NEW LONDON – Since the age of four, when his mother handed him a violin, Toshiyuki Shimada has been longing to learn more about music. That love has led him to three different orchestras in Connecticut and New York — the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes in Corning, New York, the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, and New London’s Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra — where he holds concurrent seats as music director. He joined the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in 2010.
“My mother was a classical music fan,” Shimada told CT Examiner. “She was constantly listening to records at home. When I realized this whole world existed, I was already immersed in it.”
Born in Tokyo, Shimada said his father moved from the United States to Japan after World War II as a translator for the U.S. occupying forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
As Shimada grew up, he said he didn’t want to learn violin, instead deciding he wanted to be a singer.
“I joined the Tokyo Boys Chorus,” he said. “It’s a prestigious group in Japan. It started my singing career. It was very brief; until my voice changed.”
The chorus would sing with symphony orchestras and, he said, he became mesmerized with the role of conductor. It was then he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“I decided I wanted to be a conductor,” Shimada said. “I was 10. I went to the chorus director and said I wanted to be a conductor. I was serious enough that he gave me an opportunity to conduct a chorus. That was my first experience in leading a group. It was very thrilling. I moved my hands and they started singing.”
After reaching puberty and his voice changed, Shimada began learning the clarinet. Then at 15, his life completely changed when his father announced they were moving to the United States.
“My father was an American citizen,” he said. “He was born in Sacramento, California. At the time, I hated to move. I didn’t know a word of English. When we moved to Los Angeles, I was adopted into this strange land.”
Shimada said he began taking English as a second language courses, which were most aimed at Spanish-speaking students, so he ended up learning Spanish faster than he learned English.
“Music helped, maybe because music is the universal language,” he said. “I was in band, orchestra, and chorus. English was tough, but music and mathematics was easy. I started seriously considering music as a career.”
After finishing high school, Shimada majored in music at California State University, Northridge.
“They had a great symphony orchestra in those days and a great band,” he said.
But without an undergraduate conducting program, Shimada said he asked the band director to mentor him in conducting lessons.
In 1972, Shimada said, he took two years off college to study conducting in Vienna.
“I went there and I had valuable experiences,” he said, paying 50 cents to see the Vienna Philharmonic and 40 cents for the opera.
Shimada eventually returned to finish his undergraduate degree, got a job with the Young Musicians Foundation in Los Angeles, and spent three years with the foundation’s Debut Orchestra learning how to conduct.
“It was mainly for talented high school and college students,” he said. “That’s where I got real experience as a conductor.”
He said he also took master classes, studying under acclaimed conductors including Herbert Blomstedt and Leonard Bernstein.
“I started auditioning for assistant conductor for some bigger orchestras,” Shimada said. “I auditioned for the Houston Symphony and they picked me. I was there for six years.”
It was there that Shimada said he really got to know Bernstein, who would come and conduct the orchestra and operas in Houston.
“I asked Lenny if he could teach me and he said he had a teaching institute in Los Angeles and that’s when I went to study with him,” Shimada said.
After working with the Houston Symphony and training under Bernstein, Shimada said it was time to lead an orchestra of his own.
“I started applying for regional orchestras,” he said, and in 1986 he landed in Portland, Maine, as conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, a position he would hold for 20 years.
“The symphony was already great,” he said. “A lot of musicians came from Boston so the quality was good. It was a good life, but I felt I stayed too long.”
He also met his wife, pianist Eva Virsik. They married in 1987.
“I was guest conducting in France,” he said. “There was a guest pianist, and that was my wife. We performed together and toured together for two weeks in France. Magic happened. We decided we should get together. We got married in about six months.”
Shimada said that after leaving the Portland Symphony he still wanted to conduct, but also wanted to teach, and offered the choice of either conducting the Orlando Symphony Orchestra or teaching at Yale, he chose Yale.
“Three years later at Yale, I missed conducting a professional orchestra,” he said. “The Yale Symphony was a great orchestra, but I was wanting something professional.”
Within two years, he said, he accepted two conducting positions, the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes in 2009 and the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in 2010.
“It takes about five hours to get there,” he said of the orchestra in Corning.
If heading two symphony orchestras and teaching at Yale wasn’t enough, Shimada also became music director of the New Britain Symphony in 2019.
A year later, he said, he stepped down from his responsibilities at Yale and now directs the three orchestras and makes guest appearances with other orchestras.
“It’s very infectious,” he said. “I love conducting. It’s communicating my thoughts about a composition and translating that into the orchestra, creating the sounds and that sound goes to the audience. I represent the composers. The responsibility to do this; most composers are dead and in performing these pieces, it’s like resurrecting them. That great feeling I have when I’m performing, that keeps me going. It’s almost like a missionary ministry. If musicians do not try hard, it’ll disappear some day.”
Music education is very important, Shimada said, in keeping classical music alive and relevant.
“I enjoy conducting the Young People’s Concerts,” he said. “Those concerts are usually given to an assistant conductor, but I like doing them myself. The simple joy of playing an instrument or singing is a great human activity. If you really know how to play an instrument, your life magnifies understanding yourself. I want to promote those opportunities for young people.”
When it comes to planning out a season of music programming, each symphony is different, Shimada said.
“The financial conditions are different,” he said. “The performance level is different too. I think about each orchestra, community, budget. If I come up with a great program and they can’t afford it, then it doesn’t get realized.”
He said he’s very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.
“The orchestra is superb,” he said. “It has a great board of directors. I create attractive programs for them.”
When it comes to musical influences, he said his favorite composer is Mozart.
“Way at the top,” he said of Mozart. “Then comes Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler. After Mozart, my favorite period is the late Romantic period. I also like Stravinsky, Copland.”
The programming this year for the ECSO includes celebrating the 100th birthday of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” scheduled for Oct. 21.
Shimada said he likes to put themes into his programming, and for the Nov. 18 concert, the theme is peace, featuring Korean violinist Hyung Joon Won.
“He talks at the Geneva Peace Convention every year,” Shimada said. “He invited me to perform at the DMZ in Korea for a symphony concert. That was quite an experience. We were half a mile from the DMZ line. We performed at a former US Army camp.”
Jan. 27 will feature Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41, and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Jinyoung Yoon on violin.
Feb. 24 is devoted to Scotland featuring Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony No. 3.
March 30 is titled “Journey” and features Mahler’s “Song of a Wayfarer” and Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan.”
The season closes April 27 with music themed around the mythical bird, the phoenix, which will include a performance of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson’s Mass” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”
Shimada said in future seasons he wants to theme programming around immediate issues that reflect the time we live in.
“A theme I’d like to do is immigration,” he said. “We don’t make any statement but present something unique to the time that we live in.”
As for his future, Shimada said he’d love to take on more operas. “Right now I’m talking to a manager who’ll get me more opera gigs,” he said. “Opera takes a lot of time to prepare. I will not be able to have three orchestras. We’ll see what happens. I would love to conduct Madame Butterfly.”