Kazushi Ono
© Miyoshi Eisuke

“I have been conducting in Europe for 25 years”, Tokyo-born Kazushi Ono tells me, “first in Zagreb, Croatia, then as Chief Conductor of Karlsruhe Opera, then La Monnaie, then Opéra de Lyon. Do you know the common elements of those countries?” I hesitate. “Gourmet!”, he announces, with an impish grin. “I appreciate being a gourmet, but also I like to be a gourmet of excellent sounds.”

We’re holding the interview in the elegant surroundings of Les Deux Garçons, the Aix-en-Provence café frequented by the famous from Cézanne and Picasso to Milhaud and Churchill. The previous evening has been the second night of this year’s Aix Festival with Ono conducting a relative rarity, Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. He considers the opera to be one of Prokofiev’s masterpieces, taking “almost forgotten material” by Russian novelist Valery Bryusov. “It has been written fin-de-siècle, but Prokofiev composed the opera in the 1920s – this is just the period of the Russian avant-garde.”

What fascinates Ono is that Prokofiev has used the instrumentation of a standard romantic orchestra, but created sounds that no other composer of his time would have imagined. He points at the way Prokofiev keeps us more or less permanently scared by means of string divisions and the creative use of percussion: “for example, in the second act, when Renata is hearing some strange knocking, the orchestra is divided into more than ten parts of strings; the division of the sounds is so, so unusual.” Prokofiev’s use of every corner of the orchestra and the way he continually keeps changing gear would seem to make this incredibly difficult to conduct, so I ask Ono if this is the case: “One element that helps me is that Prokofiev has used leitmotifs very effectively. And one important thing is that Prokofiev has written this opera in one big crescendo from the beginning to the end: this is his advice for the conductor.”

Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, Aix Festival, July 2018
© Pascal Victor | artcompress

This is the third production of The Fiery Angel that Ono has conducted (the others were by Benedict Andrews at Opéra de Lyon, and by Richard Jones at La Monnaie and La Scala). “The approaches of the three directors were completely different. This time, I thought what Mariusz [Treliński] has brought to this amazing music, has reminded me of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch – the elements are in a panorama which is changing always, that matches the change of the opera and the music.”

The work I want to quiz Ono about is Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Hibiki, which was announced this May as winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prize for Best Large Scale Composition; Hibiki was commissioned by Suntory Hall for its 30th anniversary celebration concert on 12th November 2016. Ono advised Suntory on the commission, which was an important one, he explains: “Suntory Hall's first concert series included the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan [in the event, Karajan was indisposed and substituted by Seiji Ozawa] and since then, that hall has played a really central position in Japan. So many international orchestras have been invited, and also the leading Japanese orchestras are always playing in Suntory Hall. I was asked to conduct the concert and to recommend the composer to write the commissioned piece.” He considered various options – Rihm, Benjamin, Adès and others – but settled on Turnage first and foremost because he provides “beauty, beauty, beauty of the music, but he is always thinking of how that music can be influential on the human being. That’s an attitude which I adore.”

Sally Matthews, Kazushi Ono, Mark Anthony-Turnage, Mihoko Fujimura, BBC Proms 2017
© Chris Christodoulou | BBC

Ono has been actively following Turnage since the late 90s, when he conducted the première of Silent Cities, a “very gorgeous piece” based on the memory of World War I, constructed as variations on the “very languid but very profound” theme by jazz guitarist John Scofield. They subsequently discovered, with some surprise, that their paths had crossed much earlier: “Mark-Anthony and I were born in the same year, 1960, and we were together in Tanglewood when we were 22 or 23 years old and I had a lesson by Bernstein: he was a fellow of composition and I was a fellow of the conducting class”. The strength of Ono’s memory of Silent Cities clinched his choice of Turnage as the right man for the commission of what became Hibiki, premièred at Suntory Hall and performed the following summer at the BBC Proms.

Turnage amazed and delighted Ono both in the construction of the music and in his understanding of Japanese sensitivities. As well as being Suntory Hall’s 30th anniversary, 2016 was the fifth anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami: Turnage realised this and proposed that his piece should link both events. The construction is of a central celebratory dance (“a very positive, active music”) framed by tragic elements and moments of relief. The most harrowing is Hashitte Iru, a setting of a text by Japanese World War II poet So Sakon, which describes the poet losing the grip of his mother’s hand during the flight from the Tokyo fire-bombing. This is followed by the relief of the children’s chorus singing a Japanese translation of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star: “the idea is to connect two different worlds with one very famous song, I think”. After the Suntory Dance comes a setting of a text from Kabuki theatre, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, in which a man and the geisha with whom he has fallen in illicit love decide that death is the only way out: “this is a very famous Japanese text, a very beautiful text. Understanding the true reality but then choosing positive death, this is the kind of world of the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde”. For Ono, the piece is brought together by the last movement, the simple repetition, without description, of the name “Fukushima” (the site of many deaths and a terrifying evacuation after a nuclear meltdown). “After that, you feel, I am happy to be a human being; that is the message this piece gives us. I really respect Mark Anthony’s activity and his instinct and his knowledge about what’s going on in the world. This is very important for composers who should write something new and something for our time. I hope that he will continue to compose operas”.

Kazushi Ono
© Miyoshi Eisuke

Opera is very important to Ono. His tenure as Principal Conductor at Lyon came to an end in 2017, but he now plans “to do one very important production in one of Europe’s leading opera houses once a year, and I will do also one production at least at Tokyo New National Theatre. It’s very a priori, I think, to play opera and have the sense to accompany the human voice”. Operas he plans to conduct in future include Benjamin’s Written on Skin, Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico and a new production on which work is already advanced, but whose composer he will not reveal at this point.

Ono also plans to spend more time in Japan, where he is Music Director at Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, to share his experience from Europe. “Everybody knows that Japanese orchestras are technical perfection. But sometimes, you have to have the courage to make a very angry sound; to play beautiful sounds only is not enough.”

What, I ask, is the first thing he does at the end of a performance, when the curtain calls have finished? “In my youth, I used to think of what I have just finished, always thinking it was not so efficient, what took place. But now, I am getting older. The first thing I do after a performance is to forget everything about it!”

[Update 18-Sep-2018: Mr. Ono has informed us that the list of cities in the first paragraph should of course include Barcelona, where he has been music director of the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya since 2015]

This interview was sponsored by Suntory Foundation for Arts.