Kayoko Dan is speaking about her life and career, her bare feet tucked under her on the sofa. She is the music director and conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera. In a few hours she will take the stage along with symphony musicians and guest artists, for a stellar performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
“I had a lot of inspiring teachers growing up and I wanted to be like them,” she says. “In fact, I was on my way to becoming a music teacher when one thing led to another…” her voice trails off. Her teachers were certainly good public school teachers-maybe even exceptional, but Dan believes that the responsibility lies with the student to get something out of the teaching. She is firm on this point and is an advocate of music education, leading clinics in high schools and youth orchestras around the country. She is often a guest speaker at university conducting classes, encouraging young conductors to pursue their dreams.
Dan’s own musical training began at the age of three in Japan with piano lessons, then violin lessons for about a year. Finally, she took to the flute. “It fit in my backpack.” It turned out to be a good fit for her, too.
Her father was in the banking and the family moved from Tokyo to Texas when she was eight. Her younger sister seemed to make the adjustment easily, but Dan says, “It was a huge change for me, and being shy anyway, I was practically mute for a couple of years. Playing the flute was the only time I could stand in front of people.”
Dan has won awards and fellowships through her development as a music conductor, including the Karajan Fellowship for Young Conductors and the David Effron Conducting Fellowship. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas and her graduate degrees at Arizona State University.
“The City of Chattanooga is indeed fortunate to have Kayoka Dan as its new Music Director. A gifted musician and talented educator, she will positively touch the hearts and minds of everyone she encounters-from the dedicated musicians of the Symphony and their loyal supporters, to aspiring young musicians, and those who do not even know that they are about to begin a lover affair with classical music,” says Dr. Timothy Russell, professor of music at Arizona State University. “I am confident that Kayoko found Chattanooga and her people beautiful; I am even more confident that she will enrich the community for many years to come.”
Participating in a number of workshops and seminars had helped Dan gain perspective about various conducting opportunities. She served as music director of Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras and most recently as the assistant conductor of the Phoenix Symphony. Pursuing her goal of being a conductor she began exploring other options. After a few rejection letters, “you know, the ones that read something like ‘we’re sorry Mr. Dan Koyoko,’ “Ms. Dan says with a grin, she landed the position in Chattanooga- the result of a vigorous search by the CSO committee.
The committee of eleven was made of five musicians, four CSO board members, one representative of the youth orchestra and the executive director. With the help of prominent symphony consultant Henry Fogel, now dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, the group had nine guest conductor applicants in two years’ time. They agreed in the beginning to give the musicians on the choice. After narrowing the field down to two or three finalists, they made their decision.
“I am pleased. All of us are,” says Spencer McCallie, committee chairman. “Kayoko is getting out in the community and wants to bring new people to our concerts.”
One shouldn’t get the wrong idea. This quiet, diminutive conductor does have strong opinions on a wide range of subjects. Music is the one she talks about with enthusiasm. She says her personal favorite conductor is Russian Maesto Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. “He is intense, sincere and energetic- but not flashy,” she says. “After all, it’s about the music.”
Kayoko recently married Andrew Temple and they are enjoying the many outdoor aspects of the city, like training for marathons and triathlons. They like to cook and travel. Their border collie mix, Maggie Moo, is their good companion.
“I think the energy in this community is awesome and it’s because of the people here,” she adds. Achieving artistic excellence is paramount for Dan and she is determined to provide the community with outstanding works. Collaborating with other artistic groups from dancers to choral groups and maybe even some visual imagery, she plans to continue to explore her capabilities and those of the CSO. Working with youth musicians is high on the list as well.
“I feel lucky to have found a place where I can make a difference.”
Visit www.chattanoogasymphony.org for more information on the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera.
Photography by Brad Cansler
This story was originally published in the Dec/Jan 2012 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.