The center of classical universe Music: All tours lead to Tokyo, where big-name performances can fill many glorious days.

The BSO in Japan

November 20, 1997|By Steven Wigler | Steven Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

TOKYO -- At the conclusion of his all-Schubert recital Tuesday night, pianist Andras Schiff was surprised to see three friends from Baltimore waiting in the line of autograph-seekers at his dressing room at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall.

"What a strange place for us to meet," Schiff said to his friends, two of them Baltimore Symphony musicians. "But I learned a long time ago that if you come to Tokyo often enough, you eventually see everyone you know."

Everyone who's anyone in the classical-music world plays Tokyo -- sometimes in the same week. If your idea of dying and going to heaven is attending all the classical concerts you want, Tokyo is paradise.

In their 11 full days in Japan, the 100 musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, who arrived here Monday, will be too busy giving nine performances in six Japanese cities to attend many concerts other than their own. But here's a short list of what they could hear if they were tourists at play instead of players on tour:

Three other recitals by Schiff.

Three concerts by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin State Orchestra.

Two concerts by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe featuring Martha Argerich, the great pianist who almost never appears in the United States.

Piano recitals by Argerich, Ivo Pogorelich and Alexander Rabinovitch.

Recitals of Schubert lieder by the great tenor Peter Schreier (with no less than Schiff playing piano for him).

Concerts of music by Henri Dutilleux, perhaps the world's greatest living composer, with Dutilleux himself conducting.

Concerts by at least five of Tokyo's nine professional orchestras.

That's more great music than you could hear in as many days in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington combined. One reason for that staggering statistic is an equally staggering statistic: Tokyo has more large concert halls designed specifically for classical music -- eight -- than all of those American cities.

In just three years since the BSO's last visit, three new halls have been built: Tokyo Forum, Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, and the New National Theater. And, unlike Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (except when superstars like pianist Evgeny Kissin or cellist Yo-Yo Ma are featured), these halls are almost always filled.

And while the U.S. classical CD market is dying, Tokyo's is thriving, even though consumers pay almost twice as much.

Put simply, Western music is more alive in the East than it is in the West.

"In Japan, audiences don't just listen to music, they inhale it," says famed violinist Isaac Stern, who will be the soloist tonight with the BSO and conductor David Zinman when they give their first concert in Suntory Hall, Tokyo's most prestigious venue for classical music.

Stern, among the first important American musicians to perform in Japan after World War II and who has returned almost every other year since, says the reason for the Japanese appetite for Western classical music is that it satisfies hungers left unfulfilled by Japanese society and culture.

"Even the way the Japanese speak is systemized, tightly structured and stratified," says Stern, who was recently honored by the Japanese government for his contributions to Japanese musical life. "I suspect that only in Western music do they feel free to be themselves."

The love of classical musical in this country dates back to the latter part of the 19th century, when Japan began trying to become a world power in the Western mold. Those efforts, which began with industrialization of what was an agricultural economy, gradually included trying to master the soul of Western civilization -- literature and philosophy, followed by music.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the plays of Ibsen were as popular in Japan as they were in Europe, and the poems of Baudelaire had been skillfully translated. Before World War II, there were orchestras in Japan, and enthusiastic audiences.

The progress of Western music was stalled by the war and Japan's rebuilding effort. But the country's interest in Western music revived with the coming of prosperity in the late 1950s and was further spurred by visits from Western artists.

Japan's culture, however, may have made it uniquely suited to become the world's biggest market for classical music. Society here emphasizes the rights of the collective rather than the individual.

In a country with a huge population crowded into a tiny area, classical music can be a phenomenally effective way to teach discipline and group behavior and how to be part of an ensemble.

But if the practice of symphonic music contains a metaphor about the importance of fitting in, it also, as Stern suggests, carries an even deeper one about freedom -- particularly in a society that pressures the individual to conform.

"For those of us who grew up after World War II, Western music -- whether Beethoven or the Beatles -- is about the freedom of the spirit," says Masa Kajimoto, Japan's top presenter of classical music and promoter of the BSO tour.

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