In Tokyo, it’s quite typical to find concert halls inside a modern high-rise office building or within a busy business complex. This is because in the 1980s and '90s at the height of the Japanese economic boom, many companies built concert halls within their premises in order to enhance their corporate image and to contribute to society through the arts. A concert hall that set this trend in an innovative way was Suntory Hall, which opened in 1986, a long-time dream for Keizo Saji, then President of Suntory Ltd (a beverage and food company famous for their whisky). Situated in Ark Hills, a lively multi-purpose city complex with offices, hotel, casual restaurants and bars in the heart of Tokyo near the popular nightlife area of Roppongi, the hall changed the experiences of concert-going for many and its great acoustics have set the standard for many subsequent halls nationally and internationally.

Main entrance © Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall
Herbert von Karajan-Platz sign © David Karlin
© David Karlin
Suntory Hall was the first concert hall in Japan to be built using the vineyard style, in which the seating surrounds the stage rising up in serried rows. In his quest for a concert hall with the “world’s most beautiful sound”, Saji decided that the hall should be modeled on the Philharmonie in Berlin, enlisting the advice and support of Herbert von Karajan. The acoustic design was by Nagata Acoustics whose team included the young Yasuhisa Toyota who is now in demand all over the world. Karajan himself attended the acoustic tests and was greatly impressed by the sound when he conducted there after its opening (The square in front of the hall is named Herbert-von-Karajan Platz in his honour).

The Main Hall seats 2,006 and I can safely say that from virtually any seat one can enjoy great acoustics and unrestricted view (only a handful of seats at the back of the stalls are under an overhang). It has a rich and warm sound (the reverberation time when fully seated is 2.1 seconds), and one feels surrounded by a luxurious yet sensitive sonority. One can experience some amazing pianissimos as well as huge orchestral tuttis. The acoustics suit all types of classical concerts, from orchestral to semi-staged opera, chamber music, piano or song recitals. In addition, there is a smaller venue (Blue Rose Hall which seats 380-432 and has moveable seating).

Main Hall © Suntory Hall
Main Hall
© Suntory Hall
Over the years, Suntory Hall has become a favourite destination for many international musicians. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has said that the hall has “both a grandness and the intimacy which is a hard thing to combine”, and for Daniel Barenboim, the hall’s acoustics are special because it combines the clarity of modern halls and the roundness and full tone of the famous old halls. Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, current President of the Hall and himself an eminent cellist and busy international musician, explains that the hall “not only aims for the best sound but also to be a world-class place where musicians and audience meet and make harmony together”. The word for sound and harmony in Japanese is “Hibiki 響” and it is apt that this word is used in their hall logo. Incidentally it is also the name of Suntory’s famed whisky – and the hall was the first in Japan to serve wine and other alcoholic drinks in the foyer!

Suntory Hall is a popular and busy hall, hosting more than 600 concerts per year, although as is common with most Japanese concert halls, a substantial proportion is organised by external promoters. Basically it is a privately operated concert hall, although it does receive public funding for specific projects. Notably the hall does not have a single resident orchestra, but seven of the nine professional orchestras in the Tokyo area have a subscription series here, including the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic. Also, many visiting international orchestras and soloists perform here, as well as high-quality amateur orchestras. Concerts at the Suntory Hall are often sold out – I think people choose concerts here for the best combination of ambience and acoustics.

Suntory Hall entrance and Karajan-Platz © Suntory Hall
Suntory Hall entrance and Karajan-Platz
© Suntory Hall
Suntory Hall’s own annual programme centers on the Autumn Festival (that includes yearly visits by the Vienna Philharmonic), Chamber Music Garden in the Spring and the Suntory Summer Festival of contemporary music (in which many commissioned works have been performed). They also run two academies for young professionals, an Opera Academy and the Chamber Music Academy, fostering the next generation of international musicians. It has also implemented various initiatives to engage the local public such as monthly free lunchtime organ concerts (making excellent use of their 5,898 pipe organ) and educational projects including the free Open House event for families which attracted more than 12,000 people in 2016. Parts of this year’s 30th Anniversary Gala Concert were transmitted to the square in Ark Hills as a live relay. After the anniversary celebrations in 2017, the hall will be closed for refurbishment from February to August.

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, President © Suntory Hall
Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, President
© Suntory Hall
In the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the hall is aiming to appeal to an increasingly global audience. “In recent years, we are noticing a more international audience at Suntory Hall, and we hope to open up to these global visitors” says Tsutsumi. “We have already introduced announcements in English and special backstage tours for groups from abroad. We have embarked on exchange projects with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore and we want to contribute to the Asian musical scene as the leading hall in Asia.” He is also passionate about promoting Japanese composers and musicians, often giving premières himself, such as in this year’s Chamber Music Garden. “There are many talented composers and performers in Japan and we hope that people from abroad will take an interest in our new music as well as our traditional music. We think the 2020 Olympics will be a great opportunity for Japanese musicians to think globally and reach out to the world.”

 

Article sponsored by Suntory Hall