In Tokyo’s Garden Of Chamber Music, Bouquets Abound

Tokyo's Suntory Hall presented a Chamber Music Garden in its smaller hall, called Blue Rose.
Tokyo’s Suntory Hall presented a Chamber Music Garden in its the Blue Rose, designed as an intimate salon.
Concert photos © Suntory Hall.
By Robert Markow

TOKYO — Suntory is a name recognized around the world for its award-winning whisky. It is also a name well known to the music world as Tokyo’s most prestigious concert hall, which opened in 1986 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Suntory’s whisky production. Less well known is that alongside the 2,000-seat main hall is a smaller performing space known initially as the Small Hall, and, since 2007, as the Blue Rose. Here, each June for the past five years, Suntory Hall has hosted a two-week Chamber Music Garden well stocked with perennial masterpieces of the repertory.

Ideas for Chamber Music Garden began more than a quarter of a century ago, shortly after the main hall opened. Some 4,000 concerts in nearly 200 halls take place annually in Greater Tokyo, a megalopolis of some 35 million people. Most of these concerts are given either by orchestras (Tokyo’s eight full-size, fully professional orchestras alone present 1,200 concerts a year) or recitalists. Chamber music runs a distant third.

Cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi is also Suntory Hall director.
Cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi is also Suntory Hall director.

Renowned cellist and teacher Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, who is also Suntory Hall’s current president, decided to do something about this. He and Kazumi Minoguchi, a member of the hall’s artistic department, formulated a chamber music festival that would have as its core each year the Beethoven quartet cycle and serve as a nurturing ground for some of Japan’s finest young musicians. The project also would stimulate the chamber music scene in a country with a voracious appetite for classical music but which has hitherto neglected chamber music as a serious pursuit. The success of this venture could be seen not only in 22 sold-out or nearly sold-out concerts this year, but also in the increase in the number of amateur ensembles that have recently sprouted up.

Why the name Blue Rose? Minoguchi explains that “blue roses don’t exist in nature. However, through a feat of genetic engineering in which Suntory was involved, a blue rose was grown, proving that the seemingly impossible was indeed possible. By extension, musicians make the impossible possible, too.”

The shoebox-shaped, wood-lined room is arranged with a slightly raised platform at the center along one of the longer walls with 380 seats in a semi-circle surrounding it. This preserves the shape and intimacy of a salon (as opposed to a concert hall), allowing every member of the audience close contact with the performers. This year, the Garden bloomed from June 6 to 21, during which I heard more than half the concerts.

Schumann Piano Quintet, performed by five of Japan's most illustrious.
The Schumann Piano Quintet was played by five of Japan’s most illustrious musicians.

The Garden opened with a program played by five of Japan’s most illustrious musicians. Tsutsumi joined violinist Kyoko Takezawa and pianist Momo Kodama in a dynamite performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, producing a sound so massive that just the three of them seemed like an entire orchestra. The energy level never let up, and the result was exhilarating. After intermission, Tsutsumi and two members of the original Tokyo String Quartet, violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Kazuhide Isomura, treated listeners to Schubert’s rarely heard String Trio in B-flat, D. 471, following which came Schumann’s glorious Piano Quintet. This was perhaps a tad overwrought for some tastes, but there was no denying the soaring beauty of the slow movement.

The following evening brought forth the first of five concerts devoted to the complete Beethoven quartet cycle. This year they were presented by the Austin (Tex.) based Miró Quartet,  the first quartet to offer the sixteen works in chronological order at the Garden. (Previous quartets have been the Pacifica, the Henschel, the Borromeo, and a quartet of Viennese musicians led by Vienna Philharmonic concertmaster Rainer Küchl.)

The Miró Quartet played a complete Beethoven quartet cycle.
The Miró Quartet performed a complete Beethoven quartet cycle in marathon concerts.

The Miró’s traversal of this Mount Everest of the quartet repertory began with a program of all six of Op. 18 – a marathon concert lasting nearly three hours with two intermissions. It was immediately apparent that the Miró embodies all the qualities one expects from an ensemble that has played together for years: a homogeneous tone quality, balanced sound, unanimity of musical thought, and perfection of ensemble. What gives this quartet its unique sound is the particularly rich, deep timbre that cellist Joshua Gindele draws from his instrument – not overly prominent, just wonderfully supportive.

This program also served to expose two hallmarks of the Miró’s style: an exceptional ability to probe the depths of emotion in the slow movements, and an annoying tendency to rush in the fast movements. As the cycle progressed, it was the former quality that left the most powerful impression, with some slow movements, particularly in all three of the Op. 59 quartets and in Op. 127, exuding transcendent beauty and taking the listener into worlds far from earthly concerns. My sole regret is that I heard the cycle only as far as Op. 127, leaving me to wonder what sublime musical experiences I had probably missed.

