By PHYL NEWBECK
Yutaka Kono started playing the piano when he was seven and growing up in Japan.
In middle school, he added the French horn, but the school’s band director suggested he switch to the tuba and he has never regretted following that advice.
Now a resident of Shelburne, Kono was the first student to receive a doctor of musical arts degree in tuba performance from the University of Texas at Austin.
These days, the 47-year-old Kono is known more for his conducting than his tuba playing.
Kono said he was always interested in the role and it was part of the required course of study when he was a student. “I always thought it was something I would do when I became better at my instrument,” he said, “but when I first started conducting, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Three years ago, Kono joined the Burlington Chamber Orchestra as artistic director and he also is the conductor for the Vermont Youth Philharmonia. Kono confesses that initially he wasn’t sure he would enjoy teaching young students but he has been pleasantly surprised.
“I love working with these talented musicians and watching them grow,” he said. “At a younger age they grow much faster, which is interesting to see.”
In his other role as associate professor of music and the director of orchestra at the University of Vermont, Kono said he interacts with students on a different and broader level.
“The UVM symphony is a very interesting group because we have really different types of students,” he said. “It’s not just music majors. We have neuroscience and engineering and geology majors, so it’s been a great place for students to meet people with the same interests but from different disciplines.”
Although the group plays what Kono describes as “standard orchestra repertoire,” he always likes to add a piece of music that the audience may have never heard before.
Kono owns two tubas and although he has never weighed them, he estimates them to be roughly 20 pounds, pointing out at although they are brass, they are hollow on the inside and not as heavy as they look.
While many people may think of marching bands when they think of tubas, Kono said they have been a regular part of orchestras since the early 1800s. Tubas are important components of brass quintets and chamber music and are present in genres as diverse as popular Mexican music known as banda, jazz, klezmer, and Middle Eastern folk music.
Kono has a variety of awards including being a finalist for the American prize for orchestral conducting at youth, college/university and professional division and a bronze medal of the Global Music Awards for his composition “Mamma at the Gate.”
But there is one achievement that he is even more pleased to report. Kono came to the United States as an exchange student at the age of 15 and last December, he became a U.S. citizen.
A down side to Kono’s busy schedule is he doesn’t have as much time as he would like to actually play the tuba. As a member of a tuba-euphonium quartet known as MetalWerx, he performs every few months.
“It really does take a lot to prepare to play an instrument professionally,” he said. “When I was playing regularly I would practice four to six hours a day. I just don’t have time now. I wish there were 48 hours in a day.”