Japanese Orchestras, Polished And Thriving, Rival Best In The West

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The Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, led by Motonori Kobayashi, is the only orchestra affiliated primarily with a newspaper, the ‘Yomiuri Shimbun,’ which has the largest daily circulation (nearly 8 million) in the world. (Courtesy of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra)

PERSPECTIVE — Not many music lovers outside Japan are aware of the treasure trove of great orchestras this country possesses. Some may know of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, but what else is there? I have reported on the scene in Tokyo before for this website (Oct. 21, 2015; Dec. 6, 2019), but now it’s time to take a look at the country as a whole, where this orchestral phenomenon came from, how it developed, and where it stands today. A recent whirlwind tour of four cities with nine concerts resulted in the unassailable conclusion that Japan claims some of the finest orchestras in the world, ensembles that can stand up to the likes of the Chicago Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, and London Symphony.

The first documented concert by a symphony orchestra of any kind in Japan was given Feb. 19, 1887, during the Meiji Restoration’s push toward modernization by an ensemble (today the Geidai Philharmonia) from the recently established Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. In due course, it presented Japan with its first performances of the established classics. However, this ensemble did not constitute a permanent entity. The first to fit this description, one with a continuous history up to the present, is the Tokyo Philharmonic, now in its 112th year. What was to become the NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai) Symphony Orchestra, a radio orchestra, began just a few years later, in 1926. Eminent conductors from Europe  — including Manfred Gurlitt (composer of the “other” Wozzeck), Leopold Stokowski, and Sergiu Celibidache — were invited to train these and other orchestras in the Western style.

The orchestral scene flourished until well after World War II, when radio and television orchestras employed studio musicians on a large scale. But when film took over, employment for these musicians plummeted. The ever-resourceful Japanese then began an era during which numerous private orchestras emerged. Nearly all are post-war phenomena: the Gunma Symphony in 1945, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in 1946, the Osaka Philharmonic in 1947, the Kyushu Symphony in 1953, both the Kyoto Symphony and Japan Philharmonic in 1956, the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony in 1962, and the Hiroshima Symphony in 1963. All remaining members of what became the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras were born within the past 60 years. Hence, while the era of professional orchestras in Japan may go back over a century, within just the past few decades there has been a meteoric rise in the number of orchestras, both in quantity and quality.

The Kobe City Chamber Orchestra is one of Japan’s few professional chamber orchestras. (Photo by Shimokoshi Haruki)

The epicenter of orchestral life in Japan resides, by a huge margin, in Tokyo, which boasts eight full-time, full-size, fully professional orchestras — more than any other city in the world. The names can be maddeningly alike: Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo City Philharmonic, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, and NHK Symphony Orchestra. These are unofficially the “Big Eight,” each a distinct entity, all competing mightily for audiences. In addition to the Big Eight, there are some 50 additional orchestras with the word “Tokyo” in their title (Tokyo Academy Orchestra, Tokyo Sinfonietta, Tokyo Amadeus Orchestra, Tokyo Bach Ensemble, etc.). These are largely amateur, semi-professional, school, corporate, or specialty orchestras that give only a few concerts a year but collectively contribute much to Japan’s classical-music scene.

Every concert I have attended in Japan, both on my most recent visit in November and in every case in the past, has been in a sold-out or nearly sold-out hall. It is hardly surprising to learn that the only Tower Records stores left on the planet are in Japan. The main store in Tokyo’s Shibuya area is the largest. Space allotted to classical music may have shrunk in recent years, but it is still impressive, and now a competitor has risen to take up the slack: Disc Union, with outlets in several of Tokyo’s districts. At the one I visited in Shinjuku, there were more browsers than at Tower Records. Moreover, Disc Union specializes in used LPs, of which there were thousands on display, many for as little as $4. Contributing to the sustainability of audiences in Japan is the fact that the largest nationwide project that orchestras undertake is concerts for schoolchildren, hosted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Andrea Battistoni is chief conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic. (Photo by Takafumi Ueno)

Japan is home to about 1,600 orchestras of one sort or another (mostly amateur and school ventures), of which 39 belong to the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras (AJSO), which was formed as recently as 1990, though it existed earlier in various other forms and names. The AJSO’s 25 full and 14 associate members collectively give nearly 4,000 concerts a year. All but four are based on the main island of Honshu, which contains most of Japan’s famous cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Nara, Kobe, Yokohama), and of these, well over half are in the Greater Tokyo area alone.

