Eastman School of Music.
“I’m a sucker for learning new things,” she said. “I think of myself as still evolving.”
An ‘electric moment’
That process of evolution began 30 years ago when Fujimoto’s father was relocated by his company from her native Japan to Los Angeles.
“I was a teenager and didn’t want to come, and gave my dad a really hard time about it,” she remembers. “The biggest family joke is that I’m the one who’s still here, everybody else moved back.”
As a high schooler Fujimoto had “no concept of music as a profession,” although she played trombone, sang in choirs and took piano lessons “begrudgingly.”
And conducting? She fell into that quite by chance.
“When I was in high school my choir director was gone a lot, working on her master’s degree,” she said. “She would hire a substitute teacher to take attendance while I ran rehearsals, because she thought I was a good musician and my classmates didn’t seem to mind.”
But the best was yet to come. One day at a carol concert the choir director passed the baton to Fujimoto, and asked her to conduct the next carol.
“It was a magical, electric moment,” she remembers. Though she subsequently went to Stanford University as a psychology major, the die was cast.
“I took all the music classes at Stanford, too, including an introduction to conducting. And at some point I realized that this is what I wanted to do.”
That was roughly 25 years ago, when women were still a rarity in the world of professional conducting. Did Fujimoto have what it took to break the shackles of male domination?
“I did talk to a lot of female conductors about that,” she recalls. “Especially JoAnn Falletta, who was music director at Virginia when I was there, and my first boss.”
Falletta’s influence was crucial in encouraging Fujimoto to lean first and foremost on her musical instincts and ability, and let her career trajectory look after itself.
“JoAnn is such a force, we’re still in touch and I admire her greatly. And I realize now that gender is just one of the many things that make us all different.”
The concerts that Fujimoto was due to lead, featuring organist Cameron Carpenter would undoubtedly have been the pinnacle of her professional life. Might they be rescheduled?
“Who knows?” she replies philosophically. “If I’m lucky enough to be invited back to do this, hopefully I’ll be even better prepared. So I am happy to go with whatever and whenever it happens, if ever.”
Studying, and listening
Meanwhile Fujimoto is hunkering down with scores she needs to learn, in hopeful anticipation of the day when the shroud of COVID-19 lifts and concert life begins again.
“There is pretty much only one activity for conductors outside of rehearsals and concerts — study,” she says.
And like other classical devotees stuck at home, Fujimoto has been working on her wishlist of things to listen to for pleasure.
“I watched the entire Wagner Ring Cycle on four consecutive nights on the Metropolitan Opera’s website,” she says. “I admit I wasn’t always focused like I would be in a concert hall, but I was happy to check this off my virtual bucket list.”
And at this destabilizing period, Fujimoto is full of optimism about how orchestras will react when it’s finally time to play their instruments before an audience again.
“I know orchestras will come roaring back,” she says. “We were already passionate, strong-willed organisms to begin with.
“But for the first time, we are realizing how critical being with each other in person is to music making. When we are allowed to be together again, I think we will be more energized than ever.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.