Q & A with Alum and Conductor Yuga Cohler
NPR’s From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley alum Yuga Cohler (Shows 104, 142 and From the Top at Carnegie Hall on PBS), is no longer playing his oboe full time. But it’s not due to a lack of interest in music! Yuga is the newly appointed Music Director and Conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles (2015-2018). This is a paid orchestra made up of music students from Colburn, USC, and UCLA. Recognized as one of the most promising conductors of his generation, Yuga was awarded a Career Assistance Award by the Solti Foundation U.S. in 2015. He served as New York City Director of the Asia/America New Music Institute, and from 2013–2015 was the Music Director of the Weill Cornell Medical College Orchestra, made up of Cornell medical students and medical professionals .
Yuga is a graduate of the Juilliard School’s Master of Music program in orchestral conducting. A recipient of the Bruno Walter Memorial Scholarship, he studied with New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert and worked extensively with the Juilliard Orchestra, with whom he made his professional debut in 2013. Since then, he has worked in various capacities with the Dallas, Baltimore, Fort Worth, New Jersey, New World, and New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestras.
From the Top caught up with Yuga recently and enjoyed hearing him share his story.
Can you share some reflections about your time on From the Top?
I have nothing but positive memories of my time with From the Top. Being on From the Top was one of my most impactful performances. I remember it vividly.
I remember the exact flow, the joke I cracked right before, the people I played with, I remember everything about it. It was a big thing for me to perform on a radio broadcast and it was very visceral. The adrenaline I had going made me receptive to everything!
As an adult I can now reflect on how ahead of its time From the Top was in terms of its interaction with technology and the earliest stages of social media. Certainly at the time, to create a radio show about classical music by kids was an “out there” idea which didn’t fall into the neat box of subscription classical concerts. Now that I’m a conductor I can say that From the Top influenced the way I think about concert programming and the direction in which classical music should be heading.
Now that I’m a conductor I can say that From the Top influenced the way I think about concert programming and the direction in which classical music should be heading.
Describe how you transitioned from playing the oboe to conducting.
I became a conductor because many of my friends were string or piano players. Sometimes they would get together and sight read chamber music for fun. As an oboe player, I couldn’t play with them, so I’d be left out involuntarily. A kind of insecurity developed and spurred me on to do something even better musically, and for me conducting was it. It became a natural pursuit. Both of my parents are musicians. At about the same time, my dad, Jonathan Cohler, who taught clarinet but also did a lot of conducting, gave me my first conducting lesson, and it continued with my high school band director, Jeffrey Leonard.
As an advocate for the integration of art and music into American culture, you have many ideas about modernizing the classical concert going experience through the use of technology and other media. Can you share some of those ideas with us?
One important thing I’ve worked on is the organization Groupmuse, which puts on a series of chamber music house party-concerts, and is now located in several large cities. I’ve been involved in organizing this group in New York, and I’ve also conducted for them. I think listening to music as a social experience should not be distinct from the concert going experience – they should be integrated. That is a vital aspect of Groupmuse. They have recently instituted “massive muses” that occur in warehouses or communal gathering spaces. For one of those I conducted the Tchaikovsky String Serenade in New York City.
I also think it’s critical that genre-based musical distinctions should and will go away. It’s my feeling that orchestras and other classical music institutions have insulated themselves from today’s culture. Even pops concerts often deal with music from the 50’s or 60’s. I want to see the music world focus on what’s culturally relevant right now. It’s my hope that orchestras will start really actively engaging with the music that is in people’s ears right now, and then think – how can classical music enrich that experience?
As an undergraduate, you graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University, where you studied both music AND computer science. How are you integrating the two?
I currently work at Google as a software engineer in New York. I’ll be commuting to LA for my conducting work and continuing with other conducting activities as well. I am trying to remain true to both fields, and I’m hoping to mold myself and my pursuits so that I remain someone who is a technologically minded artist. I think that now, more than ever, it’s essential that artists leverage the technology that has become so central to our cultural climate.
Yuga, From the Top congratulates you on your position as conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, and we commend you on your technological pursuits as well. In this digital age, you are on your way to becoming a true Renaissance man!