Immersion Affirms Japan’s Claim To Great Orchestras

Jonathan Nott and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra deliver thrilling Mahler in a busy November stretch as other members of Tokyo’s Big Eight and storied international visitors lined up to play at concert halls throughout the city. (© N. Ikegami)

TOKYO – Every city likes to think it has something different, special, even unique to offer.  But for classical music lovers, Tokyo really is unique. It is the world’s largest metropolis, with a population of 38 million living in the greater metropolitan area. And it’s a city with a voracious appetite for classical music.

Just consider: What other city can boast eight full-time, full-size, fully professional orchestras? On occasion, all eight of these orchestras – the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo City Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, and Tokyo Symphony – are performing on the same date. The names may sound similar, but each is a distinct entity.

Yet even these eight are only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout Japan, there are about 1,600 orchestras of one kind or another – professional, semi-professional, student, amateur, regional – about half of which are in the Tokyo area and some of which bear such quirky names as Amadeus, Appassionata, Cosmos, Esperanto, Kinki (that’s a place name!), Maple, Earl Gray, and Cordon Bleu.

What other city besides Tokyo has a dozen acoustically excellent concert halls that can accommodate a full symphony orchestra? My visit to Tokyo in November netted a veritable avalanche of orchestral concerts: 16 performances in as many days, with four from the Vienna Philharmonic, two from the Philadelphia Orchestra, one each from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, plus performances by seven of Tokyo’s Big Eight orchestras and one university orchestra.

Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi leads the elite Japan Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Fifth at Suntory Hall. (© Atsushi Yamaguchi)

This was not a festival – it was business as usual. And that’s only the big orchestras. There are about 170 halls in the Greater Metropolitan Tokyo region suitable for chamber orchestras, chamber music, and solo recitals that present some 4,000 performances per year, not counting amateur and student events.

Here follows a capsule summary of the concerts I heard in November, resulting in an ideal opportunity to assess just how closely the top Japanese orchestras compare with the best in the West:

Philadelphia Orchestra, Nov. 4 and 7: Yannick Nézet-Séguin is as much loved in Tokyo as he is in Montreal and Philadelphia. Both of his concerts in Tokyo were held on weekday afternoons in large halls and both were sold out to adoring audiences. Yannick (as everyone calls him) has restored the orchestra’s sound to nearly what it was during the Ormandy era, with luxuriant, darkly burnished strings, superbly balanced woodwinds, and never a raw or coarse sound from anyone. Horns, however, have not fared as well, lacking the poise, security, and tonal opulence they once had. Both the principal and the section players made it through Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with obvious difficulties. The difference in sound quality between the orchestra’s concerts in Suntory Hall and NHK Hall was striking: In Suntory they sounded wonderful, while in the dry NHK Hall, in a program of Rachmaninoff (Third Piano Concerto) and Dvořák (New World Symphony), the strings lost much of their bloom and woodwinds lacked the perfect intonation they displayed in Suntory Hall.

Vienna Philharmonic, Nov. 5, 11, 13, 15: Since Suntory Hall opened in 1986, the Philharmonic has played more than a hundred  concerts there, most of them sold out at prices many times higher than what the Japanese pay to hear their own orchestras. This year, the Philharmonic gave three concerts under Christian Thielemann, the first a rather lightweight program of music by various Strausses. The Rosenkavalier Suite was for the most part a romp through levels of loud, louder, and loudest; the Philharmonic’s famously gorgeous sound was but a distant memory. On the 11th, Thielemann led what is possibly the loudest Bruckner Eighth ever heard, seemingly hell-bent on getting maximum decibels from the orchestra regardless of whether it was musically justified. There was no sense of growth; rather there was so much noise that the grand climax of each movement went unnoticed; there was nothing more to give. His final concert was all-Strauss (mostly Richard), including an overblown Till Eulenspiegel and a muddy, overwrought Don Juan.

In between the Philharmonic’s second and fourth concerts, magic happened. The young Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada was invited to take over, and what he did produced one of the most memorable concerts I heard in Tokyo. In Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, he found lyricism in much of the score that most conductors ignore. Right from the opening bassoon solo, which seemed to come out of nothingness, there was beautiful music, not just raw energy. Compared to Thielemann, Orozco-Estrada made the Philharmonic play with a sheen, far greater attention to detail, and cleaner attacks. Yet when occasion demanded, there was no lack of sonic thrills.

