Venerable Suntory Marks 30 Years As Tokyo’s Heartbeat

The Vienna Philharmonic, a frequent visitor to Japan, gave a series of concerts to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tokyo's Suntory Hall. (Photos courtesy Suntory Hall)
The Vienna Philharmonic, a frequent visitor to Japan, gave a series of concerts to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. (Photos courtesy Suntory Hall)

By Robert Markow

TOKYO — This has been a banner year for classical music in Japan. The year 2016 marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the 70th of the Tokyo Symphony, the 60th of the Japan Philharmonic and Kyoto Symphony, and the 50th of the Nagoya Philharmonic. It is also the 30th anniversary of the opening of Japan’s leading concert venue, Suntory Hall, located in the heart of Tokyo’s Akasaka district.

Takenobu Igarashi designed Suntory Hall's logo.
Takenobu Igarashi designed Suntory Hall’s logo.

Suntory is more than a hall: it serves as the heartbeat of Tokyo’s music scene, much as Carnegie Hall did in New York for most of the 20th century prior to the opening of Lincoln Center. The model was provided by Berlin’s Philharmonie, whose outstanding acoustics and architectural design were overseen by Herbert von Karajan. Karajan’s role in the construction of Suntory Hall two decades later is remembered in the naming of the plaza facing the hall in his honor. The sound is full and warm, and, without calling attention to itself, fills the hall. Visually, it combines grandeur with restfulness, intimacy with spaciousness. All these qualities were in evidence during performances by the Vienna Philharmonic that took place there in early October.

Since it opened on October 12, 1986, Suntory Hall — actually two halls: the Main Hall with 2,000 seats and the Small Hall, later named the Blue Rose, with about 400 — has presented over 16,500 concerts and is visited by more than half a million concertgoers annually. To date, over 17.5 million have attended concerts there. Nearly every performance is sold out, or nearly so. Seven of Tokyo’s nine full-time, full-sized professional orchestras offer subscription series there. In a poll for Ongaku no Tomo, Japan’s leading classical music journal, Suntory Hall is the Readers’ Choice by a huge margin for Favorite Concert Hall. This year alone, 22 major orchestras from around the world are playing in this hall. Its organ, built by Rieger Orgelbau of Austria, is one of the world’s largest, with 74 stops and nearly 6,000 pipes. Suntory was the first hall in Japan built exclusively for live concert performances, and its organ was the first of its kind in Japan.

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter performed with the New Japan Philharmonic under Cristian Mǎcelaru.
Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter performed with New Japan Philharmonic.

The largest number of annual performances in the hall’s history have been given this year. These include an expanded version of its annual Chamber Music Garden held each June (see CVNA, June 24, 2015); a summer festival of contemporary music with “Theme Composer” Kaija Saariaho; a 30th-anniversary commission for a major work for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists from Mark-Anthony Turnage; a series of concerts by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Mitsuko Uchida performing Mozart concertos that she played during the hall’s first season; two black-tie Gala Concerts jointly conducted by Seiji Ozawa and Zubin Mehta; a Vienna Philharmonic Week in October; and a Salzburg Easter Festival in Japan in November with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

All this might have taken place for the hall’s 25th anniversary in 2011, but that was the year that the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami, and threat of nuclear radiation darkened spirits all over Japan. So, for its 30th anniversary, the hall is going all-out. The main focus of the festivities I attended was a series of concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic, the foreign orchestra that, more than any other by far, has made Suntory Hall its second home. The Philharmonic first came to Japan sixty years ago. Since then, it has visited no fewer than 33 times, including nearly every year since 1991.

Herbert von Karajan with Suntory Hall initiator Keizo Saji.
Herbert von Karajan with Suntory Hall initiator Keizo Saji.

When disaster struck Japan in 2011 (the country’s “3/11”), the Vienna Philharmonic pledged a donation of one million Euros to be channeled through Suntory Hall “in hopes of conveying our condolences to our dearest friends in Japan who have been victimized by the earthquake damage.” The Suntory Group established a matching fund in support of the effort. In addition, members of the Philharmonic continue to visit areas devastated by the tsunami, giving concerts, coaching children, and letting students perform “side by side” with the Philharmonic.

Thus, it was only natural that this was the orchestra invited to perform on the hall’s exact birthday, October 12, playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the same work that had opened the hall thirty years earlier. (On that occasion,  Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted the NHK Symphony Orchestra.) While it was not a particularly inspired performance (the chorus, singing from memory, seemed much more alert than the orchestra), it marked the Vienna Philharmonic’s 100th performance in this hall.

Zubin Mehta conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a Suntory Hall 30th-anniversary concert.
Zubin Mehta led Vienna Philharmonic in a Suntory Hall 30th-anniversary concert.

