Mercer University opened the first professional door for Keitaro Harada’s music career more than 15 years ago. Now an internationally renowned conductor, he will return to the city that nurtured his talent on Feb. 12 as guest conductor for the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra.
Harada, a Tokyo native, uncovered a love for musicals in elementary school after watching “West Side Story” and initially thought about pursuing a career in musical theater. His interest morphed into playing in a pit orchestra as he learned the saxophone and other woodwind instruments, and then to conducting after he heard Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera “La Bohème” as a junior in high school.
He started taking conducting lessons, and his teacher allowed him to direct a short piece for a wind ensemble during a concert.
“That was totally awesome,” Harada said. “The moment that I did that in front of people, I had goosebumps, and I knew I was brought to this world to do exactly this. That was definitely my turning point.”
Harada graduated high school at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and began his collegiate studies at University of Illinois, while simultaneously studying conducting in Russia. He met Mercer Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Adrian Gnam — who teaches orchestral conducting, oboe and bassoon, and formerly conducted the Macon Symphony Orchestra — during a conducting workshop. This began a mentorship and led Harada to transfer to Mercer his sophomore year.
While a student, Harada founded and served as conductor for the Mercer/Macon Symphony Youth Orchestra, which allowed him to hone his skills as he led an ensemble every week under Gnam’s guidance.
“(Gnam) opened the very first door professionally for me,” Harada said. “Had he not done that, I would be so many years behind from where I am now. I owe him a lot for what I have achieved.”
Harada completed his Bachelor of Music in Performance in 2007 and continued his graduate studies at Mercer in the newly created Master of Music in Conducting program. He was among the program’s first graduates in 2008.
“I feel that any person who pursues a career in music has two choices. One is to go to a music school or conservatory. The other option is for you to go to a liberal arts school where you get a well-rounded education,” Harada said. “For me, Mercer was a good place to be because not only did it provide the music education, it provided really strong academics. It was just a good balance.”
Harada said his professors helped him become an adult and gain a broader perspective of the world, and he still keeps in touch with many of them.
For his work today, he travels between Asia and the United States two to three times each month, with his wife, Yuri, accompanying him whenever possible. He is the music and artistic director for the Savannah Philharmonic, where he serves as a “liaison for everything arts in the town;” associate conductor for the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra; and principal guest conductor and artistic partner for Aichi Chamber Orchestra in Japan.
Last year, Harada was awarded the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award.
“It’s awarded to the most promising young conductor, so to receive that is quite an honor, and the recognition that comes with it is huge,” he said.
Recent symphony orchestra engagements have taken Harada to Mexico and across the United States — including to Seattle; Houston; Fort Worth, Texas; Hawaii; Indianapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; Louisiana; Charlotte, North Carolina; West Virginia; Virginia; Tucson, Arizona; and Phoenix. In Japan, he has performed with NHK Symphony, Osaka Philharmonic, Kanagawa Philharmonic, Nagoya Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic and Tokyo Philharmonic. Harada has recorded three albums with NHK, two with Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and one with Japan Philharmonic Orchestra.
He previously served as associate conductor of Cincinnati Symphony and Pops and Arizona Opera and has led operatic performances at North Carolina Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Sofia National Opera in Bulgaria, and Nikikai Opera and Nissay Theatre in Tokyo.
“Music to me is a universal language,” he said. “Whether I’m conducting in the U.S., Europe or Asia, the common language is music. When you have music, you can communicate and understand each other’s feelings and personalities. That’s the beautiful part, because you may not know each other at all, but you get to spend three or four days rehearsing together. You understand each other, and it’s all through music.”
In 2015, Harada was awarded Mercer’s Thomas Sewell Plunkett Young Alumnus Award and guest conducted a concert with the Macon Symphony Orchestra. He returned to Macon more recently to listen to students in Mercer’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings. He said his Feb. 12 concert with the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra — which was established in 2021 and features principal musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and McDuffie Center students — will be like a “homecoming concert” for him.
“The McDuffie Center for Strings started my first or second year at Mercer,” Harada said. “I literally saw day one of this academy. To see how much it has grown, it’s crazy. Robert McDuffie and Amy Schwartz Moretti have done a phenomenal job creating an environment where students can thrive. It’s humbling to go back to my alma mater and be able to collaborate with top-notch students from across the country.”