Tokyo’s Big Eight Orchestras Flash Bigtime Qualities

Within a week the Tokyo Philharmonic performed three different operatic ventures including Rimsky-Korsakov’s 'Katschei the Immortal' led by Mikhail Pletnev. (Takafumi Ueno)
Japan’s oldest continuously existing orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic, performed ‘Katschei the Immortal.’
Rimsky-Korsakov’s work led by Mikhail Pletnev was the orchestra’s third operatic venture of the week. (T. Ueno)
By Robert Markow

TOKYO – There are 1,600 professional and amateur orchestras in Japan, which occupies a land area smaller than the state of California yet contains a population equal to about 40 percent of the United States. Put another way, Japan averages one orchestra for about every 90 square miles! The United States would need about 38,000 orchestras to match that demographic. Greater Tokyo alone, with its population of over 35 million, hosts nearly half of Japan’s orchestras.

Japan orchestras feature image
A dizzying array of symphony orchestras dots the Tokyo scene.

The city supports no fewer than eight full-size, full-time, fully professional orchestras, collectively providing more than 1,200 concerts a year. And there are many diverse “specialty” orchestras — youth orchestras, bank orchestras, railway orchestras, civic orchestras — with names like Amadeus, Kinki (a location), Tomato, and Cordon Bleu. It’s all part of an engaging and impressive, if largely conservative, music scene.

The top three of the Big Eight, based on salary and budget, are the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Rounding out the principal eight are the Tokyo City Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, and Tokyo Symphony.

The names may be maddeningly alike, but each ensemble is a distinct entity. All are capable of superlative work, yet ranking them is an elusive, futile pursuit because the quality of performance, to an extent I have observed nowhere else, depends so heavily on who is conducting. My latest sojourn in early October encompassed six of the eight orchestras within a ten-day period.

The NHK (Nihon Hōsō Kyōkai — Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Symphony Orchestra leads the pack in international prestige and reputation. Concerts heard in previous years left me wondering if that reputation might be unwarranted, but the performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony on Oct. 3 roundly reversed that notion.

Click here for the NHK-Järvi inaugural video.
Paavo Järvi settles in as chief conductor of the NHK. Click here for the inaugural video.

Paavo Järvi, in his first subscription concerts as the orchestra’s music director, made all the difference. This time around, the NHK Orchestra sounded like a million dollars. Strings projected a colossal sound, right from the first unison fortissimo attack, which had the impact of a knife thrust to the gut. Brass were beautifully blended and balanced. Rhythmic precision, technical confidence, and exquisite solos from the solo trumpet, trombone, and flute in particular added luster to a performance made in heaven. Järvi paced the symphony with care, resulting in climactic moments that were by turns terrifying and euphoric.

The opposite experience occurred with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony the previous evening. Just four months earlier, I had heard Yuri Temirkanov lead this band in what is possibly the best performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony I have heard in half a century of concert-going. Yet under Tatsuya Shimono, Mahler’s First sounded almost lethargic. The opening was more cautious than mysterious. The intonation of the woodwinds was often questionable, and the horns, which had missed not a single note in Mahler’s Third four months ago, made numerous flubs in the First. Shimono failed to generate momentum toward any of the symphony’s big climaxes.

Like its counterpart in Vienna, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) consists of a pool of about 150 players contributing to nearly 300 performances a year, both on the concert stage and in the opera pit. It is Japan’s oldest continuously existing orchestra, having recently passed its centennial year. Within the space of a week, I heard the orchestra participate in three different operatic ventures and sound different on each occasion in response to whoever was on the podium.

Pletnev conducted 'Katschei the Immortal' with the Tokyo Philharmonic. (Takafumi Ueno)
‘Katschei’ received its Japanese premiere by Pletnev and the Tokyo Phil. (Takafumi Ueno)

Taijiro Iimori adequately conducted the Philharmonic for Götz Friedrich’s third production of Das Rheingold (created in 1996) at Tokyo Opera Palace and there was some noble playing from the low brass. Matters were much improved for the Japanese staged premiere of Strauss’ rarity Die Liebe der Danae, another opera about the opposition of gold and love, at the Bunka Kaikan. Shimmering delicacy, sensitivity, and meticulous attention to the score’s myriad colors were the hallmarks of the leadership of  Jun Märkl, who also brought forth from the orchestra a golden glow of sound so appropriate to the opera’s story line (Midas and his gold).

Filmmaker and screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku expertly directed Die Liebe, his first opera production. Ayako Maeda’s costumes were a show in themselves; the robes for the four queens looked like they had been borrowed from Klimt paintings. Best of the three was the concert performance Mikhail Pletnev conducted of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 70-minute Katschei the Immortal  (another rarity and another Japanese premiere, at least by a professional orchestra). The Philharmonic gave its all for this kaleidoscopic score, playing with characteristically warm, generous, full sound. There were enthralling moments, particularly in the interludes when the full power of the orchestra was unleashed.

