Casual concert, Japanese style Kimonos: Some 2,000 music lovers show up for a concert in the traditional Japanese robe, a 'casual' garment that's a lot more trouble than 'foreign clothes.'

November 26, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

TOKYO -- Although David Zinman expected it when he walked out on the stage of Suntory Hall last night, he was still startled.

"It was the first time in my life I've ever seen an audience dressed entirely in kimonos," said the music director of the Baltimore Symphony.

The occasion that filled Suntory's 2,000 seats with kimono-clad Japanese, most of them women, was a private concert sponsored by the Tokyo Kimono Manufacturers Association. The point of the concert, the second of two performed by Zinman and the orchestra in the "casual" format, was to encourage more people to buy and wear kimonos, said Suma Katsui, a well-known Tokyo television personality who spoke to the audience at the beginning and end of the program.

"The [Kimono Manufacturers Association] wanted to demonstrate that a marriage between Western culture, classical music, and Eastern culture, the kimono, was possible," she said.

The kimono, an elegant, long-sleeved robe belted by a silk band called an obi, is the most famous traditional form of Japanese dress. To the dismay of traditionalists, many aspects of the Japanese lifestyle have been Westernized, and as far as clothing is concerned, the Westernization is almost complete.

jTC When a Japanese man gets home from work and relaxes in front of the TV, he may well shed his Western suit, white shirt and tie and step into a gray or black kimono, but his wife and daughter almost certainly will not follow his example. For both work and play, they prefer what are still occasionally called "foreign clothes."

Beautiful as it can be, the female kimono, which is brightly colored and more ornate than that for men, is both expensive (they can cost from a few hundred dollars to almost as much as an automobile) and time-consuming to put on. Most Japanese women now wear it only on ceremonial occasions -- weddings, graduation parties and New Year celebrations.

"I rarely wear my own kimono more than three or four times a year," Katsui admitted backstage after the concert.

Despite its identification with after-hours relaxation, the kimono does appear to make for rather unsuitable attire at a concert, casual or not.

Even among the unusually attentive Japanese audiences, there are always a few people who fall asleep. But while their loose-fitting kimonos allowed men to slump over comfortably during Zinman's talk about (and performances of) Debussy's "La Mer" and Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," women so inclined were forced by their tightly fitted garb to nod off from the neck down, while their bodies remained ram-rod straight.

The female kimono is uncomfortable to wear. The obi, which in the male kimono is merely a silken sash, is in the female kimono a difficult-to-tie affair, fitted against the abdomen like an athletic bandage and, after circling the body, knotted against the back like a giant corsage. It has an effect upon the female form not unlike that of the Victorian corset and bustle.

Attire aside, the casual concert format does not appear to be a success in Japan. At the first casual concert at a girls' high school early last week, the audience behaved as groups of teen-age girls almost invariably do, gossiping and giggling throughout.

Last night's Suntory audience certainly enjoyed the musical performances. But Zinman's remarks to the audience -- which are both informative and charming in their apparent off-the-cuff spontaneity when he communicates directly in English -- sounded stilted and formal. Because his words had to be translated, he was forced to speak from a prepared text.

That leaves the question of whether the Japanese could find such talks useful, even if they were conducted in Japanese.

Casual concerts were designed by Zinman for audiences who, in a country in which music education has almost completely disappeared, may find themselves intimidated by classical music. Audiences in Japan, where music education is compulsory for all students from grades one through 10, do not appear to fear music -- they just want to hear it.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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