Morihiko Nakahara is at Inakaya, a Japanese restaurant on Two Notch Road.
He doesn’t order, the food just starts coming. Some white flounder, tuna, horse mackerel in which the carcass of the fish has been skewered and wrapped around the chunks of raw fish. There’s Japanese vodka served in small glasses over ice and beer. He shares the drinks with the guys behind the fish counter and keeps up a nearly non-stop conversation with them in Japanese.
Eating sushi, and one of his companions this night is eating it for the first time, is a lot like programming a concert or a season.
“It’s like going to a concert for the first time – you need a guide,” says Nakahara, music director of the South Carolina Philharmonic. Like serving up that Beethoven before bringing out the Dan Visconti. You start with the tuna and move toward the cuttlefish and eel.
The chef removes the carcass of the horse mackerel. A few minutes later he returns with it – deep fried. You can eat it from head to tail and the fine bones between the two. Some people do, others don’t. Where this falls on the musical metaphor scale is hard to say – John Cage maybe?
This is one of the few places Nakahara doesn’t have to make a million decisions even though that’s normally what one does in a sushi restaurant.
Leading the orchestra concerts and rehearsals – the actual music making – is hardly half of the job. Talking to him, he sounds like the superintendent of the Japanese bullet train system, but with twice the routes and half the budget. What musicians are available? What soloist do we want? Who can we afford? What pieces of music will work well together, but won’t be redundant? What’s the theme of each concert and what should we call it? Who does he have to charm to get some money? Do any of the concert dates conflict with football games, Jewish holidays or concerts being played by the Augusta and Greenville orchestras with which the Philharmonic shares some players?
The 2010 – 2011 season hasn’t started and he’s working on 11 – 12. The orchestra doesn’t perform in the summer, but this is planning time so he’s as busy as he is the rest of the year.
Inakaya is his time off and it’s only a few hours long.
“All my vacation time last year I spent being sick,” he says between bites and his conversation with chef Satoshi “Maru” Maruyama. “I could be sick as a dog and do the rehearsal or concert and then go home and crash.”
Nakahara is entering his third year as music director. Right before the last season ended in the spring, he signed a contract to continue for another four years.
“I’ll be like 40 – that’s sick,” says Nakahara, who turns 35 in November.
If you haven’t guessed, he’s a funny guy and recently performed a hilarious routine at a fake-funeral fundraiser for the independent movie house the Nickelodeon Theater in Columbia. The philharmonic holds a surprise mini-concert series called “Where in the World is Morihiko?” On Facebook, he called it the “WTF Happened to Baton Boy?” series. Other than the fact that he’s Japanese, Nakahara is an unassuming looking guy. His hair is cropped short on the sides and back in an almost military manner. About 5-feet-7, his broad chest and shoulders give him an athletic silhouette. He’s not a flashy dresser, but he’s not a khakis and button down shirt guy either. On the podium he invariably wears an updated formal outfit with a modified Nehru collar and collarless shirt. No white tie or tails.
“To these guys,” he says nodding toward the sushi chefs, “I’m very American. To my girlfriend, I’m very Japanese.” (She’s a musician he met in Columbia who is away at graduate school studying Russian.)
Nakahara grew up in a small city in Japan with his mother and grandmother. As a child Nakahara was more interested in history, sports, and literature than music. When he was about 12 he heard Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and became captivated by all things Mozart. This eventually led him to the composer’s Clarinet Quintet so he began playing clarinet. At 15 he was sent to a private school in Michigan and has been in the U.S. since.
At Andrews University in Michigan, Nakahara got a degree in music education and earned his master’s degree in conducting from the Cincinnati Conservatory. His first job took him back to Michigan as Holland Symphony Orchestra music director and, while there, he also became associate conductor of the Spokane Symphony.
He is still with Spokane leading several concerts each year, but the S.C. Philharmonic is his primary job. He’s a finalist for the music director posts at the Chattanooga, Tenn., and Green Bay, Wisc., orchestras and will conduct at both places in the coming season. It’s typical for the music director of small to mid-sized orchestras to hold more than one position.
Nakahara was one of seven finalists for the music director in Columbia. Many finalists had more experience, had worked with bigger orchestras, or had gone to more prestigious schools than Nakahara. But when the end of the season came, it took the orchestra all of a day to offer him the job.
For his first two seasons, the Philharmonic played many well known works, but also played music by a lot of composers most audience members didn’t know a thing about – Akira Kifukube, Missy Mazzoli, Margaret Brouwer, Tan Dun. It played Philip Glass for the first time ever and Gustav Mahler for the first time in memory. It brought in a soloist who played the pipa, a Chinese lute.
“Being music director is like someone giving you a key to a nice car,” he says. “You take it out and see what you can do with it.”
He doesn’t say it outright, but Nakahara wonders if it was maybe too much for an audience that was accustomed to a conservative repertoire. Still, since he arrived, subscriptions have hit an all-time high. If some people complained about the orchestra playing unfamiliar music, none of them complained about how much better the orchestra sounds with Nakahara on the podium.
“It’s a process,” he says of introducing unfamiliar music. “How much, how soon? And you don’t have a lot of room for error. Why don’t you just do the Top 40? It’s a challenge – especially now.”
By “now” he means in a horrible economic climate where every penny has to be pinched until it sings a high C that breaks into a scream.
Some orchestras and music directors flog the old works; for others it’s all new, new, new.
Nakahara is neither – he’s a realist and sensible and he knows what his job is.
“We’re not a niche orchestra,” he says. “We want to serve all our constituents.”
When talking about the upcoming season when it was announced earlier this year, he sounded a little downbeat noting it is conservative: the “Eroica Symphony,” by Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, “Appalachian Spring,” by Aaron Copland and “A Young Person’s Guide to the Symphony,” by Benjamin Britten.
But the orchestra has also commissioned a concerto for two pianos written by University of South Carolina School of Music associate professor John Fitz Rogers for his music school colleagues Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, and will play a brand-new piece by Osvaldo Golijov, one of the most acclaimed and respected living composers.
The conductor has made himself part of Columbia within the musical world and outside it. When he goes out, usually to unprepossessing places like Hunter-Gatherer or Flying Saucer, people know him and he knows them. He lives in a Main Street apartment with his cat. He can talk about sports as well as music and he does this quite a bit, although he says he quit watching the world cup as soon as Japan was eliminated. Although outgoing and friendly and funny, Nakahara is not an easy person to read. He admits he mainly keeps his own counsel.
Of his two seasons, Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony in early 2009 stands out as a high point for him. He was least happy with Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite” early this year.
“I underestimated how much work it would take,” he says. “It was not at the level I hoped it would be.”
While he thinks he has a good feel for the Columbia audience, it throws him surprises, such as when pianist Martina Filjik played Bela Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto for the final concert of the last season.
“On stage it felt awesome,” he says, “and I was perplexed by the lack of response.”
Toward the end of the night, at Inakaya, Nakahra expresses frustration, not so much with his job in Columbia, as with the classical music business.
“Does it matter what we do as classical musicians?” he wonders. “Is it relevant playing 200-year-old music?’’
He has finished the beer he didn’t order, but when the chef wants to serve him a giant noodle bowl, he declines.
Nakahara and the chefs keep up a running conversation in Japanese occasionally translating for the others. The chefs have never seen him in concert – they work nights.
Maru indicates, waving his very sharp knife, that what Nakahara does with his baton is like what the chef does with the knife, creating beautiful, delectable artworks with a variety of flavors, textures, colors. The baton is like a knife, Maru says, or better yet, a sword. Nakahara, he says, has “Samurai spirit.”