An Interview with Mitsuru Yonezaki, violin

Performing Bach on the Charles, standing on Maestro Zander's boat!

Mitsuru Yonezaki is our featured young artist for the first concert of our 2015-16 season, and a founding member of Winsor Music's first mentoring ensemble, Violobos! She began her violin studies at the age of four and currently studies with Joanna Kurkowicz. Having enrolled at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School under Fudeko Takahashi (2004-2013), she has become the youngest member of many orchestras, including their top orchestra, the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, at age 11. She has been selected as the winner of various competitions including NEC Prep School’s competitions (category B - 2nd, 2013), the Kobe International Competition (2011, Grand Prize and Special Award for Artistic Excellence), and Newton’s Classical Idol Competition (January 2010). Mitsuru is currently a member of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, led by Maestro Benjamin Zander, which toured the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland this past June to perform in 9 different halls, some of which include the Smetana Hall in Prague, Berliner Philharmonie in Berlin, and Kultur und Kongresszentrum in Luzern.

When Mitsuru is not practicing or at school, she enjoys cooking, reading, and spending time with her friends sight-reading music. She took time out of her busy schedule to speak with us about how she has embraced chamber music, how singers and wind players like Peggy inspire her, and how music fits into her present and future. 

You are a rising junior in high school? 
Sort of - I’m also completing my senior year now. I’m taking the courses that I need to graduate.

So you’re going to be done at the end of this year?

What’s the plan after that?
Hopefully going to a music school. 

It says in your bio that you’ve been playing the violin since you were four years old. How did you start?
My sister, who also plays the violin, was my inspiration -  I frequently went with her to her lessons, watched her practice, and it kind of made me curious about music, so I also started the violin.

Photo credit: Kendra Colton

Photo credit: Kendra Colton

Did you ask for lessons when you were four?
Yes, I did.

Why did you stick with it? A lot kids start, but not a lot of kids get to the point that you’re at now.
I just really liked all of the repertoire I had to explore. I was doing orchestral and solo music, and some duets with my sister, and I think there’s still so much to learn, both musically and repertoire-wise. I just really enjoyed making music. — You never got bored. — Yes. 

Did you imagine or hope when you were younger that music would be such a huge part of your life now? 
I guess to a certain extent, I expected myself to keep working with it, but I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. At first it was more of a thing that I liked to do, but now it’s a huge part of my life. 

Do you remember the first chamber group that you participated in? What did you play? What was the experience like?
Yes, I do. My first real chamber group was the summer of 2012 at camp, that was when I was first exposed to it. I remember playing Mendelssohn Op. 44, No. 3, 2nd movement. Everyone else in the group had been at the camp for a while, so they were helping me through the process. They made a big impression on me, concerning chamber music. They made everything about rehearsal seem so fun and interesting, even when it was the tedious things that you have to work through, they would make it fun. Having different people lead, exchanging the parts. Everything about it became really fun.

If your first chamber group was in 2012, how many years had you been playing violin prior to that experience?
Around nine years. 

That’s a lot of experience as a violinist before you ever got into a chamber setting. Was it a shift for you? When you say they were helping you work through the process, what did you have to work through as you were making that adjustment?
I had to learn how to really listen for other people, and respond to and interact with what they were giving me. Because I was playing second violin, I had to make sure that I wasn’t playing second violin underneath; it has to be equally as strong as the first violin. I think that was a different experience; sometimes the first violin feels more like the soloist in an orchestra. To play second violin was to support the group but also sometimes have these moments where you shine out. That was a different idea that I sometimes now use in my solo playing as well to vary phrases, when I want to be more intimate or reserved, that second violin instinct kicks in and helps me do that. 

You had been playing in orchestras before you started playing chamber music. How old were you when you started playing in orchestras? 
I began at the NEC String Training Orchestra when I was five, and I first got into an orchestra with winds and brass when I was six.

So you have been in orchestras for as long as you’ve been playing. When you were making that adjustment to chamber music, were you adjusting from being a soloist, or adjusting from being an orchestral player, or a little bit of both? 
It was a little bit of both, because in the orchestra, you have your whole section to play with you, so you try to play with each other. In that sense, playing with each other [in a chamber group] wasn’t that big of a change from the orchestra, but in the sense that you’re the only one on the part, it was an adjustment, so I think it was a mixture of being a soloist and in an orchestra. I was finally coming to the middle of those two extremes, of being part of a group and being the only one. 