The Tokyo Philharmonic is not only Japan’s oldest orchestra, it is also the busiest. Some 150 musicians give nearly 400 concerts annually (subscription, opera, ballet, school visits by smaller ensembles, special events, etc.). Its current music director is the Italian Andrea Battistoni, who made the orchestra sound like a million dollars with an all-Tchaikovsky program Nov. 10 that included, unusually, all three of the composer’s Shakespeare-derived tone poems, as well as the Rococo Variations in its original form (not the well-known Fitzenhagen distortion). In Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, the violins played at times like a section of Heifetzes, with breathtaking virtuosity and polished ensemble. Elsewhere, Battistoni drew intense yet never melodramatic lyricism from his orchestra. Exhilarating is not too strong a word to describe this concert.

The next day I shot down (by bullet train, of course) to Kobe to hear one of Japan’s surprisingly few professional chamber orchestras, the Kobe City Chamber Orchestra. In a beautiful, wood-paneled hall, I heard Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 (Il distratto) played with biting contrasts of loud and soft and enough élan and brio to keep me on the edge of my seat throughout. Conductor Hidemi Suzuki, like his brother Masaaki (conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan), specializes in historically informed performances. Period trumpets, horns, and timpani added to the brilliance of the Haydn symphony, a joyride from beginning to end, with stratospheric horn writing tossed off with seeming ease and perfect intonation. This orchestra could easily make an international name for itself with a world tour.

Tatsuya Shimono is general music director of the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Naoya Yamaguchi)

Next came Hiroshima, whose reputation lives on as the site of the first-ever atomic bombing. To counterpoise this enduring memory, the city now proclaims itself International City of Peace and Culture. Its orchestra sends out a global message of peace through the international language of music, spearheaded through an annual concert on that fateful date of Aug. 6. (Nagasaki was bombed three days later.) Martha Argerich is the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra’s peace and music ambassador.

The concert I heard on Nov. 17 included Haydn’s Drum Roll Symphony (No. 103), but otherwise there were no military implications. The highly charismatic Tatsuya Shimono conducted an adventurous program that included two compositions by Atsutada Otaka (1944-2021): excerpts from Traveling Music for Orchestra (an early work that had elements of Respighi in his neoclassical mode) and Au-delà du temps, a full-length, three-movement symphony that revealed the influence of Otaka’s composition teacher, Henri Dutilleux, along with strong hints of Olivier Messiaen. The Haydn symphony, incidentally, included much more than just a “drum roll.” The percussionist introduced the symphony with a two-minute solo number and incorporated a full-fledged cadenza later in the movement, played with infectious enthusiasm. Haydn would have loved it, as did the audience.

On to Nagoya, where I encountered one of the greatest surprises of all. I had heard the Nagoya Philharmonic several years ago and thought it a good orchestra, but in just a short time it has risen to the level of the best of Tokyo’s orchestras. It also enjoys one of the finest venues in the country, the Aichi Prefectural Art Theater Concert Hall. Kentaro Kawase assembled a highly imaginative program built around the theme of otherworldly experiences. Berg’s Violin Concerto (To the Memory of an Angel) opened the program, with Kolja Blacher as soloist. After intermission came a seven-minute piece for solo sho (Japanese mouth organ) by Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955), music of great delicacy and refinement performed by Mayumi Miyata clad in a long white gown and positioned high above the stage in a darkened hall with a single spotlight on her alone — surely the “angel” of Berg’s concerto incarnate. The orchestra then segued into the ethereal beginning of the Lohengrin Prelude with the hall still in darkness. At the Prelude’s climax, the house lights came up again, to stunning effect. The logical conclusion to this program was Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, which Kawase led with beautifully sculpted phrasing, textural clarity, structural integrity, and carefully paced climaxes. I have never heard this work played better. Woodwinds and horns in particular distinguished themselves.

Back in Tokyo, I heard the NHK Orchestra perform the complete Nutcracker ballet score. Ninety-one-year-old Vladimir Fedoseyev was to have conducted, but due to illness he was replaced by John Axelrod, who led the orchestra with military precision and sterling clarity but without the magic and enchantment the score demands. The string section proved itself to be technically one of the best in the world, but here it sounded antiseptic, not engaging.

Kentaro Kawase leads the Nagoya Philharmonic.

The Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra is the only orchestra affiliated primarily with a newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has the largest daily circulation (nearly 8 million) in the world. A steady succession of renowned conductors like Frühbeck de Burgos, Rozhdestvensky, Temirkanov, and Skrowaczewski have built it into a magnificent ensemble. I attended a performance in Yokohama (essentially a distant suburb of Tokyo) that featured Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, so thrilling that it evoked memories of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony’s legendary recording of more than 60 years ago — a performance brimming with finesse, exquisite phrasing, clarity, and blazing brilliance. The waltz movement was as suave and elegant as any I have ever heard, the “Scene in the Countryside” imbued with bucolic poetry, the “March to the Scaffold” terrifying without sounding raucous, and the “Witches’ Sabbath” an orgy of orchestral virtuosity. Motonori Kobayashi carefully paced the music so that the climaxes practically swept you out of the hall.

Hidemi Suzuki applies historically informed performance practices as conductor of the Kobe City Chamber Orchestra. (Photo by K. Miura)

I am told that the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is the favorite of many Japanese, an opinion difficult to argue with, particularly in view of how its honorary conductor for life, Kazuhiro Koizumi, led it through Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The strings displayed textural clarity even in the most densely scored passages, beautifully blended sonorities, and rhythmic precision George Szell would have been proud of.

Of the hundreds of small and mid-size orchestras in Japan, the Tokyo Sinfonia has carved out a unique niche for itself. Founded by American conductor Robert Rÿker in 2006, this 19-piece string ensemble offers, among other series, dinner concerts at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, located in a spiffy office building overlooking the gardens of the Imperial Palace. “The whole purpose of these dinner concerts,” says Rÿker, “is to provide people with a pleasant, enjoyable evening out on the town. Hopefully the experience will also encourage them to attend serious classical concerts without the food and drink.” Alternating between courses of a gourmet meal, each with a national theme (French, Russian, Scandinavian, etc.), guests hear musical selections relevant to the occasion. Ambassadors often attend these events to represent their culture and cuisine. November’s offering was “Bohemian Serenade” (72nd in the popular, long-running series), with music by Dvořák, Smetana, and Suk.

Such is the voracious appetite for Western classical music in Japan that, in addition to performances by its own orchestras, one could have heard in Tokyo (and other cities) last month the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic (with respectively five and four sold-out performances in Tokyo alone), Czech Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, all at prices many times higher than what it costs to hear Japan’s own orchestras. Many Japanese still hold to the belief that “West is Best,” carrying the implication that the adored European orchestras are better than their own. This attitude may have had some validity a few decades ago, but in this observer’s opinion, Japan’s best orchestras today can compete with any from the west in both technical facility and, more importantly, musical expression. On this same trip, I heard Tugan Sokhiev conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a program of Also sprach Zarathustra and Dvořák’s Eighth, both full of sound and fury but little else. This is rarely the case with Japanese orchestras, often led by Japanese conductors who have fine-tuned the art of welding deeply satisfying musical expressivity to technical perfection.

Hiroshi Kuwabara, for 35 years executive director of the AJSO, concurs that “the level of playing of Japanese orchestras today is much higher than even just 20 years ago.” Kuwabara’s observation might well also apply to Japanese conductors. Following in the footsteps of stalwarts like Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama, there is an abundance of middle-aged and younger conductors who have contributed to the rapid transition of Japan’s orchestras into world-class acts. In addition to those mentioned previously, notable names include Kazuki Yamada, Ken Takaseki, Kazushi Ono, Keitaro Harada, Ryusuke Numajiri, and 36-year-old Nodoka Okisawa, the first woman to win the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting, in 2018.

The only Tower Records stores left on the planet are in Japan.

While concerts in European and North American cities can often sound like “business as usual” presented by orchestras that are just churning out standard performances of standard repertoire, virtually every orchestral concert I have heard in Japan within the past decade has been a bracing, highly gratifying musical experience, a one-of-a-kind event that signals total dedication to the cause. It is high time the world acknowledges Japan as a “first-world country” for its orchestras, alongside those of Germany, Austria, England, the U.S., and Russia, among others.

Only about one percent of Japanese are Christian, yet Christmas is celebrated in Japan with a vengeance — mostly as still another excuse (Halloween and Black Friday are others) to indulge in the country’s national pastime, shopping. Every store, hotel, and restaurant displays Christmas decorations, often lavishly so. In musical terms, December features not the glut of Messiahs and Nutcrackers we enjoy (or endure) in the U.S., but rather a multitude of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, affectionately known as Daiku (Big Nine). The ultimate Ninth is given in Osaka each year with a chorus of 10,000. No, that’s not a typo, and so well-trained is the chorus, mostly singing from memory, that you can actually understand the German. This has to be seen — and heard — to be believed.

Merī kurisumasu!