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For Heiichiro Ohyama, Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra a Match Made in Musical Heaven

Reflecting on 34 years as music director and conductor, maestro credits SBCO as training ground and says commitment to quality is key to success

With stalwart passion and energy, Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama has led the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra for the past 34 years. “This is my music,” he says. “It is my home. It is my school. It is my family.” Click to view larger
With stalwart passion and energy, Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama has led the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra for the past 34 years. “This is my music,” he says. “It is my home. It is my school. It is my family.” (Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation. Click here for the first article.]

The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s music director and conductor, Heiichiro Ohyama, didn’t aspire to become a musical great in the world of classical music.

“I wanted to be a baseball player,” he told Noozhawk. “In Japan, in my generation, every boy wanted to play baseball. You couldn’t go against it.”

But his father had an undying love for classical music, and, unable to afford a piano, chose a violin for his 5-year-old son.

“I didn’t have a burning passion to play the violin, but now I can tell this must be the reason why I did violin, viola, chamber music, training orchestras, teaching, directorship to run a music organization,” Ohyama said.

“I was given so many great chances from so many great people.”

Now in his 34th year leading the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, Ohyama has certainly fulfilled his father’s dreams. The 69-year-old has served as principal violist and assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; principal chief conductor of the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra in Fukuoka, Japan, and the Osaka Symphony Orchestra; artistic director of La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; and music director of the Nagasaki Music Festival.

Also a professor of music at UC Berkeley from 1973 to 2003, he received the 1991 Gruber Award for Excellence in Chamber Music Teaching in Los Angeles.

He has received numerous awards and honors for his work in the United States, Europe and Japan.

“This is my music,” Ohyama said. “It is my home. It is my school. It is my family. I’m very much with music now.”

Born in Kyoto, Japan, Ohyama studied music in London before coming to the United States in 1970. He moved to California in 1973 to teach at UC Santa Cruz. In 1979, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as principal violist.

Meanwhile, his job with Cal was transferred to UC Santa Barbara. Word quickly spread.

“In 1982, I was asked to take over a little group of strings,” Ohyama recalled. “It interested me, but I wasn’t trained as a conductor. People convinced me it would happen, so I did it to help with the group. I thought it would be fun. Here I am, 33 years later.”

As a boy in Japan, Heiichiro Ohyama was more interested in baseball than music. But his father’s love of classical music inspired a career that has bought him fame on three continents. One of his greatest loves is the viola. Click to view larger
As a boy in Japan, Heiichiro Ohyama was more interested in baseball than music. But his father’s love of classical music inspired a career that has bought him fame on three continents. One of his greatest loves is the viola. (Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra photo)

His experiences with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra taught him how to conduct.

“To learn the process through a small chamber orchestra was ideal,” Ohyama said.

Perhaps it was this, yet another unexpected opportunity, that led to the experience needed for his next move. In 1986, he was appointed Los Angeles Philharmonic’s assistant conductor under music director and conductor André Previn. He served in that position for four years while continuing his work in Santa Barbara.

That SBCO’s maestro is not just a conductor but a celebrated musician in his own right is no small matter.

“We have a very special give-and-take process to nurture each other, respect each other,” Ohyama said.

Today, his own performance experience draws soloists from around the globe.

“I have the opportunity to play chamber music with these great talents,” he said. “Then, when I feel the person is not only skilled enough, but has the mind and interpretive power, they are invited.”

This approach has kept the violist on his toes, practicing now to keep up with the performers he conducts.

Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra music director and conductor Heiichiro Ohyama’s skills as a classical music performer gives him a special bond with his musicians. “We have a very special give-and-take process to nurture each other, respect each other,” he says. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra music director and conductor Heiichiro Ohyama’s skills as a classical music performer gives him a special bond with his musicians. “We have a very special give-and-take process to nurture each other, respect each other,” he says. (Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra photo)

“As you get older, conveniently, you tend to sleep less,” he said. “This gives more practice time.”

It’s not uncommon, while traveling, for Ohyama to turn on a hotel television, volume low, and mute his viola for a midnight practice session.

Today his greatest challenge is neither performing nor conducting, but continuing to build an audience among the younger population, the future patrons of the arts.

“A lot of people have varying degrees of understanding of what quality classical music is,” said Joe Campanelli, chairman of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra board of directors. “We need to reach out to young people from an educational standpoint while satisfying the needs of patrons who have been with us for a long time.

“Whether our patrons have a musical background or just appreciate what we do, how we make classical music accessible to younger folks and millennials is important.”

Perhaps it is precisely because Ohyama was not first a classical music fanatic that he’s not afraid to experiment with the traditions of the art he’s grown to love.

“What it comes down to is the quality,” he said. “We have to look at how to preserve that, how to keep that, and also how to ask something more. You can try something, very fancy gimmicks, but without the basics, the learning of the tradition, you cannot add anything.

“Quality, that’s my keyboard.”

Heiichiro Ohyama is encouraged by the innovative changes the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra has made to engage more deeply with its audience. “As players come down from the stage and try to explain the things we are doing, the audience is now accepting that and wanting to know more and more,” he says. Click to view larger
Heiichiro Ohyama is encouraged by the innovative changes the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra has made to engage more deeply with its audience. “As players come down from the stage and try to explain the things we are doing, the audience is now accepting that and wanting to know more and more,” he says. (Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra photo)

With a firm understanding that quality is the key, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra has partnered with local organizations, including State Street Ballet, KUSC and the University Club of Santa Barbara to present more intimate concerts. Musicians have begun taking part in the conversation and social aspects of post-concert gatherings.

“Going forward, we’re going to see more of this as we continue to experiment with new performance formats, new collaborative opportunities with other organizations and connecting with new groups of people,” said Don Lafler, SBCO board president.

Ohyama equates the conversational style with young people’s clear interest in learning directly from the masters in other fields of interest.

“My mother loves cooking,” he explained. “At my home, we have, oh, so many recipe books. But now, if you really want to know how to make a dish, you have YouTube, not just the printed letters. You can see how the chef sprinkles the spices or how they cut the vegetables.

“People want to know what’s done at the famous chef’s kitchens. We want to provide the same treatment to performance: how we do the rehearsals, what is going on at any stage, what is the conductor trying to accomplish.”

Ohyama said the changes are encouraging.

“As players come down from the stage and try to explain the things we are doing, the audience is now accepting that and wanting to know more and more,” he said.

The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s next music-and-dialogue event featuring KUSC host Alan Chapman will be held April 4 at the University Club of Santa Barbara, 1332 Santa Barbara St.

Click here for complete season program information about the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, or call 805-966-2441. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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