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As a preschooler, Steve Sano carried not a security blanket or a teddy bear but a libretto of La Traviata.
"My father played it a lot at home and I loved the music," the assistant professor of music told a noontime audience at the biweekly "What Matters to Me and Why" talk in Memorial Church on April 23. "I'm told that I used to argue with my nursery school teacher that La Traviata was a better opera than La Bohème, as if I had a clue."
As director of Stanford's Chamber Chorale, Symphony Chorus and University Singers, Sano shares his fondness for music with new generations of musicians today. After earning his master's and doctoral degrees in choral conducting at Stanford, he now teaches conducting in the music department.
"As a conductor, there is this idea of recreating a work of art," he said. "For example, Bach's St. Matthew Passion is a monument in Western classical music that exists on a similar plane with the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David or Chartres Cathedral. But unlike those works, students can be involved in recreating Bach's work on a very intimate level."
A second-generation Japanese American, Sano grew up in Palo Alto and sang with a boy's choir in the Presbyterian church where his mother and father were active members. His parents also were involved with social issues of their day.
"I have vivid memories of standing on picket lines in small farming communities in Central California to support Cesar Chavez, and being in marches and rallies against the Vietnam War."
Sano began playing the piano at age 5 and ultimately majored in piano performance at San Jose State University. But after graduating, he didn't touch the piano for almost five years. Prior to enrolling in graduate school at Stanford in 1989, he had been executive director of the Peninsula Symphony, a position he describes as "purely administrative."
"It took me nine years to decide I missed music enough to go back to graduate school."
In teaching music, Sano said he has found a wonderful surprise.
"There is this joy of teaching one on one in the studio and in a seminar that is both amazing and also a frightening experience," he said. "Working with young minds here that are so bright can be very scary at times."
In recent years, Sano has become increasingly intrigued by what he calls "ethnic musics." North American taiko, which developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a time of awakening political awareness in the Asian American community, has linked with a number of other musical threads in his life.
"Taiko is an art form that has roots in Buddhist liturgy and Shinto folk celebrations," he said. "It also gives me a chance to work with students who have no interest in classical Western music."
For musical relaxation, Sano said he most often picks up his slack key guitar. His wife, Linda Uyechi, a lecturer in linguistics, is from Hawaii, where the distinct chord variations of the slack key style were born of the late 19th-century marriage of Spanish instruments and native vocal traditions. Carefully guarded by Hawaiian families, to the point of near extinction, slack key guitar experienced a rebirth in the Hawaiian renaissance of the early 1970s.
Sano had brought with him a new guitar he commissioned from craftsmen on the island of Maui, and he lifted it delicately from its case at the end of his talk. After playing one lilting ballad on the instrument, constructed of blond Adirondack spruce and inlaid with New Zealand abalone, Sano asked if there were any questions.
"Just one," said a woman in the audience. "What are you going to play next?"
By Diane Manuel