I know you spent part of your summer on tour with the BPYO, and part of your summer at the Perlman Music Program, an intensive music camp. Can you tell me about both of those experiences?
For the tour, we got to experience different cultures and different foods, which I really liked. All of these places that we performed at and visited gave me more insight into the composers’ mind. We visited some Jewish museums, which gave me some ideas around some European Jewish composers. Playing at these great halls was just… it was mind-blowing that we were all there. We also got to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic. I happened to have a seat that was behind the timpanist for that concert, so I was watching the conductor and observing how people from that angle were interacting with each other and with the conductor. It gave me some ideas as to how I could change as an orchestral musician. I was mainly observing the principal stands to learn more about leading and how they do it. I thought it was incredible that they would give small cues, but because they were slightly turned in, everyone would see that and do the same. That was one of the things I learned there: even the smallest gesture can make a big difference if you let show to others.

At camp [the Perlman Music Program], because I was one of the older campers there, who had been there longer, I got to experience being a kind of mentor to some of them. There were some people new to chamber music, so it was like my first summer but the roles were reversed. I got to help with the rehearsal process - giving ideas on how we wanted to phrase things. Because we also do singing at camp, that gave me different ideas, because when you sing you have to breathe. When I play violin, I don’t need to take breaks, so by singing, it helped me. During practice, I would sing a little to figure out where I needed to take “breaths” or make a phrase. 

So singing is a part of the core curriculum at your camp? What kind of repertoire were you doing? 
It’s choral repertoire, some Schubert, Handel, and a piece by Gyorgy Orban in Latin about the devil. It was very intense and in a different style from the beautiful tunes by the other composers. I think they intended for us to have a variety. They said that singing could give you new ideas about how to phrase, and thinking about breathing. 

Photo credit: Kendra Colton

Photo credit: Kendra Colton

Along those lines, what has it been like for you, in your experiences with Violobos, to work so closely with a wind player/instrument? I know it’s not necessarily something that other young string players experience. Has it affected you in any way? 
Playing with a wind instrument, especially the oboe, has changed my playing because when I’m playing with another violinist, we both know how loud and soft we can play. With wind players, it’s a different kind of range. It’s probably easier for the strings to adjust to the wind player, and the breathing comes in again. I’m still working on blending to [Peggy’s] sound, but I think I’m getting better. 

As a string player, what is involved when you’re working to blend with Peggy (or anyone, for that matter)?
I mainly listen. Because the oboe has a more naturally — I don’t know what the right word is — angular? — sound, I try to focus on my contact point. I also try to take cues from the way that she breathes. If she takes a slower breath, I feel like it’s supposed to be a warmer sound. 

When you talk about your bow placement in regards to her more angular sound, are you trying to match her sound or complement it?
Sometimes I try to match her sound, especially when we’re playing similar rhythms to each other. When I’m playing, for example, a counter-melody or the bass line, I try to complement it so that her voice comes out more than mine. 

What are you most looking forward to about this concert? 
It’s a different group of people, I’m excited to be working with these people. I recognized one name - the cellist, Rafael Popper-Keizer — because I know him as the principal of the Boston Philharmonic. I’m looking forward to working with these people who are much more experienced than me. I also like working with people my own age, but learning from the more experienced players is always fun. 

Composer John Heiss

Composer John Heiss

Is there a piece that stands out to you at this stage of preparation? 
I’m excited about Mr. Heiss’ piece because I’ve heard of him, as a living composer. Some of the ways that he wrote reminded me of Schoenberg, so I’ve been trying to compare other contemporary works with this piece, and it’s been really fun. 

What role has music played in your life so far? Is it a supplement to your other activities or is everything else a supplement to music, or is there a balance? 
I think music is a balance for me. It helps me in my academics, but then there is the math in music, so academics comes into music. It goes both ways, but I see music as my main focus.

Is it too soon to ask what your plans are for the future? You mentioned that conservatory is on the horizon. 
I am going to try to pursue a career in music performance. I want to go to conservatory or any school with a teacher that I would love to work with. I want to make my music unique to me and figure out how to present myself as an individual and make sure my technique is well-polished.