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He Went from Medicine to Music: How Conductor Kensho Watanabe Reorchestrated His Career

Andrew Bogard
Kensho Watanabe

As he wrapped up his third and final year as assistant conductor at The Philadelphia Orchestra back in 2019, Kensho Watanabe talked with Susan Lewis about his unusual path to the podium.

Listen to Kensho Watanabe lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky concert broadcast on WRTI: Sunday, September 5th at 1 PM, and Monday, September 6th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2 and the Classical Stream.

Tchaikovsky’s first symphony, subtitled by the composer, Winter Daydreams, has a special place in Kensho Watanabe’s heart.

"It's the first symphony I conducted as a professional conductor," he says, referring to a concert in Montreal where he was suddenly required to cover for another conductor who had cancelled. 

"I  love the second movement ... I always imagined kind of huddling near a fireplace with family.  It's a wonderful, beautiful piece." 

Watanabe, who also plays violin, was originally headed for a career in medicine.  Studying biology and music at Yale, he got as far as filling out the application to medical school. 

"I was writing my personal statement about why I would like to be a doctor, also encapsulating my experiences in music and how that would inform my work as a doctor.  It really helped me distill my wishes and passion about music. And then I realized, I need to leave this be and really commit myself 100 percent to music, and conducting in particular." 

He went to the Curtis Institute of Music where he became a conducting fellow mentored by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  He was also a substitute violinist for The Philadelphia Orchestra, before becoming the Orchestra’s assistant conductor.

And just as music had complemented his intial drive to be a doctor, Kensho finds his work as a conductor informed by other life interests—science, even baseball.

"I love the strategy that goes between every pitch and every out.  There's always strategy behind everything that is being done on the field. And I think that also plays into this kind of problem solving aspect of music making, the role that a conductor plays.

Kensho Watanabe has a busy schedule guest conducting ahead, including visits to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.