In March, amidst rising fears of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra was the last one standing amongst Tokyo’s professional orchestras. I attended their last concert on 21st March before a nationwide state of emergency was declared on 7th April and the whole orchestral community was silenced. Three months later, the Tokyo Symphony was one of the first orchestras to restart public performances, giving a full-length concert at Suntory Hall.

Taijiro Iimori
© N. Ikegami | TSO

What was notable about this concert was that whilst many orchestras that have restarted are reducing their concerts to an hour-long, no-interval programme involving a small-size ensemble, Tokyo Symphony gave this concert without any changes to the announced programme of Beethoven and Mendelssohn. There were, inevitably, changes of performers, since musicians from overseas are not yet permitted entry to Japan; veteran conductor Taijiro Iimori, former Artistic Director of New National Theatre Tokyo, replaced Hubert Soudant, and pianist Kyoko Tabe stood in for Inon Bartanan.

Several precautionary measures were implemented both on and off the stage to secure safety and minimize contact between people. In this case, audience measures included compulsory use of hand sanitizers at entry, wearing face masks, and thermal screening of body temperature. The auditorium was at half capacity (adhering to the current official guidelines), and on the stage, the whole string section wore masks, as well as the conductor and soloist. The orchestra seating looked largely unchanged (there is no set rule on distancing between people in Japan). The wind players were slightly more spaced out than usual, but the string players shared the desk as before.

Tokyo Symphony Orchestra
© N. Ikegami | TSO

The concert opened with Beethoven’s overture to the Creation of Prometheus, which was light-footed and joyous, with sonorous contributions from the solo flute. Had the orchestra’s music-making changed after the prolonged silence? No, I didn’t think so. Luckily, the orchestra did had some live streaming (without audience) opportunities in the interim, and I did not detect any rustiness in their playing – if anything, I felt more determination and commitment from individual players. On the other hand, the acoustics needed a bit of getting used to. Obviously the optimum acoustics of Suntory Hall is not based on half capacity, and the sound was more boomy as usual, with some of the melodic lines lacking definition.

Kyoko Tabe was an elegant soloist in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. She is a stylish performer and technically refined, with a light but clear tone. For me, though, her approach to this darkest of Beethoven’s piano concerti felt too well-mannered, and especially in the first movement, the emotional drama felt smoothed out. Meanwhile, she brought out the beauty of the slow second movement with Romantic introspection. In the finale, the piano and orchestra came together in lively dialogue, and their final surge towards the finish was hugely satisfying. Her solo encore, Mendelssohn’s melancholic Venetian Gondola Song, linked us neatly to the second half.

Although Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony was performed with the same string forces as in the first half, the sonority was palpably richer and heavier. Iimori, a renowned Wagner interpreter in Japan, took an old-school Romantic approach in this work, and it was interesting that under his hands some sections of the symphony – e.g. the stormy sections in the first movement – gained a Wagnerian gravity. The outer movements had some static moments and could have done with more forward momentum, but the Scherzo flowed along nicely with snappy rhythms. The all-female woodwind principals who contributed some delightful solos deserve special mention. In the finale, the transition into the majestic A major Coda was handled with nobility and grandeur, and it felt like coming through a long tunnel into the sunshine – an apt feeling for these times.