The Berlin-based Kuss Quartet played a concert and gave a master class.
The virtuosic Kuss Quartet is based in Berlin. (Keith Saunders)

The other guest ensemble was the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet. In contrast to the superbly homogeneous Miró Quartet, the Kuss consists of four virtuosos led by Jana Kuss, who could easily hold the post of concertmaster in a major orchestra. In addition to stunning performances of Mendelssohn‘s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, and Tchaikovsky (Souvenir de Florence, with two aspiring Japanese musicians assisting), the Kuss held a well-attended master class.

Additional concerts included a special performance for wheelchair users and students with special needs; six ENJOY! weekend concerts, two of which were designated “One Coin” concerts (so-called because the price of admission was a 500-yen coin – about $4 in U.S. currency) in which Santory Hall Chamber Music Academy Selected Fellows performed; and three Rainbow 21 concerts.

Framing the entire Garden were opening and closing concerts with star performers. Rainbow 21 was conceived in 1996, when these concerts were seen as a “bridge” to the 21st century. (They were incorporated into Chamber Music Garden in its inaugural year in 2011.) Each one-hour program has an intriguing theme. Students from Kunitachi College of Music presented “European Music That Adorned the Meiji Era.” During this time (the late 19th and early 20th centuries), western music was imported to Japan as a means of unifying the country. Popular selections, both vocal and instrumental, were fitted out (or “adorned,” if you like) with Japanese texts, which could be riotously inappropriate. As just one example, “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto became (in English translation) “Song of the Feast.”

These students also presented an abridged version of the first western opera ever given in Japan, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in 1904. Soloists and chorus turned in remarkably accomplished performances. Akiko Hosoi (Orfeo) displayed the kind of focused timbre, expressivity, and sensitive phrasing that put her in line for a major career, should she choose to go this route. On other evenings listeners were entertained with dramatic scenarios entitled “War and Music – From Darkness to Light” and “Letters from Alkan.”

Great fun! Cellist Mari Endo was superb in Paganini’s 'Moses Fantasy" with an orchestra of basses.
Great fun! Cellist Mari Endo in Paganini’s ‘Moses Fantasy’ with an orchestra of basses.

Equally fascinating programs made up the ENJOY! weekend concerts. At the first of these, four double bassists from Tokyo’s top orchestras gave an unusual twist on “string quartets” in their tasteful, fluent renditions of Bizet’s Carmen Fantasy (the “Smugglers’ March” was particularly effective), Bach’s Chaconne, and Paganini’s Moses Fantasy, the last with a superb cellist, Mari Endo, standing in for the solo violinist and the four basses serving as the “orchestra.” Great fun!

Another ENJOY! program was a vocal recital as memorable for its repertory as for the musicians who sang it. The mellifluous melodies and poignant harmony of Francesco Santoliquido’s Canti della sera could easily be mistaken for Puccini, while the sweet lyricism, sunny disposition, and yearning lines of Stefano Donaudy’s songs brought to mind the world of “O sole mio.” Soprano Hiroko Noda commanded attention from her first lines – a beauteous voice, even tone from bottom to top, and such expressivity that texts were almost superfluous. Tenor Makoto Sakurada exuded great charm, charisma, and expressive warmth in the Donaudy numbers.

In addition to performances by high-profile artists, the Garden serves as a developmental stage for young Japanese musicians on the cusp of a career to study with world-renowned figures. The results of this year’s Garden could be heard in performances that showcased numerous ensembles  ̶  some established but most ad hoc  ̶  each playing a movement or two from standard repertory works. Several of these, including the Quartet Arpa and the ARC Trio, sounded fully professional, and had obviously benefited from exceptional coaching.

Japan's Excelsior Quartet will perform a complete Beethoven cycle next year.
Japan’s Excelsior Quartet will perform a complete Beethoven cycle next year.

Next year the Garden will expand to three weeks (June 4-26), with the extra week devoted to Schubertiades given by Viennese musicians (the Japanese are enamored of Vienna) led by Rainer Küchl. The Beethoven cycle will be played by Japan’s own Excelsior Quartet, the only full-time, professional string quartet residing in the country. Additional guests will be the Shanghai Quartet, the Novus String Quartet from Korea, Cho-Liang Lin, and two members of the original Tokyo String Quartet, among others. Look for details in January on Suntory Hall’s web site.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.