What do the Boston Symphony, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker have in common? First of all, they are as likely as any to feature in anyone’s list of the world’s greatest ensembles – indeed, in Bachtrack’s 2015 poll the Berlin Phil and the Concertgebouw came first and second.

Tokyo's Karajan Place © Suntory Hall
Tokyo's Karajan Place
© Suntory Hall

Each has its own illustrious tradition, with the Gewandhausorchester’s reaching back to the 18th century. But each of them also has a home concert hall renowned for its acoustics, from the traditional 19th-century shoeboxes of Boston’s Symphony Hall and Amsterdam’s lavish Concertgebouw to the modernist Philharmonie and Gewandhaus, opened in Berlin in 1963 and Leipzig in 1981 respectively.

For many, though, all these great venues have to concede to Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, designed with the help of Herbert von Karajan to improve even on the acoustics of Berlin’s revolutionary venue – the legendary maestro described the result as an “akustisches Schmuckkästchen” (an “acoustic treasure chest”). The hall opened in 1986, and, having celebrated its 30th birthday last year, reopens at the start of the new season following six months of renovation.

And one more thing these orchestras have in common? They will be there to celebrate in November as Suntory Hall plays host to a mouth-watering feast of orchestral music. Each is joined by some of the biggest names in today’s classical music world, in programmes, built around pillars of the symphonic repertory, that reflect each of their long and varied traditions,.

Main Hall, Suntory Hall © Suntory Hall
Main Hall, Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall

The Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons embodies a further historic links between at least two of the orchestras, as Principal Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhauskapellmeister designate in Leipzig. Here he conducts three programmes with his American orchestra, featuring symphonies by Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Haydn and Mahler. American virtuoso Gil Shaham joins them for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, while two of the orchestra’s principals – flautist Elizabeth Rowe and harpist Jessica Zhou – step into the limelight for Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp.

The Gewandhausorchester emphasise their own unrivalled history by presenting, on the Japanese stop of a four week tour, works that they premiered in the 19th century: Schubert’s Ninth Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh, plus violin concertos by Brahms and Mendelssohn. The soloist in both concertos is the multi-award-winning Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos. The remarkable, ever-youthful Herbert Blomstedt will conduct, only months after his own 90th-birthday celebrations in Leipzig.

Coming to Suntory Hall as part of its tour through South Korea and Japan, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra perform under their Chief Conductor, Daniele Gatti. They bring two programmes: the first presents Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with Frank Peter Zimmermann) and Brahms’ mighty First Symphony; the second offers sunnier fare, with Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 (a showcase for the orchestra’s principal cello Tatjana Vassiljeva) and Mahler’s Fourth.

Sir Simon Rattle © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle
© Monika Rittershaus

In characteristic style, two concerts from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic offer a bridge from the 19th century to the 20th and through into the 21st. Their first concert places Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto (with Lang Lang as the superstar soloist) between Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony; the second is centred around a new work by Unsuk Chin, flanked by Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony.

All these concerts represent a mouth-watering prospect for audiences. But it should also be a treat for the musicians. “Every time we come to play here it’s really a thrill,” Rattle has said about the 2,006-seat Main Hall, shortly after he and his Berliners brought their Beethoven symphony cycle to Tokyo.

In one of several video messages posted on the hall’s website as part of its 30th-birthday celebrations, the British maestro, who has been conducting in the hall since his days at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, compares it to “a warmer version of the Philharmonie in Berlin. It’s the acoustic, the sound,” he explains: “this natural, warm, deep sound. And for any orchestra you are just so amazingly grateful to have the possibility of what you can do here.”

Frank Peter Zimmermann, soloist with the Concertgebouw orchestra, describes the acoustic as “so natural, and warming,” imagining the clarity with which the sound travels to every individual member of the audiences. “Also,” he adds, “the audience is fantastic. Everything here is fantastic … you feel the hall is giving something to you, which many halls don’t, you listen to your own sound and you feel that there’s something added, even more beautiful, then you start listening even more to what you do.”

Gil Shaham, who performs the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, remembers playing in the hall as an 18-year-old in 1989. He describes it as “a wonderful home for music and musicians… it works for the sound of one violin in the same way it works for a symphony orchestra of 120 instruments.”

And for three weeks in November, it will indeed be a wonderful home for many of today’s most wonderful musicians. The tantalising repertoire they are due to present will rarely, one suspects, have sounded better. 


Article sponsored by Suntory Hall, Suntory Foundation for Arts.