MUZA Kawasaki, home of the Tokyo Symphony (© N. Ikegami)
MUZA Kawasaki, home of the Tokyo Symphony (© N. Ikegami)

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra might well be dubbed Japan’s “premiere” orchestra, as it has given more than 200 first performances, including world premieres by Japanese composers and Japanese premieres of five operas by Janáček, six symphonies by Shostakovich, two major scores of John Adams, and many other works. The orchestra has performed in 53 cities outside Japan, including in North America in 1976, and will return to Europe next October as part of its 70th-anniversary season. Despite its name, the Tokyo Symphony is the resident orchestra of the City of Kawasaki, a civic entity unto itself yet part of Greater Tokyo. Its hall, MUZA Kawasaki, is one of Japan’s most beautiful, with acoustics to match.

The all-Beethoven concert I heard the Tokyo Symphony play, led by principal guest conductor Krzysztof Urbański, left an indelible impression. The Third Piano Concerto had not only sublime playing by pianist Yu Kosuge, but also revealed a woodwind section that is without question second to none in Japan. Intonation was immaculate, balance and ensemble absolutely flawless.

Urbański is principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony. (© Andersen-Adresseavisen)
Urbański is Tokyo Symphony’s principal guest conductor. (© Andersen-Adresseavisen)

The Eroica Symphony also was astounding. This was no mere “reading,” but rather a carefully conceived interpretation, prepared to perfection. Dynamic contrasts were sharp and clean, the rhythmic pulse always firm yet flexible, the technique of every last musician superbly honed. Legendary Japanese discipline was much in evidence, every player a samurai. One could not help thinking this just might be Japan’s best orchestra at the moment.

Hannu Lintu, at work with the New Jaoan Philharmonic. (Facebook)
Hannu Lintu and the New Japan Philharmonic, outstanding in Sibelius. (Facebook)

Another outstanding concert came from the New Japan Philharmonic (a breakaway organization from the Japan Philharmonic) — Sibelius symphonies 3, 4, and 2, in that order conducted by Hannu Lintu. Two years ago, I heard this orchestra play dismally for Frans Brüggen. Lintu wiped that slate clean in sterling performances I will not soon forget. This is now an orchestra in peak form, playing with unanimity of sound in each section, a dynamic range from breathless whispers to roaring torrents, and always beautifully sculpted phrases.

There was power aplenty, but the effect was never raucous or blaring. Violins have an iridescent sheen (they may be the best violins in all Japan), brass produce an organ-like sonority, trumpets gleam like the sun on tropical sand. Even Sibelius’ least-loved symphony, the Third, came alive under Lintu’s direction, building inexorably to a grandiose conclusion.

Ken Takaseki, a Karajan protégé. (Masahide Sato)
Takaseki, a Karajan protégé. (M. Sato)

What the Tokyo City Philharmonic lacks in technical perfection and prestige it more than made up for in spirit and commitment during my first encounter with this orchestra. They played their hearts out for Ken Takaseki, a Karajan protégé, who led a Shostakovich Tenth as thrilling as any I’ve ever heard. Horns played fearlessly in a take-no-prisoners approach. Strings impressed with great walls of sound, tearing into the second movement with a ferocity that had me on the edge of my seat. The principal bassoon was superb.

Though I missed the Tokyo Metropolitan and Japan Philharmonic (the latter, despite its name, is not a “national” orchestra) this time around, they are every bit in the same league as the other six, a judgment based on multiple performances heard in the past. Both feature string sections generously stocked with virtuoso technicians.

Beyond Tokyo, orchestral excellence can be heard particularly in the Kyoto Symphony, the Hyogo Performing Arts Center Orchestra (located in Nishinomiya, near Osaka), and the Nagoya Philharmonic. The concert I heard by the Nagoya recently was memorable for the way this excellent orchestra wrested control from its lackluster guest conductor, Christian Arming, and set its own course to deliver a Brahms Fourth that pulsed with energy, emotional intensity, and pride. The basses and horns especially distinguished themselves.

Random observations: Halls, even the largest, are generally 85-95% full; concert dress is casual except for businessmen coming directly from the office (most evening concerts begin at 7 p.m.); the age range of audiences is evenly distributed (many young people in attendance); ticket prices for domestic events are reasonable (roughly U.S.$30-120 but often less); audiences are famously quiet — even a single isolated cough is a rare event; standard repertory is truly the standard — little new music, even Japanese, is programmed; program books are handsomely produced, usually with substantial program notes; standing ovations are virtually unknown, but the Japanese applaud long and loudly. Their orchestras deserve it.

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.




  1. Wonderful reporting! Very interesting! But editor – it was critical to mention just how many orchestras the United States actually has. I assume it is well below 38,000 – but how far below is it? I assume you’re talking about every possible type of orchestra – amateur, school, etc as well as semi-professional and pro. But are you? What is the US comparison?

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