Far-Flung Maestro Flourishes With Ensemble In Japan

Robert Rÿker in concert with the Tokyo Sinfonia, which he founded in 2006.
(Photos courtesy of Robert Rÿker)
By Robert Markow

TOKYO — To call Robert Rÿker a man of the world would be a vast understatement. Though born in America, Rÿker’s multifarious musical pursuits have taken him from his hometown of Indianapolis to Montreal to Paris to Cairo to St. Petersburg to India and finally to Japan, where he has made his home since 1979. Tuba player, arranger, educator, lecturer, author, music critic, and conductor — Rÿker has done it all. But it is as founding music director or the Tokyo Sinfonia that he has made his biggest and best mark.

American-born Robert Rÿker has lived in Japan since 1979.

Even before graduating from Indiana University, Rÿker began his professional career as tuba player in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. He continued in the same position with the Montreal Symphony, where he played for 13 seasons. Like many conductors whose careers began in the ranks of a symphony orchestra (Toscanini, Munch, Boskovsky, Goossens, Ormandy, Dutoit, and Tuckwell come readily to mind), Rÿker developed a taste for leadership and discovered he was good at it. He honed his skills at the Peabody Conservatory, where he received a Doctorate in Conducting, and later in Amsterdam, Monte-Carlo, Lugano, Paris, and St. Petersburg. He also undertook advanced conducting programs with the Cleveland Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony. With more than four decades of conducting now under his belt, Rÿker has led orchestras on four continents and as far-flung as those of Lima, Calcutta, Manila, and Vilnius, as well as numerous ensembles all over North America and Japan.

The Tokyo Sinfonia played its first concert on the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth date, Jan. 27, 2006. Now in its twelfth season, the Sinfonia is a 19-piece string ensemble with a difference. Why nineteen? “I wanted to form the largest small orchestra possible,” says Rÿker, who turns 79 in September. “From the perspective of group dynamics, I learned that the largest group in which every member feels himself to be essential is a group of five. That gave me the clue to the numbers. I determined that the orchestra should comprise five first violins, five seconds, and, for balance, four violas, three cellos, and two double basses.”

The Tokyo Sinfonia has its counterparts in numerous other string ensembles around the world in that it is a fully professional group, though not a full-time one, performing about twenty concerts per year. The Sinfonia does make studio recordings (though it has many performances available on its web site) and rarely ventures outside the Tokyo area, but one of Rÿker’s dreams is to bring the orchestra to North America. Instead, for now the Tokyo Sinfonia cultivates a distinctive local image, and is unique in several ways. Seating is unorthodox. “I don’t want the traditional semi-circle around the conductor of four pairs of players,” Rÿker says. “I prefer to have a single principal from each section in the center ring, and behind them two and two, with double basses in the center. The quartet of principals in the center ring, who assume these roles on a rotating basis, communicate intimately with each other, with the conductor, and with their respective sections. Sometimes all members of a section are playing the same part, at other times all may be playing entirely different parts, thus creating a richly layered texture of orchestral sonority and a dynamic interaction between the players that no other string orchestra in the world, to my knowledge, has yet tapped. That is why we can speak of ‘the Sinfonia sound.’”

The Tokyo Sinfonia playing a student concert under Robert Rÿker.

Then there is the Sinfonia’s range of activities. One of its most successful ventures is the National Serenade Dinner Concert series, held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. In an audience-friendly, intimate atmosphere, musicians and audience mingle between musical selections during a four-course dinner designed around a specific nationality. Among the countries and regions represented have been Italy, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Russia, France, Hungary, Belgium, England, Poland, Japan, and the U.S. The English Serenade, for example, included music of Elgar (Serenade for Strings), Holst (Concerto for Two Violins and Strings), and Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on “Greensleeves”), while the Scandinavian Serenade included music by Berwald, Grieg, Sibelius, and Nielsen. The Serenade series has included most of the “big” name composers — Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, etc. — but also a few from the sidelines — Borodin, Balakirev, Weber, and Respighi. Many ambassadors have attended these events to represent their culture and cuisine.

Seating for the musicians at these dinner concerts is unusual. The Sinfonia is placed on risers in the center of the room, Shakespeare-style, with the audience seated around the “stage.” At each interval in the program, the orchestra shifts position so that it faces a different group of diners each time.

Rÿker and the Tokyo Sinfonia at one of their popular dinner concerts.

Another highly successful series has been the Champagne Concerts, at which the audience is invited to chat with Rÿker and the musicians after the concert over a glass of champagne (included in the price of the ticket). These also have a theme, often devoted exclusively to a well-known composer. Bach, Mozart, and Schubert are “naturals” for a small string orchestra, but what kind of repertoire can you find for composers like Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Holst, Prokofiev, or Borodin? That’s where Rÿker the arranger comes in.

To fuel the vast amount of music needed to sustain the Tokyo Sinfonia, Rÿker has developed his skill as an arranger, having amassed over the years an impressive catalog of more than 400 arrangements, orchestrations, and performing editions. These range from works requiring only a light touch up, like Barber’s Adagio or Bruckner’s String Quintet, to large-scale works for full orchestra like “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, Elgar’s Falstaff, Berlioz’ Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony. Repertoire ranges from the thrice-familiar (Overture to Die Fledermaus, Flight of the Bumblebee, Wedding March from Lohengrin) to the fairly-well-known (Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, Kodály’s Peacock Variations, Respighi’s Boutique fantasque) to the obscure (Chavez’ La Hija de Colquide, Holst’s Suite of Japanese Dances, Fuchs’ Serenade for Strings).

Rÿker and the 19 members of the Tokyo Sinfonia.

Each member of the Sinfonia has his or her own part to play, and Rÿker’s scores attest to this — 19 separate lines on each page. Nearly every concert involves soloists, either drawn from the ranks of the orchestra or invited from abroad. These have included violinist Federico Agostini (concertmaster of I Musici), Wenzel Fuchs (principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic), guitarist Paul Bankes, tenor Roberto di Candido, saxophonist Otis Murphy, pianist Sara Buechner, and the twelve-year-old English Wunderkind Alma Deutscher, who appeared as soloist in Mozart concertos for both piano and violin as well as in music she composed herself.

Ever alert to finding new and unusual projects, Rÿker has involved the Sinfonia in events as diverse as weddings, fireworks displays, and even a beauticians’ convention. When disaster struck the Fukushima region, Rÿker and the Tokyo Sinfonia were among the first to visit shelters and hospitals, offering the spiritual and emotional support only music can provide. “Smiles of appreciation from the audience were truly heart-warming,” Rÿker recalls.

Rÿker’s next special project is a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and of that signal event in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The concert, set for Oct. 31 in the 2,000-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre Concert Hall, will involve some 250 performers from the Tokyo College of Music Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which is coincidentally celebrating a milestone of its own — its 100th anniversary year.

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.