07 Jan

The JapanNYC festival’s artistic director is Seiji Ozawa. The festival’s first half took place during November and December 2010 at the Film Forum featuring Japanese films with music scores by Takemitsu and later in December featuring three concerts with the Saito Kinen Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and a Tribute Concert to Toru Takemitsu in Zankel Hall. The festival’s second half will occur in March and April and concentrate more on chamber music and other art forms, with venues in Alice Tully Hall and other locations in the city.

Monday, December 13:

We arrive in New York, check into our hotel and meet percussionist Alan Zimmerman, artist Larry Schulte and composer Eric Richards for dinner.  We had learned too late of a performance of Canadian music by a New York group with the name Continuum.  Ironically, I had briefly conducted a Toronto group with the same name.  This New York Continuum was to perform works by Murray Schafer (b. 1933), Gilles Tremblay (b. 1932), Ann Southam and Claude Vivier (1948-83). This missed opportunity was truly poignant as Ann Southam had passed away on 25 November, just a couple of weeks before we arrived in New York.

Tuesday, December 14:

8:00 PM –  The first of three concerts by the Saito Kinen Orchestra. The program: Atshiko Gondai, “Decathexis”, US Premier, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Mitsuko Uchida soloist and Brahms Symphony No.1 in C minor.

Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama established the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 1984 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of their teacher and founder of the Toho Gakuen School of Music, cellist Hideo Saito.1

It was great once more to see Seiji Ozawa in front of an orchestra even if he sometimes had to sit. He has been ill for a long time. His cancer of the esophagus is in remission, but now sciatica is so painful he cannot conduct an entire concert while standing.2 Perhaps because of his recent illnesses, Ozawa programmed works he had conducted for most of his career. The Brahms which concluded the first concert was his solo contribution to the evening. He shared the first two concerts with conductor Tatsuya Shimono.

“Decathexis”(  2010  ) by Atshiko Gondai began with the wind players breathing through their instruments, a cliché from the 1960s, and my heart sank a bit. But in short order these sounds were combined with pianissimo string tremolos and a new world began to develop. The work was a beautiful example of orchestration and my only feeling was that it was too long. We met the composer briefly after the concert in a sushi bar across the street from Carnegie Hall. He was part of a large group of people which included a great surprise, Asaka Takemitsu, Toru’s widow.

The Saito Kinen Orchestra is famous for its string players and their reputation was verified during the Beethoven concerto and the Brahms Symphony. Though their sound is less warm and broad than either the Vienna or Berlin orchestras, I have never before heard a group of string players with such a unanimity of spirit, precision, attack, intonation and tone.  In these aspects they may be the finest orchestral string section in the world and they are primarily products of the Toho Gakuen school.

But this great string section does not make Saito Kinen a great orchestra.  If the concerts I heard were a true indication, some of the the winds, brass and percussion players from the school are not up to the international standard of their string brethren. Also, these sections seem to be a mix of free-lancers and professional players available at the time of the orchestra’s concerts. For example, Sherman Walt principal bassoonist  with the Boston Symphony orchestra and a favourite player of Ozawa, was,  until his death, also principal bassoonist in the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Vic Firth, a close personal friend of Ozawa and longtime timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had been for many years Saito Kinen’s timpanist and I expected to hear him with the orchestra during JapanNYC..

Therefore, I was surprised to see the Berlin Philharmonic timpanist Rainer Seegers  and the Philadelphia Orchestra timpanist Don Liuzzi listed as the two Saito Kinen timpanists. Liuzzi has played with Saito Kinen for quite awhile, his picture appearing in orchestra photos taken at its summer home in Matsumoto, Japan. But Seegers played this opening concert. He was of course, first-rate, but unlike, the more pointillistic  playing of Vic Firth which matched the style of the Saito Kinen strings, Seegers’s dark, full bodied sound so suitable to the Berlin Philharmonic, was to my ears,out of place.

Wednesday the 15th:

8 PM, the second concert by the Saito Kinen Orchestra.
Toru Takemitsu, “November Steps”  with Yukio Tanaka, Biwa and Kifu Mitsuhashi, Shakuhachi.  Hector Berlioz Symphony Fantastique.

At first I was  disappointed to see that Ozawa was not conducting “November Steps”(1967). He had conducted the premiere of this work by Toru Takemitsu with the New York Philharmonic and had then performed the work in Toronto. At that time the biwa soloist was Kenshi Tsuruta (1911-95) and the shakuhachi was played by the Buddhist monk Katsuya Yokoyama (1934-2010).  It is a challenge for me to convey  the artistry of these two musicians. The soul-searing intensity, blissful calm and, what better way to say it, the dramatic Nowness of their music simply defies description. They are two of the greatest musicians I have ever heard.4 (Before her death Kenji Tsuruta lamented the fact that there was no one in Japan who could carry on the tradition of her classic biwa). 5 It was Yukio Tanaka and Kifu Mitsuhashia’s misfortune, at least in my mind, to follow them. But then, who could?

Ozawa has always had an affinity for Takemitsu’s music.6 I have heard no one conduct Takemitsu’s works with such nuanced flexibility and intimacy as Ozawa. I was hoping to revisit the other-worldly-space of “November Steps”, but it was not to be. Perhaps it’s indeed true that one can never go back.

“Symphony Fantastique” (1830) was an altogether different experience. I suppose Ozawa could by now conduct this work from a deep sleep. There were balances and other details I had never heard before, mostly in the strings, and the interpretive flare Liuzzi and Rainer Seegers instilled in the thunderstorm and “March to the Scaffold” gave the music a fresh fearsomeness and sense of dread that was exhilarating and revelatory.

