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7 questions for Morihiko Nakahara

We asked the Music Director of the South Carolina Philharmonic what concert he’s most excited about this season, what you might not know about conducting, where he goes on his day off + more.

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Morihiko Nakahara faces the camera, sitting in an empty theatre with red seats

This season marks Morihiko Nakahara’s 16th as Music Director of the SC Phil.

Photo via the South Carolina Philharmonic

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You may not know Morihiko Nakahara personally, but you’ve likely seen him conducting the South Carolina Philharmonic, whether live or in photos.

You can catch him on stage with the Phil next Saturday, March 23 during Wolfgang & Wine — and in the meantime, keep reading to get to know him better:

When/how did music become a part of your life?

I didn’t grow up in a musical household, although I always remember there being some kind of music (mostly classical or Japanese popular music) in my grandparent’s house where I grew up in rural Japan via radio, records, and CDs. At some point before kindergarten, my mom must have taught me how to read music, because I was teaching myself how to play some simple stuff on an electronic keyboard at home. It wasn’t until when I was in sixth grade when I became much more interested in classical music, and wanted to start learning the clarinet.

Can you tell us a bit about your history with the SC Phil?

I first guest conducted the orchestra in October 2007 during the music director search, and then I officially started as music director in Fall 2008. Outside of a brief audition in Birmingham when I was in grad school and some engagements in Jacksonville (FL), I had spent most of my time in the US in either the Midwest or Pacific Northwest up to that point. Prior to my audition in 2007, the Free Times reporter asked each finalist a series of offbeat questions which included “Ketchup, mustard, or vinegar?” — I can laugh about this now, but I had no idea what he was trying to ask, so I honestly replied, “Is that some kind of a trick question?”

What’s one thing our readers probably don’t know about conducting?

I don’t mean to sound zen, but I’m starting to realize that the more experienced I have become as a conductor (more repertoire and more concerts of all types under my belt), the less I feel like I know about what we do as conductors. Conducting is very much a form of language, with some standardized gestures that are universally understood by ensemble musicians. Beyond those basics, there are so many layers and nuances to how conductors and musicians communicate with each other because every conductor is built differently and every ensemble is a collective of individual musicians with unique personalities. That’s why I actually still get rather nervous before a first rehearsal with a new orchestra as a guest conductor — it is like a blind date in a way.

What’s some of your favorite music to work with?

It’s impossible for me to pick...I used to think it was a copout when my colleagues would answer this question by saying, “Whatever I’m working at the moment,” but I’ve come to realize that is really the most honest answer. I consider myself fortunate to do what I love doing and call it my work. Having said that, I do appreciate challenges, so anything that pushes me musically (perhaps a complex score with many layers for a large orchestra like Mahler) or logistically (conducting complete film soundtracks for a live screening like the original Star Wars trilogy) always end up being memorable for me.

What concert are you especially excited about this season?

As I said above, I do have a sense of connection to everything we perform, but if I were to pick one piece out of the remaining concerts this season, I would choose Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in our April concert. It is such an epic sonic journey filled with drama, and I know the orchestra is going to kick some a$$.

Where are your favorite local places to celebrate and/or unwind after a performance?

We typically end up at Bourbon after performances which is one of those perfect places to both celebrate and unwind following an exhausting concert week.

What do you like to do around Columbia on your day off?

Checking out restaurants including both my all-time Columbia favorites (Inakaya, Motor Supply, Coa, etc.) and new(er) establishments (MOA, Kao, etc.), then trying to burn off all those calories by walking all over downtown, the Vista, campus areas, or locking myself in a hotel gym.

Want to see (and hear) Morihiko and the Phil in action? Check out upcoming performances.

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