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Classical 101

'A Star is Born' Moment for Assistant Conductor of Philadelphia Orchestra

David Debalko
Kensho Watanabe

Classical music has a new rising star. According to a story published Tuesday in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the young assistant conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra stepped in to lead a concert at the last moment for an ailing Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and it was a great success.

Kensho Watanabe has been assistant conductor since last fall and had not publicly conducted the orchestra since winning his audition for the part. With just three hours' notice before the concert, the 29-year-old was prepared and poised when he stepped onto the podium in what could be a career-making event.

Watch Watanabe conduct a scene from a 2015 Curtis Opera Theatre production of Puccini's La Boheme:


Watanabe's unexpected debut brought to mind a 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein, who in 1943 successfully stepped in with short notice for an indisposed Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Fifteen years later, Bernstein became their music director.

At the very least, Watanabe will have an opportunity to conduct the orchestra again. Perhaps he'll be invited to guest conduct other orchestras, like Bernstein was.

The similarities don't end there. Like Bernstein, Watanabe studied conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music and has led its orchestra in performances. He also conducted the Yale Symphony when he was studying there, originally planning to major in medicine.

But music called, and he listened.

Credit Pete Checchia / kenshowatanabe.com
Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Kensho Watanabe

Music was always part of the young Japanese-American's life. He started playing the violin at age 2.

Watanabe was scheduled to make his conducting debut at a children's concert on April 22, which is still happening. Only now there may be more than just children interested in listening.

Here's wishing Watanabe the best of luck after such an auspicious public debut with a major American orchestra.