The Olympics is not the only big event that is taking place around Tokyo this summer. A large-scale festival of classical music, Festa Muza Summer, is currently being held at Muza Kawasaki Concert Hall (until 9th August). This festival of mainly orchestral music has been going since 2005, and this year, ten professional orchestras from Tokyo and the regions will gather in Kawasaki, as well as the orchestra from the local music college.

Kahchun Wong
© Satoshi Aoyagi

On Monday, I heard the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO) conducted by Kahchun Wong in a programme of Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Singaporean Wong, winner of Bamberg’s Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2016, is currently the music director of the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra. But he is also a frequent guest in Japan, both professionally and privately – his wife is a Japanese – and during the pandemic, he stood in for several conductors who couldn’t travel to Japan, increasing his fan base. I first heard him in March with the Japan Philharmonic and was immediately charmed by his style of music making.

There is something really sincere and genuine in the way he communicates with the orchestra, and he conducts with assurance and warmth which must stem from his deep understanding of the score. This was his debut with the TMSO, but a strong rapport with the orchestra was evident from the opening of Liszt’s Les Préludes. Wong built up the gradual anticipation in the slow introduction, and then in the main section, he developed the dramatic narrative with aplomb. Although the work is not heard that often these days, Liszt’s orchestration is colourful and opulent (although the coda does sound a bit over the top to modern ears), and with the orchestra on great form, the performance made me rediscover the romantic beauty of this piece.

Yuya Okamoto, Kahchun Wong and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Meanwhile, Wong also made me listen attentively to Dvořák’s ever-popular “New World” Symphony. There was nothing routine about the way he conducted the piece. Unlike some young conductors, he didn’t try to whip up excitement by taking a fast-speed, driven approach – if anything, he was the opposite. He crafted and shaped every motif and phrase in a caring and imaginative way (using lots of unique hand gestures that are sometimes quite funny), thereby giving a real sense of direction to the music. He aimed to control every detail – not in a tyrannical way, but in a warm and motivating manner. True, his interpretation of Dvořák didn’t emphasize the “American” or “Bohemian” elements, or folkiness for that matter, but it was neat and well balanced, yet with vibrancy and momentum.

The TMSO responded readily and alertly to his every gesture and phrasing, and gave a rousing performance. There was no weak link in the orchestra, from the brilliant strings, outstanding wind principals and the resounding horns and brass. For me, it was refreshing to hear the orchestra away from its regular homes of Tokyo Bunka Kaikan/Suntory Hall. In the sonorous yet clear acoustics of Muza Kawasaki, it felt like viewing the orchestra from another angle.

In between the Liszt and Dvořák, young upcoming cellist Yuya Okamoto performed Tchaikovsky’s elegant Variations on a Rococo Theme (in the conventional Fitzenhagen version). Technically, the work posed no problems for Okamoto, who breezed through the virtuosic variations effortlessly, with collegial support from Wong and the chamber-size orchestra. Okamoto’s tone is sonorous and smooth, and he played with a delicate touch – especially in the highest register – although a little more personality and freedom could have been desired in the cadenza sections. His solo encore, Casals’ Song of the Birds, gave us a moment of quiet reflection in uncertain times.