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 6: Japan’s best-known orchestra abroad played in Suntory Hall, where 92-year-old Herbert Blomstedt led it through Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony with the sterling clarity, technical perfection without fussiness, and rhythmic tension we usually attribute to period-instrument ensembles. The ensemble has a bright, almost brilliant sound, and an excellent woodwind section with a principal oboe that would be the envy of any orchestra in the world.

Swedish prize-winner Johan Dalene, 19, plays the Nielsen Violin Concerto with New Japan Philharmonic. (© M. Okubo)

New Japan Philharmonic, Nov. 8: There were two surprises at this concert, presented in the orchestra’s usual hall, Sumida Triphony. The first was a spectacularly gifted first-prize winner of the Carl Nielsen Competition, the 19-year-old Swedish violinist Johan Dalene. His performance of the Nielsen concerto came with a huge range of colors and dynamics, rock-solid rhythmic control, and a sound as big as Oistrakh’s. The second surprise was the surging energy, dramatic thrills, and dance-like impulses Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (the violinist-conductor added “Szeps” to his professional name in Dec. 2018) brought to his own 40-minute suite from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. He pushed the strings to virtuosic limits, and it was thrilling to hear, but there were also passages of eloquent lyricism. If anyone still doubts the Japanese ability to infuse their music-making with emotion, here was the proof they can do so as well as any orchestra in the West.

Japan Philharmonic, Nov. 9: This is a totally different orchestra from the New Japan Philharmonic (the “New” Philharmonic is a break-away organization). Its sound is totally different, too – full, rich, round, like that of many German orchestras. It has what is probably the finest woodwind section of any Japanese orchestra, a section that could well match that of Philadelphia. The principal flute has one of the most gorgeous sounds ever produced on that instrument. The horn section rivals any in the West – powerful, gutsy, totally assured. Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi led a take-no-prisoners performance in Suntory Hall of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. One of the criteria of a great orchestra is its ability to play softly; seldom have I heard one play as softly as the Japan Philharmonic. The pianississimos at the end of the first movement were breathtaking, and similar passages in the third movement were rendered with almost unbearable coiled tension.

Memorable in MUZA Kawasaki: Ryusuke Numajiri and the TSO in Shostakovich Eleventh. (©️ Satoshi Aoyagi)

Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 10 and 16 (evening): Two different and difficult, meaty programs, heard a week apart with different conductors in different halls, were enough to convince this listener that the TSO is a truly great orchestra. The first was in the MUZA Kawasaki, one of my favorite halls in Japan for the sense of presence it creates throughout the entire volume of space it occupies. Ryusuke Numajiri conducted a Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony that will go down in my book as one of the most memorable concerts I have ever heard. At times, the 62-minute symphony nearly becomes a timpani concerto, supported by no fewer than seven more percussionists, and the TSO’s percussion section may well be the best in the country. In the final pages, Shostakovich calls for big alarm bells to warn of impending danger. The TSO used heavy, resonant, metal plates instead, which created a truly terrifying sound. So resonant were these “bells” that after the final clang they reverberated for a full minute before Numajiri allowed the applause to begin.

The second of the TSO’s concerts, this one in Suntory Hall, was no less memorable. Jonathan Nott, the orchestra’s music director, led Mahler’s 80-minute Seventh Symphony (preceded by Berg’s Three Pieces, Op. 6) in a concert after which you wanted to clap your hands raw. The orchestra proved itself a collective virtuoso instrument in every section, with special mention going to the tenor horn player, who blew his solos with enough force to knock down a wall, and to the horns, which played with enormous bravura and boldness. Not even Chicago’s section can do better. Nott exaggerated the symphony’s multifarious grunts, growls, snarls, and screams in a performance filled with roller-coaster thrills.

Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Nov. 13: I missed this orchestra’s Mahler First by two days, but caught it in the pit for a performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the New National Theatre Tokyo, which hosts the country’s leading opera company. Having heard this outstanding orchestra several times in the past, I was again reminded of how versatile it is, capable of combining warmth and brilliance in equal measure and serving equally well in the heaviest Wagner and the most buoyant Donizetti.