A friend of mine had told me a percussionist living in New York City had been hired specifically for these concerts. There were problems in the percussion section regarding orchestral style during the “Symphony Fantastique”. Except for the cymbal player and timpanists, the rest of the sounds were weak and unsuited to the music.

The Saito Kinen Orchestra is twenty-six years old. Seiji once said he wanted an orchestra of players that had a uniform style and felt this orchestra to be a musical instrument of like minds. However, its goal seems not to be a great orchestra in the mold of the Vienna, Berlin, and Concertgebouw.  It seems to be developing its own unique style and that is commendable. But what about the other half of the orchestra? The winds, brass and percussion ?

If the Toho school can begin developing percussionists on par with Yasunori Yamaguchi, Sumire Yoshihara, Atsuchi Sugawara (a member of the Takemitsu Ensemble with Sumire and Yasunori, ) , Midori Tokada and a half dozen more, all graduates of the  Tokyo University of the Arts or Geidai, and develop first rate wind and brass players, then they would be well on their way to achieving Seiji’s dream and an international recognition, recognition beyond their delighted and proud Japanese constituency.7

Friday the 17th:

6:30 PM. Takemitsu Tribute Concert. Curator, Maki Takemitsu

Our tickets for the New York Japan Festival had been purchased in August and held for us by friends in New York. What a surprise then, to discover our seats right next to Takemitsu’s wife and daughter, Asaka and Maki. My wife and I had not seen Asaka and Maki since the Glenn Gould Prize ceremony in Toronto which honored Takemitsu posthumously in 1996.

Maki had organized this concert. Four jazz musicians, two guitarists, an accordionist and drummer, Tomohiro Yahiro, played and improvised on music from Takemitsu film scores and Pop Songs. Many of the tunes were recognizable to me.  My former colleagues from Nexus and I had made percussion arrangements of the same tunes and many also appeared on one of my all-time favorite CDs by the Japanese pop singer “Seri, Toru Takemitsu Pop Songs”. A great moment on that CD is an accordion solo by a man with the singular name of Coba. Coba’s wife was seated next to Asaka Takemitsu and the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa who had written many of the lyrics for the songs.

My wife and I did not attend the third Saito Kinen concert, a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” (1962). We needed a break and there was much more on the New York music horizon.


1. As recently as a New York Times review of the Japan/NYC Festival opening concert, Saito was referred to as a violinist and this error is regularly repeated..

2. Ozawa did conduct the entire third concert of the Festival which was devoted to Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”. The effort kept him from attending a special ceremony during which he was to have been given a Japanese award for distinction in international cultural affairs. His daughter Seira and son, Yuki accepted it on his behalf.

3. In her “A Memoir of Toru Takemitsu”, iUniverse, Bloomington, IN, 2010, Asaka Takemitsu relates the story of Seiji Ozawa conducting the first rehearsals of “November Steps” in Toronto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He did this because he was afraid of the New York Philharmonic player’s traditional response to new music.  Asaka relates how Ozawa considered Toronto to be a “warm city”, a good atmosphere to introduce Kenji Tsuruta and Yokoyama, the soloists who had never before been in North America. Ozawa’s fears were well-founded. Many of the New York Philharmonic players snickered when Tsuruta and Yokoyama walked on stage for the first New York rehearsals.

4. A Toronto Symphony recording from 1968 was digitalized and released by RCA Victor Japan in 1990 (BVCC 6048) with the title “Takemitsu November Steps, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa”. This is a brilliant record of Tsuruta and Yokoyama’s artistry.

Ozawa also recorded “November Steps” with the same soloists and the Saito Kinen Orchestra in 1991, on Philips (PHCP-160). Technically, this is the better recording, but here the soloists lack the spontaneity, freshness and “nowness” of the magical Toronto  recording.

Takemitsu wrote a very lovely and strange work for Tsurata titled “Voyage”(1973). This work was coupled with Takemitsu’s “In and Autumn Garden” for Gagaku orchestra (1979) and was released by Deutsche Gramophone on vinyl, (G2457). “Voyage” contains an example of Tsuruta singing in the Japanese hatari style.

5. Before her death, Tsuruta, a very successful businesswoman, sold her home and gave her considerable fortune to the Biwa Association, Ibid

6. Asaka Takemitsu recalls Toru inviting Ozawa to a performance in Japan of Takemitsu’s “Eclipse”(1966) for Biwa and Shakuhachi. It was this exposure to the sound of classic Japanese instruments that inspired Ozawa to suggest to Leonard Bernstein that the New York Philharmonic commission Takemitsu to write a work for  these instruments and Western orchestra. Ibid.

“November Steps” created a sensation among young composers when it was premiered.  However, Takemitsu  was not convinced of the works efficacy and wrote only one other work for Biwa, Shakuhachi and Western orchestra,” Autumn”(1973). “Autumn” was recorded on Denon, CD with the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra in 1997. Yokoyama plays Shakuhachi, but Tsuruta is replaced by Kakujo  Nakamura, Biwa.

The reader is strongly advised to see Takemitsu, Toru, “Confronting Silence”, Fallen Leaf Press, Berkeley, CA,1995., page 677.

7. Kuniko Kato and Rika Fujii (daughter of Mutsuko and sister of Haruka) are graduates of the Toho Gakuen School of Music. Both are making significant contributions to the percussive arts..

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 7, 2011 in Articles, Contemporary Music


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: