Erina Yashima, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice, is a testament to cultural versatility. Born in Heilbronn, Germany, the first-generation child of Japanese immigrants, she grew up speaking German and Japanese but studied other languages. “In school, I was taught Latin and ancient Greek before learning English,” she said. “Afterwards I studied French, but since learning Italian, much of the French I had acquired has been forgotten. Because my parents are Japanese but I was born and raised in Germany, I am always curious about different cultures and mentalities.”
Yashima’s propensity for languages offers insight to her successes as a conductor: equal parts proficiency, curiosity and motivation.
Her most recent language might well be considered a prerequisite for studying under the CSO’s famously Italian music director. “After a master class with [Riccardo] Muti,” Yashima recalled, “I realized how important it is to learn the language. Not just the grammar, but to really speak it. It’s about the culture, to be able to do Italian opera and Italian music, you need to speak the language.”
Yashima has learned much from Muti. On what makes him such a celebrated conductor, she said it was “difficult to describe. He’s very special at interacting with an orchestra and has an incredible presence. Audiences are well aware of it. I cannot think of anyone with his kind of musical authority … even his technical comments come from a musical intention.”
Yashima’s ascent in the music world is not unsurprising. Her parents, gifted violinists, moved to Europe for their own studies. “My parents were pleased I became a musician,” she said. “It came very naturally, but I had to reflect on whether it was a choice or not. I would not have continued if I didn’t love it. I started, of course, on violin but quickly switched to piano.”
An accomplished performer in her own right, Yashima still plays the piano, even though she insists she’s no longer “recital ready.” It’s “nice to produce sound by yourself because, as a conductor, you sometimes feel a bit useless,” she said, laughing.
Her worldly training and active passport notwithstanding, Yashima had never traveled to the United States until her Chicago apprenticeship audition in late summer of 2015. “I was overwhelmed by this gorgeous, beautiful city,” she said. “I felt, almost immediately, very at home.” Her ability to adapt and excel soon was displayed in the mastery of her first competition piece: Bruckner’s massive Seventh Symphony — a piece she would later get to see Muti conduct for the 2016-17 season opener.
Yashima has conducted many of the seminal works in the field but also has interests in new music; her first conducting opportunities were compositions by her younger brother, Tamon. The role of contemporary music in the modern orchestra is an often-debated issue: “When I play new music, I try to not judge it, but to study the score with the same respect and thoughtfulness as any music, to bring out the best of it,” she said. “It’s our duty for the survival of music that we keep doing it, although it might not be Mozart, and it might be forgotten in 20 years.
“This is the hardest part of being a music director: to have a vision about where the orchestra should go. It is necessary to take care of modern music. But Mozart, Bach, they survived hundreds of years. And there is a reason they are played again and again, they are masterpieces. We should not forget that the contemporary music we are playing has not gone through Darwinism, natural selection. We should not expect from every newly written piece that it [has] a legality to become great. But we must give them a chance to be heard, knowing some of them will last the next hundred years.”
It’s interesting to consider how she handles the dichotomy of being an apprentice and also a leader of an accomplished orchestra, as she prepares to lead the Civic Orchestra of Chicago on April 5 in a program featuring Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. “With Civic, it’s like we are colleagues. They are learning. I am learning. We are learning together. Willing and open-minded, but still ambitious. It’s great to work with them.”
Is there a composer or musical style the Civic Orchestra is best suited to play? “Stravinsky!” Yashima said, joking, “but that music actually fits quite well for them. It is about individual abilities but also finding an energetic, group sound.” Because it is a challenging piece for musicians and conductor alike, she is aware that “with a piece like Rite of Spring, you have to concentrate and be aware that everything is fitting together and secure.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a storied history of great conductors. Yashima is the Sir Georg Solti conducting apprentice, studying under Riccardo Muti, and leading an orchestra founded by Frederick Stock. But she doesn’t feel pressured by the legacy of these maestros. “To be part of this family is a great honor,” she said. “Also, to be associated with it outside of this building, it makes me feel really humble. On one hand, I ask myself, ‘Who am I compared to these legends that worked here?’ But at the same time, it is very motivating and inspiring to be in this environment, and it gives me a lot as a musician. I can learn so much.
“What I can do, is take as much as possible from these musicians. And devote myself now, to give back to the profession and audiences later.”
Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice Erina Yashima leads the Civic Orchestra in a program of music by Mozart and Stravinsky on April 5 in Orchestra Hall. Tickets are free, with a $5 handling charge, at cso.org.