Founded in 1990 by conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein along with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Pacific Music Festival (PMF) in Sapporo, Japan, is an international event focused on music education. Since its inception a quarter of a century ago, over 3,500 musicians have taken part in the PMF Academy, a month-long festival scheduled every year in July, where young performers get a chance to be mentored by world-class musicians, experience Japanese culture and perform on an international stage.

We found out more about it all from PMF Artistic Manager Nick Akers:

Tell us about Bernstein’s vision for the Pacific Music Festival. Are you remaining true to it, or are you developing it for a new century?

Bernstein believed in the power of music to contribute to world peace. It was just as ambitious a thing to believe then as it is now. But music really does cross all manner of cultural barriers. The second aspect was his drive to expand education across the globe. Thinking on that scale, there was Tanglewood in the US and Schleswig-Holstein in Europe, so the next step was to create a festival in Asia. At the first PMF he declared that he would dedicate the remainder of his life to educating young people. We remain true to both of these aims by adapting them to our times and ensuring continued viability.

Give us a snapshot of what awaits the participants. What are the most exciting things that PMF has to offer them?

Music all day every day, instructed by players from some of the world’s best orchestras, led by giants of the conducting world, 40 concerts. It demands serious dedication and skill. It expands capacities, even elevates consciousness. The rewards are palpable, and some bonds formed here are lifelong. Also, the food’s amazing, the city is friendly and supportive and the summer climate is among the best I know. Don’t get me started on the mountains!

Many music festivals invite young musicians to classes. But PMF seems extraordinarily generous in what it pays the participants: travel within Japan as well as to/from it, accommodation, teaching. What’s the thinking behind this, and how can you possibly afford it?

The idea is to afford every talented young musician the same opportunity insofar as possible, and part of that is striving to remove financial considerations from the equation. It’s a great strength for us, because we find some amazing musicians who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise. To sustain this, we are dependent on the support of people who believe in what the festival is doing. That ranges from corporations to individuals, and includes the City, which takes pride in its art: PMF has become an important part of the Sapporo economy.

How many participants do you take a year, and what sort of ages are they? And how many applicants do you get for each place?

The orchestra is usually around 90-100 players, and the age range is 18-29 (the average is usually 24). In 2018 we had 1,165 applicants for 98 places in the orchestra, so around 12 per place overall, though for some instruments it got up to 30 per place.

Are most of your participants visiting Japan or travelling abroad for the first time? 

Somewhere around 75-80% of the orchestra comes from outside Japan (in 2018 we had 22 nationalities represented, after auditions from 65 countries) so we get a lot of people traveling to Japan and/or abroad for the first time.

How do you involve the participants in Japanese culture, and what do you observe about how they react?

We put a lot of effort into introducing them to the culture. There is a volunteer group that hosts events at which one can try on a kimono, make matcha, or play a koto, for example. The festival is run entirely in English: no Japanese language skill is required, and the majority of the students do not speak it, yet they consistently show a desire to understand and connect with the culture, to reach out and communicate with the community. The mutual expressions of respect in those encounters are so encouraging to observe!


We also spoke to three former PMF participants:

What will you most remember about the festival?

Darío Portillo Gavarre (flute, PMF 2016, ’17): Japan with its culture and many people from all around the world speaking the same language: music! The musical experience was fantastic and I really learned a lot.

Janet Lyu (violin, PMF 2013, ’16, ’17): The thing I’ll remember most about PMF is the seemingly eternal applause and incredible enthusiasm of the audience at every performance. It reminded me that we do what we do because sharing music is infectious and worthy.

What will you most remember about travelling to Japan?

DPG: I loved the country and the people. It was my first time in Asia and it was quite a surprise how different things could be on the other side of the world, but at the same time how close as human beings we are, even if I couldn’t say a single word in Japanese!

JL: I can’t say I don’t fear trying new things, but I’ll never forget the excitement about travelling to Japan. I constantly felt like a little kid and I was in awe of everything.

Tell us about the daily experience of your trip – how you spent your time...

DPG: It was quite tiring but fantastic. Even if you only get one day off, I was so motivated to go into the next rehearsal or concert and at the end of the day to just hang out with people!

Sameer Apte (cello, PMF 2017): A normal day of rehearsal begins with breakfast at the hotel, then walking to Kitara, the concert hall. After the morning rehearsal, we break for lunch, sometimes at the hall and sometimes out, before another rehearsal in the afternoon, typically on different repertoire. After that, there are chamber music rehearsals or coachings, then dinner and a night out with friends.

How did you get on with Japanese food?

DPG: It’s just the best food I have ever tasted! I will definitely go back to Japan for this.

SA: The food was fantastic. The Japanese aesthetic of multisensory presentation of food is extremely unique, and I'm glad that I was able to appreciate such a variety while I was there.

What’s the most valuable thing that your stay at the PMF accomplished for you?

JL: Being surrounded by immense talent for an entire month in Sapporo left an indelible mark on me both as a human and a musician. I love playing in orchestras because of the transcendence of being one tiny part of a large group.

SA: I think the most important thing a festival like PMF offers is the chance to connect with so many other musicians from around the world. Everyone is amazingly perceptive of cultural differences and people actively strive to learn so much about different parts of the world. There's also the opportunity to learn from members of world-class orchestras.

What advice would you give to a young musician applying for PMF?

DPG: You may try to record several times and be patient to really take the best shot. Even if you don’t get selected I would keep trying, as there are a lot of good people and very few places, so the choice is hard!

JL: Be open minded. It’s an amazing hub of musicians from all corners of the earth, which means there will be all kinds of expectations that you may be unfamiliar with. It’s also very fast paced and the grueling rehearsal schedule may test your muscles, so make sure to decompress daily and keep tabs on your physical health.

SA: Make as much music as you can. This experience is not about how many wrong notes you play, it's about being a musical ambassador for the world. 

For more information on the festival and on how to apply please visit the PMF website.


This article was sponsored by the Pacific Music Festival.