Paavo Järvi © Julia Bayer
Paavo Järvi
© Julia Bayer

Konnichiwa. There’s no holding back from Paavo Järvi, who’s at pains to dispel some of the misconceptions about Japanese musicians: “We need to examine our own prejudices,” he says. As Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra since 2015, and with conducting experience in Japan for well over twenty years, he should know. In a wide-ranging conversation I had with him in London, he points to the high-profile individuals who are concertmasters in places like Berlin, with the Philharmoniker as well as at the Staatsoper, or at the Tonhalle in Zürich where he is now also in charge. So, he continues ironically, they might just be good enough for a few such appointments in European orchestras – the eyebrow is raised to hint at lazy and misinformed thinking in some quarters – but a whole sea of Japanese faces altogether in an orchestra that is aiming for the highest international standards? How could that possibly work?

The short answer is that it does. Very often, and this is especially true of the younger players, their first teachers in Japan have already accumulated musical insights all over the world, and they themselves have studied in centres of European tradition in Germany, Russia, France, Italy and the UK, as well as attending numerous masterclasses. The technical quality is there, no question. But then comes the next instance of prejudice: “Ah, but they play without understanding”.

Järvi is determined to shoot down that myth about his orchestra. It is precisely because the NHK reveres everything old and German that it has built up such a fine tradition in its core repertory. Amongst the regular visitors during the second half of the 20th century were not only Herbert von Karajan but Otmar Suitner and Horst Stein, who both embodied all the qualities of the reliable and dependable Kapellmeister. They knew how to rehearse painstakingly, had amassed invaluable experience of breathing with singers in opera houses and had a clear idea of the sound they wanted to create that was appropriate in the big Romantic works. On return visits they would then go back to the same pieces over and over again. Järvi singles out Wolfgang Sawallisch – who spent almost 40 years as the NHK’s conductor – as being especially formative in developing an understanding of the works of Richard Strauss. And the sound of this orchestra, Maestro Järvi, what exactly is that? “Dark, very legato, very tenuto, very sostenuto.” He even uses the word “glutinous” to describe the degree of expressiveness, at some remove from the generally light and fast playing he finds elsewhere.

Self-evidently the NHK has a huge advantage by being a radio symphony orchestra. It is mainly funded by the Japanese public, it pays its musicians more than any other Japanese orchestra, who in turn enjoy the kind of job security normally accorded only to public service employees. This kind of stability is one factor in understanding why the NHK is not only Asia’s top orchestra but is undeniably, according to Järvi, part of the international front-rank. This will come as no surprise to anybody who heard the stunning performances of Mahler Sixth which it gave on its previous European tour in 2017. But there’s something else which helps to explain the success. It is, as he says, “an amazingly disciplined ensemble”. This is in part a reflection of Japanese society as a whole, where “organisation has been transformed into an art”, putting ideas of German super-efficiency very much into the shade. Everybody in the orchestra automatically buys into the concepts of clarity, mutual respect and vertical togetherness. It is always obvious, for example, in rare cases of disputes, who to go to and which procedures need to be followed. Like so many other ensembles, NHK now has its own orchestral academy.

With such a solid core of tradition behind it, did Järvi feel he had to make any changes when he took over? Here he seizes another chance to debunk western notions about Japanese society. Admittedly, the international face of Japan is that of a highly technological state, but that is only part of the picture. There are huge swathes of the country which have no public wifi access; the country rarely turns outwards and instead expects others to come to it. He was quite shocked on his arrival to learn that the orchestra had no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. That has now all changed, with a lively presence on social media helping to raise the international profile of the orchestra as well as providing a domestic forum for reactions to whatever the orchestra happens to be doing. The regular TV and radio broadcast of concerts is already offering a high degree of visibility. What astonishes though is the fact that every single concert is also being filmed in ultra-high definition, to a standard not yet commercially available and well in excess of what is available on Blu-ray. This is just one example of the way in which Japan is continuing to keep abreast of technological developments.

Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra © Belinda Lawley
Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra
© Belinda Lawley

Ahead of next year’s European tour, I asked about the repertory the NHK will be bringing with it. This includes Bruckner's Seventh. Another opportunity to dispel myths: the idea that a crack Japanese orchestra couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say about such a cornerstone of the Austro-German repertory. If that were indeed the case, “Why would you even entertain the idea of a top American orchestra going to play Debussy in Paris? Or a non-Russian orchestra attempting Tchaikovsky?” The conversation turns to a work of Takemitsu which is Järvi’s personal favourite and is part of the tour programme, How slow the wind. “It is,” he says, “very atmospheric and full of beautiful colours in the orchestration. What I like about it is a certain orientalism, the kind of music which instantly leads you to think it could be Japanese. Takemitsu gives you a motive which never ends: you never achieve closure.” Given that he has a forthcoming CD devoted entirely to Takemitsu’s works, including Nostalghia and the Violin Concerto, wouldn’t it be possible to programme the first half exclusively with Japanese compositions? But here the commercial pressures of western concert promoters intervene to forestall such ambitions. Audiences expect the standard works and they also expect to see internationally recognised soloists playing the standard concertos.

To some extent there is a similar built-in conservatism to the requirements of programming back home, even though there is a large subscription base which is often handed down from one generation to the next. “If you put on anything by Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss or Mahler, the concert is guaranteed to sell out.” That said, Järvi has been keen to extend the musical diet and broaden the NHK repertoire. He has already done symphonies by Sibelius and Nielsen as well as Messiaen’s Turangalîla and has pushed on in his exploration of Russian music. Though here, he admits, he comes up against problems in playing which are almost universal and not specific to the NHK. Players these days aim for a beautiful sound, yet in Shostakovich the piccolo must sound like “a bad military whistle” and the xylophone has less in common with an imagined marimba concerto by Bach and more with the idea of hitting somebody over the head with a hard stick. He adds tellingly: “Everything is in the score and yet nothing is in the score.”

I ask about Järvi’s particular relationship with his players. Like most artistic partnerships it is constantly evolving. He aims at encouraging even greater freedom of expression, of “letting your imagination go”, as he says, the kind of music-making that informs the best qualities of chamber music. When it comes to the important flute solo in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, he would always say: “Don’t ask me how to play it. I’m here to enable you to play it the way you want to play it.” In that sense he sees himself as a facilitator, though he also insists that every orchestra needs a conductor. Why is this? Because musicians today are expected to be familiar with such a wide range of repertoire, it is impossible to have an ideal depth of understanding and overview within individual pieces. He cites the almost nonchalant view amongst orchestras elsewhere. “Brahms First? Oh yes, we know Brahms First.” But there’s a huge difference between “knowing” Brahms First and really knowing it. He recalls a run of ten performances of Don Giovanni he recently did at La Scala, where all the musicians in the pit knew every word of the spoken recitative. “If you play twenty Brahms First’s every year for 50 years, then you know it!”

What stands out for Järvi though is the question of trust. He has little time for journalistic notions of the magic created by conductors. It is all about a real musical and human connection with the players. If his musicians can see absolute reliability from him on the podium, they will follow instinctively. In turn, he is unstinting in his praise for an orchestra that is always thoroughly prepared and totally attentive during rehearsals. “If that’s professionalism,” he says, “nobody can beat them.” Arigatou gozaimasu, Maestro Järvi!

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This article was sponsored by the NHK Symphony Orchestra.