Leading an orchestra requires a special set of skills. Here Natsuko Yoshimoto, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concertmaster, and Director of the Curro Chamber Orchestra at camp, talks to Words About Music participant Julia Nicholls about the art of musical leadership.

Leader of the Curro Chamber Orchestra, Natsuko Yoshimoto, looks at her sheet music during a rehearsal at AYO National Music Camp 2020.

How would you define a concertmaster?

The concertmaster is a conduit between the conductor and the rest of the orchestra, who manages to convey what the conductor’s artistic vision is. Hopefully you’re on the same page as the conductor, and then you can transmit their vision through your body language, your breathing and your playing.

What’s something you don’t think people realise about being a concertmaster?

It’s tough, and it’s not all about playing. It’s about managing people, because if you’re in a leadership role you always have to manage. It’s about respecting everyone’s individual talent and individual contribution, but knowing that you need to make the overall decision and then stick to it.

How does being a concertmaster build your skills as a musician?

I think it requires a very different skill set to playing. It’s not just a question of, “Oh, well, I’m in a leadership position. Therefore, I’m right.” You have to have the openness to listen. Tutti players can very quickly feel that they’re not being respected, or they have no place in the orchestra, so it’s important to try and give them ownership. The tutti players are the biggest body of the orchestra, and I would love them to feel that they have tremendous power.

What’s your most memorable concertmaster-ing experience?

In terms of repertoire, playing Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben is really exciting. But it’s very hard to single out things. I’m always trying to get as much out of every week as possible, because there’s so much you can learn from different conductors and guest artists. I love working with the ASO’s Principal Guest Conductor Mark Wigglesworth, so all of his weeks with us are highlights for me.

What advice would you give to someone who’s been asked to be concertmaster for the first time?

Really try and be aware that it’s an all-encompassing job. The playing is only part of it, and the skill set for managing people is just as important. Set an example: you’re always professional, you’re always well prepared, you treat everyone with respect and courtesy. Because if you don’t show that, why should they?

It’s difficult to have that same sense of long-term planning in school or youth orchestras, because they operate over such a concentrated period of weeks or days, but within that period you still need to be on the lookout. Certain players might not be feeling quite at ease, and you want to be there to be able to give support. Ultimately, your job is to encourage them and make sure that they feel like they are able to bring out the best in themselves, because that can only contribute to making good music together.

If you were a pizza topping, what would you be?

What’s the most annoying thing on pizza? Chilli? I don’t know.

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