So Much Music, So Little Time

Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Sunday Calendar

As classical music figures go, Heiichiro Ohyama defines “busy.” The former principal violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is now the conductor of three orchestras, artistic director of two chamber music organizations and a full-time teacher.

Showing up at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles for an interview last week, the deceptively calm, soft-spoken Ohyama was dressed in a businessman’s dark blue suit. Fittingly enough (and in the tradition of his native Japan), he placed his card on the table and, in a gesture of self-definition, turned it over to reveal a list of his current titles: professor of music at UC Santa Barbara; music director of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, the Asia America Symphony in Los Angeles and the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra in Ithaca, N.Y.; and artistic director of both Summerfest La Jolla and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

“You see,” Ohyama said with a grin, leaning over the table, “for green-card holders, it’s very crucial now to have enough jobs to secure our future. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

All except his Ithaca duties give Southern California audiences ample chances to sample his musicianship--this week, for instance, the Santa Barbara ensemble performs on Tuesday at the Lobero Theater, while the touring unit that represents the Santa Fe festival will perform at UCLA and at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Asia America Symphony wraps up its season in May, and July brings Summerfest in La Jolla.


To hear Ohyama recount the details of his life in music, chance played as much a role as intention.

“To join an orchestra was something that came as a surprise. And then to conduct--that happened by chance. Playing the viola was also by chance. If I had a choice,” he said without cracking a smile, “I would have played baseball.”

“I didn’t start in the direction of music by myself. It was basically my father’s wish. I did it out of dedication to him, to give my best.”

Ohyama was born in 1947 in Kyoto, where his parents ran a store. At the Toho Music High School, his main instrument was the violin, but Ohyama switch-hit with viola.

“In my generation of violinists, you had to take time to play viola, because otherwise there were no violists. We all had to take turns. It was done out of duty.”

Duty or not, Ohyama discovered a personal attachment to the often-maligned supporting instrument. “I liked the sound very much,” he said. “I felt more at home. Maybe violinists need to have a certain character, which is probably not my personal character. Everybody makes jokes about violists, but in some sense, compared to violin, I feel that it’s more like a quality of silver rather than gold.”

Ohyama went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music in London and then at Indiana University. He took a teaching position at UC Santa Cruz in 1973 but gave it up when he auditioned and won the job of principal violist for the L.A. Philharmonic under then-conductor Carlo-Maria Giulini. Ohyama made his debut conducting the Phil in 1986 and was appointed assistant conductor during Andre Previn’s tenure.

But by 1990 Ohyama decided it was time to change the balance of his professional life.


“I took the position with the L.A. Philharmonic, but something somewhere in me [told] me that that wasn’t meant to be my destiny,” he recalled. He headed toward more chamber music, conducting and independence, and he left the viola behind.

Ohyama had already been branching out. Even before he joined the Philharmonic, he participated as a player in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and he began running the summer chamber festival in La Jolla in 1985. Then in 1991, with the Phil behind him, he took on the role of artistic director at Santa Fe, planning the four-week summer festival--which is known for its wide-ranging programming and quality performances--and overseeing the ensemble that represents the festival on the road during the fall and spring.

“Anything to do with any musical note that comes out, I’m supposed to know about it,” he says. “I’m the one who is supposed to make sure that the musicians do their best.”

The festival’s touring ensemble, assembled by Ohyama from a stable of festival participants, this season includes violinists Ida Levin and Ayako Yoshido, violist Scott St. John, cellist Andres Diaz and pianist Jeffrey Swann. At UCLA and in Orange County, their program will reflect the festival’s eclecticism, with works by Franck, Schnittke, Mendelssohn and Brahms.


Ohyama’s second-longest musical association is with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, which he began leading in 1982. It represents his most sustained work as a conductor, and as of 1992, when he moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, it is also a hometown commitment. In his decade-plus at the helm, Ohyama is generally credited with giving the ensemble professional polish, and he tends to measure the group’s success by its alums, citing violinists Sheryl Staples, now with the Cleveland Symphony; Nina Bodnar, concertmaster with the St. Louis Symphony for several seasons; and Roger Wilkie, concertmaster with the Long Beach Symphony.

Ohyama added the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra in New York to his dance card as an opportunity to exercise his acquired skill in chamber orchestra conducting. “Ithica is about the size of Santa Barbara,” he commented, “and the chamber orchestra is actually more important there than the symphony.”

Another important title on Ohyama’s business card is the Asia America Symphony, which has a three- or four-concert season each year. Ohyama took over the orchestra when the founding director, Akira Kikukawa, died in 1991. It was another offer he couldn’t refuse--this time, a chance to promote Asian composers and performers in an orchestral context.

“As an organization, we would like to have this as a gathering place for the Asian community, as well as for American people,” he says. “There are very few cultural artistic groups with this kind of purpose, even though this is an international city.”


Ohyama says that a similarly lofty goal underpins all his various occupations. “Sometimes I wonder about doing so many things,” he confessed, but he also pointed out the need for variety in music today.

“If you go to a restaurant and the headwaiter comes to your table and says, ‘Try this,” at the right moment, you’ll say ‘Okay,’ ” he pointed out. “How can we make that kind of situation in classical music? First, we have to get people who are just listening to CDs into the hall, and then they have to be convinced that this is really something different and exciting. Just to play well is not good enough.”


SANTA BARBARA CHAMBER ORCHESTRA Tuesday, 8 p.m.: Lobero Theater, 33 Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara, $30-$35. (805) 963-0761.


SANTA FE CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL ENSEMBLE Friday, 8 p.m.; Orange County Performing Arts Center, Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, $24; (714) 740-7878. Saturday, 8 p.m.: Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, $9-$25; (310) 825-2101.