BSO sets an encore in Japan Tour: The symphony will return to the scene of its celebrated international triumph.

February 21, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will return to the scene of one of the greatest triumphs in its 83-year history when it revisits Japan this fall.

The two-week, six-city tour of Japan, which was announced yesterday, will begin in November, a year after the Baltimore Museum of Art sent its renowned Cone Collection to Japan and exactly three years after the BSO's maiden voyage to that country. It debuted there as an unknown orchestra, but went on during its three-week stay to score bigger successes among Japanese audiences and music critics than more prestigious and familiar visitors such as the Berlin and Israel philharmonics and the Boston Symphony.

As a result of having established a beachhead in 1994, the orchestra's coming campaign will be even more ambitious than the earlier one. The number of performances at Tokyo's most prestigious classical venues has more than doubled, for example, and the orchestra plans to experiment with BSO music director David Zinman's Casual Concerts concept before audiences that are regarded as the most formal in the world.

When the orchestra returned from its November 1994 tour -- which also included an additional week playing South Korea and Taiwan -- Zinman, executive director John Gidwitz and board president Calman J. Zamoiski all said the enthusiastic reception accorded the orchestra by the Japanese would be meaningless without a return trip within three years. After all, the Japanese are the world's largest consumers of classical concerts and CDs, and this is the headquarters for such record industry giants as Sony and Denon.

"It is rare that an orchestra can make an impression comparable to what the BSO achieved in Japan in 1994," Gidwitz says. "Clearly, there was a keen appreciation of what David Zinman and the orchestra have accomplished together."

That the orchestra has improved as much as it has in the 12 years of Zinman's music directorship is due in part to the conductor's insistence on taking the orchestra on tours. Zinman took the orchestra on its first extended tour of Europe in 1987 -- a month-long trip that included a week in the former Soviet Union. And he also took the orchestra on its first extensive tours of the United States, three trips that took the orchestra to cities in the Northeast and Midwest and on the West Coast that it had never visited before.

Tours, Zinman says, not only introduce an orchestra to new audiences and potential record buyers, but make an orchestra better.

"A tour can be a grueling experience, but it makes musicians grow closer -- musically as well as personally," he says. "And there's something about playing a few great pieces week after week under the most trying conditions. Those pieces get established in an orchestra's collective heart and nervous system and [it] will always be able to play them well."

On the coming tour, which begins Nov. 16 and concludes Nov. 29, the orchestra again will be accompanied by an American superstar soloist. This time violinist Isaac Stern will fill the slot occupied in '94 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

During its previous visit, the BSO depended upon Ma's presence on the majority of the programs to sell its concerts. That Stern will join the orchestra for only three performances now suggests the confidence of the Japanese promoters -- the country's premier concert agency, Kajimoto Concert Management Co. -- in the ability of the BSO to sell itself.

Another index to the status achieved by the BSO can be gauged by its scheduled concerts in Tokyo. In 1994, the orchestra played three concerts there. Two of them were in Suntory Hall -- which occupies a prestigious place in the city's musical life comparable to that of Carnegie Hall in New York -- but the third took place in a high school before an audience of giggling, easily distracted teen-age girls.

Next season, however, the BSO will perform four concerts in Tokyo -- three of them in Suntory and one in Bunka Kaikan Hall, which enjoys a status only slightly below that of Suntory and which is regularly host to orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and soloists such as pianist Evgeny Kissin.

Besides Tokyo, the BSO also will perform in Osaka, Nagoya, Matsudo and another city that is yet to be arranged.

Perhaps the most interesting indication of the BSO's confidence in itself (and that invested in it by the Kajimoto concert agency) is that two of its performances will be presented in the style of Zinman's nationally acclaimed, innovative and much-imitated Casual Concerts.

These informal concerts, which include conversation from the stage and almost invariably feature the conductor's unbuttoned humor, will represent the first performances of their kind in Japan by any orchestra.

"The problem is that whatever I say will have to be translated into Japanese," Zinman says. "If I try humor, it may be misunderstood. I'll try to be pretty basic, but the concerts could end up being pretty hysterical."

Anyone unfamiliar with Japan cannot appreciate how courageous a step this is. Japanese audiences are so formal in their concert etiquette that they make those of Vienna, the most politely restrained in the West, seem as raucous and unruly as those that regularly throw insults and tomatoes at performers in Milan's La Scala.

The outcome of this meeting between Japanese decorousness and Yankee informality may be far from certain, but "it is nonetheless very exciting to contemplate the next stage in the development of what we hope will be a lasting relationship between the Baltimore Symphony and Japanese audiences," BSO executive director Gidwitz says.

"The large number of concerts in centers such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, the opportunities to perform all-orchestral concerts and the invitation to introduce our own casual concert format represent a unique opportunity to display to the Japanese what we have developed here in Baltimore."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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