It’s tough to escape the stereotypes about virtuoso musicians. They’re haughty, they’re secretive. They move with an air of exclusion — even when engaging a concert hall audience.
But, somehow, without really trying, violinist extraordinaire Kensho Watanabe ’09 manages to dispel all of these myths.
“Music is not just about playing,” Watanabe says, “it’s about interaction. It’s about connecting with people, with your audience, so they feel what you’re feeling.”
Legend has it that at three-years-old, Watanabe heard an unfamiliar but alluring sound emanating from a neighbor’s window in his native Japan. Driven by the curiosity of a toddler, Watanabe found his way over to the neighbor’s house and plopped himself down on the floor to listen more closely. As fate would have it, the neighbor turned out to be a violin teacher. And the strange instrument: a violin.
Intrigued, Watanabe spent hours listening to the older kids coming over for lessons. And as time went on, the instructor started to take note of the precocious, well mannered child — and eventually started instructing him.
Today, Watanabe is a major presence within Yale’s music scene, a leader and veteran of numerous musical orchestras on campus. As concertmaster of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, conductor of the Berkeley Chamber Orchestra and former conductor of the JE Chamber Players, Watanabe has seen his share of leadership duties, but he has taken it all with a degree of humility.
“I never would have dreamed of conducting an orchestra before I came to Yale,” he says. “Conducting is more than just practicing in your room, and Yale really fosters that intimacy.”
Although he has developed a proficiency in the art of conducting, Watanabe is best known for his prodigious command of the violin and viola. He is an alumnus of New York’s School for Strings and the pre-college program at Juilliard and has won numerous awards for his musicianship. One needs only to look at a recent YSO concert during which Watanabe captivated the audience with his performance of Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77.
“At the Brahms concert, Kensho almost took over,” music professor Craig Wright said. “It seemed like the rest of the orchestra was following him. I’ve never heard that piece played so beautifully.”
In person, Watanabe constantly downplays his talent. He is eager to present himself as a normal student, and his musical aptitude is rarely brought up in conversation.
“I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t seen the violin hickey on his neck or heard him practicing,” close friend Trevor Kempner ’09 said.
Despite his musical prowess, Watanabe has decided to major in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. As a result of his medical aspirations, Watanabe’s future as a career musician is uncertain. He does plan on a master’s degree in music following graduation but hopes to follow it with medical school.
“It’s really hard to keep up the level of intensity with music when there’s science in the background,” he says.
His friends agree that although he is musically gifted, Watanabe’s personality is balanced. In fact, he procrastinates the same way as everyone else.
“Other than the fact that he consistently beats me in Guitar Hero, Kensho’s musical abilities are not a part of our interactions as friends,” roommate Troy Suttle ’09 said.
Watanabe’s commitment to modesty comes through in the warmth of his music, as he attempts to create a musical exchange with the audience in every performance.
“I really try to emphasize the relationship between performer and audience,” Watanabe says. “We’re trying to create something that hasn’t been done before.”