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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Twelve Days Under the Rising Sun

An Overview of Hearing Japanese Orchestras
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fujiyama from the Shin-kan-sen. Photo by the author.
The 2017 Hearing Japanese Orchestras project provided the opportunity for four Western critics, (myself included) to encounter the sound of five very different ensembles in very different cities. It was also a culturally immersive experience, my first visit to Japan and an opportunity to hear familiar and unfamiliar music presented at a generally high level.

For this journey, I was part of a team of four critics. My excellent colleagues were Christopher Morley from Birmingham, England, Christian Merlin of Le Figaro and Wolfgang Schaufler from Vienna Austria who works for the Universal Edition house of music publishers. What follows is an overview of the trip, and full reviews will be posted in the coming weeks on Superconductor.

Our musical voyage began in Tokyo, where Paavo Järvi led the NHK Symphony Orchestra in a program of two contemporary compositions by composers from his native Estonia, next to the more familiar and popular Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius. The first half featured bold strokes of percussion and a bright, slightly astringent string sound.

The concert opened with Ärvo Pärt's muscular Silhouette, balancing mystic chords with powerful, driving minimalist rhythms. The  second piece: Prophecy by Erke-Sven Tüür was a concerto for accordionist Ksenija Sidorova and orchestra, deploying that instrument's big voice against dancing winds. The Sibelius balanced those nimble reeds against a big brass sound, as the work went from fretfulness to a definitive sunrise in the horns.

After four days in Tokyo, we visited Hiroshima, a city of memories, deep physical and emotional scars, and music. Shoji Sato arranged for our group to hear the 'bombed piano', a Baldwin instrument that survived the 1945 atomic blast. The emotional impact of this may have blunted the next night's concert, an exceptional new work by Dai Fujikara and more conventional Chopin and Beethoven with the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra under its longtime leader Kayzashi Akayami.

The Shinkansen took us further south, to Fukuoka to hear the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra play Mendelssohn and Bruch under guest conductor Shao-Chia Lü. The ACROS was the best concert hall yet, a warm, woody acoustic that leant the music a burnished glow. The very fine Scottish Symphony even received a second performance of its dance movement, this with a little more welcome abandon than its first go-round.

North again, to windy, wintry Osaka and the bold, big-shouldered Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra under Michiyoshi Inouye. This program was one you'd never hear in America: Shostakovich's Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies. Separately, they are potent examples of the composer's late style. Programmed together, these works make a vivid narrative of the revolution, images of Shostakovich's boyhood living history writ large in percussion, brass and frightening, frigid waves of strings.

We then rode west to Kanazawa and our penultimate destination: a performance of the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa under the French baroque specialist Marc Minkowski. They played Rossini's 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia' in a concert version, with an international cast and a slight Japanese accent. This chamber orchestra was the most cosmopolitan we had heard yet, and a meeting the next day with a number of its principal strings proved fruitful.

A final train trip took us back to Osaka, where the people are friendly and the takoyaki are hot. Our business here was a symposium featuring myself and my European colleagues. It was a great success, with interesting discussions as East met West. Then back to the hotel one last time, packing and the long journey to our homes. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.