Orchestra Conductor, The Great Music Series & State of Art
By Dayna Wilkinson
“I’m already in the hot seat as a twenty-eight year old conductor, but I feel incredible joy at the insanely high level of playing and extreme responsiveness of a professional orchestra.”
“Both my parents are professional musicians,” says Yuga Cohler AB '11. “My mother’s a violinist and my father’s a clarinetist so I took up those instruments—it didn’t go well.” Fortunately, those were minor bumps in the road for Yuga, who started studying piano and music theory at age three. By age twelve, his primary instruments were oboe and piano.
“Shortly after starting on the oboe, I went to a music camp called Greenwood,” he says. “That’s when I first discovered people my age who took music seriously. It became a social thing—people I liked were also playing music, which made me like doing it more. By the time I was in my teens, I realized music was really great.”
Yuga was interested in many different musical genres. “I really got into Eminem, then the underground hip hop scene. Also J-pop, Top 40 and musical theater for a while. Plus I listened to tons of classical records from my dad’s collection.”
He first tried conducting at fifteen, and was hooked. “As an oboist, violinist or pianist, you’re one element among many and that was cool, but I was interested in how everything fit together.”
Yuga grew up twenty minutes from Harvard’s campus and was “pretty familiar with the scene” before deciding to go there. “My best memories of Harvard are of experiences like playing beer pong with blockmates. They’re still my closest friends. Signet Society inductions and the people I met there stand out too, along with various concerts I conducted, like The Rake’s Progress with the Dunster House Opera.”
Also memorable was Yuga’s last Harvard concert, where he conducted the Copland Clarinet Concerto featuring his father, Jonathan Cohler AB '80. “That was the only time I conducted with my dad performing,” Yuga says. “It was fun, he was great to work with. My parents were my first music teachers, so many of the things they instilled in me remain to this day, like how to analyze a score and a general sense of musicianship.”
Yuga’s concentration was in computer science with a secondary field in music. It’s fair to say he made the most of his time at Harvard, serving as president of the Signet Society and Music Director and Conductor of the Bach Society Orchestra, the Dunster House Opera Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players. He received the David McCord Prize for Artistic Excellence, the Detur Book Prize, and the John Harvard Scholarship, graduating summa cum laude.
Yuga spent two years after Harvard at Juilliard, his mother’s alma mater. (Before attending Juilliard, Fudeko Takahashi Cohler was the first Japanese citizen to win a top international competition without previously studying abroad.)
Yuga’s Juilliard program was intense. “I was one of only three students studying with Alan Gilbert, who was then the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. You were thrown in the deep end, but it was great training.” At twenty-five, Yuga became Juilliard’s youngest conducting graduate.
Yuga then joined Google, where he still works as a software engineer. “I work remotely if I need to be out of town for a concert. For example, as the Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Chamber Orchestra, I travel to L.A. once a month.”
In Los Angeles, Yuga and arranger Stephen Feigenbaum developed “Yeethoven”—a concert integrating six works by Beethoven and six from Kanye West’s album Yeezus. The popular concert drew wide media attention. “I’d like musicians and others involved in culture to think about the similarities between seemingly disparate artists,” Yuga says. “Maybe new art can come of that.”
To date, Yuga has also conducted such orchestras as the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Dallas, Baltimore, Fort Worth, and New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestras, and the New World and Danish National Symphonies.
“I’m already in the hot seat as the twenty-eight year old conductor,” Yuga says. “That can be intimidating, but I feel incredible joy at the insanely high level of playing and extreme responsiveness of a professional orchestra.”
Yuga’s enthusiasm for diverse musical forms has opened doors. “A Juilliard classmate told me that Daimei no Nai Ongakukai (Japan’s biggest classical music TV show) was producing an episode with Detroit techno deejay Jeff Mills and an orchestra,” Yuga explains. “They wanted an American conductor, and obviously it was helpful that I could speak Japanese and was familiar with the idiom of electronic music.”
Shortly after Daimei no Nai Ongakukai, Yuga worked with Yoshiki, the Japanese rock icon. “I immediately sensed ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to work with a genius,’” Yuga says. “Yoshiki is singular, but an American analog might be Bruce Springsteen in terms of longevity and artistic legitimacy.”
One difference is that Yoshiki moves between rock and classical music. In 2016, Yuga conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in Yoshiki’s classical concerts in Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong and New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“It was amazing, seeing your impact in front of ten thousand people at once,” Yuga says. “Not that bigger audiences are always better, but it’s definitely an experience. And for a half-Japanese guy like me, conducting Japan’s best orchestra with Japan’s number one rock star at the best concert hall in America was really awesome.”
As an artist, technologist and entrepreneur, Yuga has yet to decide how he might integrate his many interests. In the short-run, he’ll head to Italy as one of four finalists in the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition. “I’m very excited and grateful, because a lot of circumstances beyond my control had to exist for this to happen,” he says. “I’m glad this is happening now instead of when I was twenty-three because I feel I have much more perspective.”
What else can he say about his performance schedule? “Stay tuned for a big announcement in September.”
Yuga’s Instagram account is @yugaconducts. State of Art, Yuga’s blog about “musical culture in America without preconceptions of quality or genre,” is at yugacohler.com.