Kayoko Dan was named Music Director of Chattanooga Symphony & Opera

After a two-year search, the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera has selected a new music director.

Kayoko Dan, 33, will succeed Robert Bernhardt as the eighth leader of the CSO. She is the first woman and the youngest person to earn the position of CSO music director.

“We think she’s a superstar in the making,” CSO Executive Director Molly Sasse said.

Dan is currently the director of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra in Lexington. The position in Chattanooga will be her first leading a full orchestra.

Bernhardt, who held the position for 19 years, will continue as pops conductor and will become the CSO’s first music director emeritus.

An 11-member committee, including four musicians, made the selection.

More than 250 applications for the CSO position from across the United States were sent to Henry Fogel, a Chicago-based orchestral consultant who narrowed the field to 45.

The four musicians on the search committee watched DVDs of all the semifinalists and took their selections to the group. Over two years, the top nine of 12 finalists each led the CSO as a guest conductor.

“There was a great chemistry we had together,” Dan said in a recent interview. “It felt good, being on the podium here and working with them.”

Katie Wilson, the CSO’s marketing director, said CSO musicians were involved heavily in the decision to offer the position to Dan.

“We had to know that they could work with the new director,” she said.

Spencer McCallie, who served as committee chairman, said each meeting would begin with the musicians sharing the reactions of their colleagues to each candidate.

“In the end, we had had nine very good visits,” McCallie said. “The difficulty in making the decision was that there were so many positive things to talk about. … But we realized everybody was leaning the same way. I’ve never seen a stronger consensus.”

Principal bassoonist Gordon James, who served on the selection committee, said all the guest conductors except Dan received at least one negative review from the orchestra.

“I think the thing that made her stand out in the end was her warmth and sincerity in combination with a very easy style of conducting,” he said. “We were looking for somebody who was going to have a sense of programming music, something people would want to support and attend. We feel like under our new director we are going to be able to maintain the highest [standard of] excellence. We’re very excited about that.”

Born in Japan, Dan moved to Houston with her family at age 8. She said music was how she found her place as a child.

“Singing in a choir or playing the piano was a way of communicating with people,” she said. “I felt like I was part of a community in the classroom. When I couldn’t speak [English], I felt like I was just an outsider, but with music I was able to belong.”

Sasse and Wilson said they hope Dan’s appointment will help to build a new generation of CSO patrons.

“Youth is a big part of why the search committee was attracted to her,” Sasse said. “I think the musicians felt like she was a consummate musician. I think they feel like she can move the orchestra ahead artistically.”

But Dan is not focused on her youth, except where it allows for potential progress.

“Time will take care of that,” she rationalized. “The good thing is, I’m still growing.”


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