When we were looking for From the Top alumni to feature during our 10th-anniversary season, 25-year-old Keitaro Harada rose quickly to the top of the list. Though we first met him as a saxophone player, Kei, as he likes to be called, has since pursued the difficult field of conducting. Already a fellow at the University of Arizona, where he regularly conducts the Tucson Symphony and Arizona Opera, Kei is spending the summer at the Tanglewood Music Center. On Aug. 4, he fills in for Maestro James Levine to conduct young professionals in the Tanglewood opera program in their final performance of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.
Kei's success is no surprise to those of us who met him nearly seven years ago during a taping of From the Top at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where we learned that his top-notch saxophone playing was almost entirely self-taught. He had recently left his home in Japan to study in the U.S., and he performed with me in a traditional kimono. He had us all rolling with his witty one-liners about the cafeteria at the arts boarding school. Kei thrived at Interlochen, and during the summer of his junior year, he took his first conducting class — and won a competition to lead the school orchestra.
"It was a life-changing moment," he says. "I can't describe the sensation I felt." He says he knew then and there what he wanted to do with his life.
Kei quickly learned that there was no easy path to becoming a conductor. He was unable to study conducting as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, but he was undeterred. He continued with his saxophone studies and found every opportunity to conduct, even traveling to Russia to attend master classes during his winter and summer school breaks. In St. Petersburg, he met Adrian Gnam, the music director of the Macon Symphony Orchestra in Georgia, who invited Kei down to Macon to study with him.
Once he got to Macon, Kei says he realized he needed an orchestra to practice on. So, remarkably, he started one. He built the Mercer/Macon Symphony Youth Orchestra from the ground up.
When he got an opportunity to study at the University of Arizona, Kei made the tough decision to leave Georgia. As my colleague Keith Lockhart says, being a conductor takes a lot of self-starting, imagination and seizing opportunities. Kei brings an entrepreneurial spirit and passion for music to his career, and I know we will continue to see great things from him in the future.