The festivities began with two Gala Concerts on October 1 and 2, with Ozawa and Mehta sharing the podium. Anne-Sophie Mutter was soloist in Takemitsu’s Nostalghia. Over the next nine days, the violinist would appear in four more events. As “Special Stage 2016” artist, she joined musicians of the Mutter Virtuosi and Suntory Hall Chamber Music Academy in a chamber music program, gave a recital with Lambert Orkis, Mutter’s pianist for the past quarter century), presented a Special Concert for seniors, and participated in a Concerto Abend with the New Japan Philharmonic.

In the last, Mutter demonstrated once again her deep, ongoing commitment to contemporary music. Clad in one of her signature gowns (this one emerald green), Mutter opened the Concerto Abend with a solo number under a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. Penderecki’s Follia, receiving its Japanese premiere, was played with tremendous vitality and élan. So too was Swiss composer Norbert Moret’s concerto En rêve, also receiving its Japanese premiere. The twenty-minute work set the soloist in provocative dialogue with the orchestra, but fascinated more for its kaleidoscopic orchestration (the celesta nearly became a second soloist) than for the “slash and thrash” role Mutter played.

Unfortunately this approach carried over into the Brahms Violin Concerto, which lacked the warmth and beauty of tone one expects in this work. Audiences at symphony concerts by Japan’s major orchestras hear little beyond the standard classics, so it was gratifying to encounter these rarities here. The New Japan Philharmonic can sound wonderful with the right conductor, but Cristian Măcelaru was not the man for the job. Sloppy rhythms, ragged entrances, and lack of poetry in the phrasing plagued the entire concerto.

Suntory Hall's foyer. Architectural design was by Shoichi Sano of Yasui Architects.
Suntory Hall’s foyer. Architectural design was by Shoichi Sano of Yasui Architects.

Mehta, also with a milestone to celebrate in 2016 (his 80th birthday on April 29), led the Vienna Philharmonic in three programs of mostly routine performances (Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony was positively dull). But Bruckner’s Seventh glowed with inspiration and love. Mehta maintained superb control of dynamic contrasts, balance, and shaping of the symphony’s broad architecture. One could well imagine the gates of heaven opening at the climax of the slow movement. Brass sounded velvety and rich, with organ-like sonorities and lovely, gentle attacks. Here was the Vienna Philharmonic at its best, and it showed the hall at its best.

The NHK Symphony Orchestra, in its 90th anniversary year, shared in the Suntory celebrations. Music director Paavo Järvi conducted Japan’s best-known orchestra abroad in Mahler’s Third Symphony, a performance that revealed the orchestra in splendid form, though Järvi’s interpretation leached out much of the work’s mystery and majesty, surprisingly so, as I’d heard him lead the same orchestra in an electrifying Mahler Second a year earlier.

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi is current president of Suntory Hall.
Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi is president of Suntory Hall.

Suntory Hall was the brainchild of Keizo Saji, music lover and successor to founder of the Suntory empire, Shinjiro Torii. The empire may still be best known internationally for its line of whiskies, but in Japan, Suntory means much more. Commitment to social causes, especially the arts, was embedded in Torii’s philosophy.

Suntory’s contributions to Japanese society have been vast and varied, and Suntory Hall is just one manifestation of its founder’s philosophy. Among the many concerts the Hall presents are several series designed for young people. The Suntory Group manages a string instrument loan program. It operates a fine arts museum. It presents three high-profile annual awards: the Suntory Award (7 million yen — about $68,000 — to an individual or group who made the most outstanding contribution to the development of classical music in Japan), the Keizo Saji Prize (2 million yen — $19,440 — or the most challenging music performance of the year in Japan), and the Akutagawa Award for Music Composition (500,000 yen — $4,860 — for a symphonic work). Finally, there is the Suntory Hall Academy, an intensive workshop for young professionals, who are mentored by the world’s leading artists.

Suntory Hall's main concert room. Acoustician was Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics.
Suntory Hall’s main venue. Acoustician was Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics.

Current president of the Hall, cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, notes that “reputation brings responsibility. We must serve as a leader in the field — in educational programs, in fostering contemporary music, in advising administrations of other halls both at home and abroad, and in forging ties with other musical institutions.” To this end, Suntory Hall has established close relationships with Carnegie Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, and, most recently, two of Singapore’s leading musical venues, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and the arts complex Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

Karajan famously lauded Suntory Hall as “a jewel box of sound.” Its logo is a variant of the Chinese character hibiki, meaning “beautiful sound.” Following a seven-month closure for renovation and refurbishment in 2017, Suntory Hall will in August resume sending out hibiki to the world, producing a steady stream of concerts by local, national, and international artists.

(Suntory Hall is one of Japan’s few classical music institutions with a useful, detailed web site in English.)

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.