Ken Takaseki leads the Geidai Philharmonia in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, with hornist Shoji Yudai at front. (©️ Masahide Sato)

Geidai Philharmonia, Nov. 14: Geidai University’s music school is one of Japan’s top producers of instrumental musicians. The Philharmonia is not one of Tokyo’s Top Eight, but the Mahler Fifth I heard from them, conducted by Karajan protégé Ken Takaseki, was more thrilling than what even the fabled Philadelphia Orchestra produced a week earlier, and its principal horn, Shoji Yudai, was far better than his Philadelphia counterpart.

Eliahu Inbal leads the Tokyo Metropolitan SO in Shostakovich’s Twelfth with military precision. (©️ Rikimaru Hotta)

Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 16 (afternoon): Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony is no masterpiece, but the Tokyo Metropolitan  Symphony Orchestra under conductor laureate Eliahu Inbal made it sound like one in a performance of military precision, enormous volumes of sound (great percussion!), and thrilling climaxes. Before intermission, Josef Špaček delivered an interpretation of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto for which the word “awesome” was applicable. He put forward enough sound for a whole section, and the orchestra perfectly complemented the burning intensity of his playing.

Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 17: A Dvořák program (Cello Concerto and New World Symphony) conducted by Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi revealed once again that this orchestra, the only one in the world run by a newspaper (the widely-read Yomiuri Shimbun), has an elegance to its playing shared by few others. Like most of the top Japanese ensembles, the sound is on the bright side, and discipline is at the very highest level. There is never any blaring from the brass, the horn section is perfectly matched, and the timpanist is a musician of supreme sensitivity.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Nov. 18: One expects much from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but we didn’t get it in the performance I heard. Even though the orchestra was in famed Suntory Hall, the strings lacked bloom. Paavo Järvi conducted a routine Tannhäuser Overture, Lang Lang tip-toed prissily through Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, and the Brahms Fourth lacked momentum, textural clarity, and, in the woodwinds, a blended, balanced sound.

Billboard for the Berlin Philharmonic concert in Tokyo.

Berlin Philharmonic, Nov. 19: Zubin Mehta, 83, essentially allowed the Philharmonic to run through its own interpretations of Strauss’ Don Quixote and Beethoven’s Eroica in the MUZA Kawasaki Hall. The sound this orchestra’s string section puts forth is a wonder of the musical world. No other orchestra can match it in weight, depth, and richness. “Sumptuous” might be the best way of describing it. The woodwind section is perfectly balanced, its intonation immaculate. Horns, however, were not immaculate, with more flubs than one would expect from an institution with such a sterling reputation.

So, how do Tokyo’s orchestras stack up against the iconic Western orchestras? Very well indeed.

For years, musical cognoscenti have been praising the Japanese orchestras as technically brilliant but lacking in emotion. It’s time to put that hoary belief to rest. Many of the performances I heard from Japanese orchestras were as rewarding as what the Western orchestras produced, and in some cases more so.

Generally speaking, where the Western ones surpass the Japanese is in the depth and weight of sound, with Berlin eclipsing every other orchestra by a good margin. However, with this weight and depth of sound often comes a decrease in transparency. This is never an issue with the Japanese orchestras. Their woodwind sections tend to be the weakest, but this is not to say those in Western orchestras are always of sterling quality. Where the Japanese excel in every major orchestra I have heard in this country is in discipline. A West Point drill master could learn a thing or two from watching how their string sections bow. There are no slackers in these orchestras.

Tokyo’s Big Eight are all capable of superior work, and any attempt to rank them inevitably leads to frustration and failure. What matters most, to a degree I’ve not seen elsewhere, is who is on the podium, and when fired up, the best Japanese orchestras can deliver performances as good as they are anywhere.

No matter when one arrives in Tokyo, the visitor will have just missed something of interest, and no matter when one leaves, there will be a performance or three one could wish to have heard. And it’s endless. The place is truly awash in music. Or maybe even snowed under!

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. When I lived in Japan, I was surprised to see that there were zero, repeat ZERO Westerners in the major orchestras. Could somebody tell me if this is still the case?

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