Meet the Music Makers: Shunske Sato

February 3, 2020
Shunske Sato

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In conversation with Shunske Sato, concertmaster of Concerto Köln:

UChicago Presents: How did you first become interested in period performance?

Shunske Sato: It was a gradual process. Part of it was the result of feelings that came from my initial training, which was pretty traditional. As a teenager, whenever I’d play the “classics” – like Mozart, Schubert, Bach – I would feel these emotions and characters suggested by the music, whether it was dramatic, or lively, or passionate, or mellow. Across the board, though, the feedback that I would get when I played emotively is that it’s “too much,” because that emotion is “not Mozart,” or “not Bach.” So it always seemed that I was made to prune whatever emotions I felt in the music.

The other side of it was that while I was still growing up in Philadelphia, I was fascinated with pre-War historical recordings – anything before the 1930s and 40s, and the older, the better. The performances on these recordings were so different from how we’re used to hearing them today. They also took a lot of liberties with the music itself, whether it was the tempo or the actual printed notes. It was fascinating to me that there was so much personality behind each one of these recordings.

So when I moved to Europe and was thrown into the world of historically informed performance, it validated this idea that performers had the freedom to mess around with these pieces, so to speak, and really give their own identity. It was a freeing force in my playing once I realized that that was “allowed,” so to speak, to play as I had wanted to when I was younger.

UCP: How does a conductorless, self-governing orchestra work? What’s the experience of playing such a group?

SS: It's very satisfying! It’s basically glorified chamber music on a slightly larger scale. First of all, it's very historical model; the conductor-figure as we typically imagine it ­– that is, standing without an instrument, with only a stick or even his just hands – is a phenomenon that only came into being in the 19th century. As for the actual experience itself, it requires a very particular group of people who know each other very well, who speak the same musical dialect or language. When it works, it's really beautiful. You have this balance of individual players, each of whom have an individual identity – they haven't shed their identity for the sole sake of being “together.” So it’s dynamic, colorful, individual – but also coherent. It can be tough; everybody really needs to be ready to put themselves in the driver’s seat, and there are simply no passengers aboard – everybody’s driving this thing in the same direction.

The role of concertmaster – or concertmasters, in Concerto Köln’s case, as we have four – is to present a vision for the team. We come with a plan not just for the piece, but for how the rehearsal process will go, as well as giving cues, giving feedback, and so on. It’s a funny blend of being a conductor, and a conductor who also plays in the group. You are responsible for managing the greater life of the musical output, but also expect individual input from everyone there – everybody meets you halfway.