A French twist in a Japanese orchestra

Conductor: Charles Dutoit positions Tokyo's NHK Symphony as a leader of Western music.

May 01, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The world's best French orchestra could someday be located in Tokyo. If that happens, it will be the second time in 25 years that the best French orchestra will have been created outside of France.

And it will be because last year the NHK Orchestra -- the best of Japan's more than 300 orchestras, and named after the TV network that owns it -- appointed Charles Dutoit its music director.

Dutoit is not himself French -- he's from French-speaking Switzerland -- and he excels as much in early 20th-century works, such as those by Bartok and Stravinsky, and in Russian music, from Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky through Prokofiev and Shostakovich, as he does in music by the French masters.

But he has a reputation as perhaps the greatest living interpreter of French music, based on his creation of an orchestra outside of France superior in its performances of French music to any inside that country. Still, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra -- as most English-speaking people know the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal -- is based in francophone Quebec. Tokyo is quite another matter.

"The organization is impeccable, its musical ideals, too," says Dutoit in his lightly accented English about the NHK, with which he visits the Kennedy Center tomorrow afternoon. "I believe the Far East will play an increasingly important role in classical music in the 21st century. Japan is at the core of an Asian musical explosion that includes Korea, Malaysia and China. And I confess that I would like to be at the center of the action."

There will be no French music on Dutoit's program, which combines a new work by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (". . . In the Shadow of the Tree"), with the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. With the exception of the Sibelius, this kind of programming is rare for the NHK; like other Japanese orchestras, it tends to emphasize German music.

When the Japanese began to look to European models more than 100 years ago, German music was widely considered the best in the world. And that notion continues to prevail.

"It's the island mentality of isolation," Dutoit says. "But things do change -- even in Japan."

Dutoit is the orchestra's first music director. Until his appointment in 1997, the NHK relied primarily on principal guests, such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Horst Stein, Otmar Suitner and Herbert Blomstedt -- all conductors either Germanic by birth or orientation.

"They play more Strauss, Beethoven and Bruckner in Japan than anywhere else in the world -- Germany included," Dutoit says. "But the NHK felt that at the end of the 20th century that it was time for a change."

Dutoit has been a frequent and popular visitor to Japan since 1970; in the past 20 years, he has visited eight times just with the Montreal Symphony. During that time he has developed a reputation for excellence in all kinds of music. "The Japanese know I have a very wide repertory," he says. "Since going to Montreal in 1977, I've done more than 2,300 different pieces."

In fact, in the two years he's been with the NHK, he's given the premieres of major works by Luigi Dallipicola, Honegger, as well as of earlier 20th-century classics, such as those of Bartok, Ravel and Stravinksky. Plus, he's had the NHK commission new works including one by the Chinese composer Tan Dunn and a triple concerto for cellos by Penderecki, which will be performed in 2001 by great cellists representing three successive generations: Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma and Ha Na Chang.

In fact, Dutoit has done so much new music he can't even remember the name of the Gubaidulina work he will conduct tomorrow at the Kennedy Center -- which is scored for traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto as well as for the modern European orchestra.

"This is so frustrating," he says, as he tries to remember.

"Wait a minute," he cries.

"Non," he says, with a moan.

"I just can't seem to find the score here," he says, finally giving up.

"You'll just have to come and hear it for yourself!"

Charles Dutoit

What: Charles Dutoit conducts the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo at the Kennedy Center

When: Tomorrow at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $20-$47.50

Call: 202-467-4600

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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