Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi is a solo cellist, a chamber musician, a professor, a regular competition judge and a festival director as well as being president of Suntory Hall and the Japanese Federation of Musicians and former president of Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. With so many different roles to play, I ask him in which is he most comfortable and happy?

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi
© Narusayu Nabeshima

“I lived for almost 50 years in the United States and Canada, teaching and playing concerts and so on. My professor at Indiana University was the great, great cellist and mentor Janos Starker: when I left the United States to come back to Japan, he said to me ‘Tsuyoshi, don’t forget you’re a cellist’. I think that really tells me everything. Yes, I do lots of things, but whatever I do is from the point of view of the cellist. I’m not very young any more – not young at all, in fact – but I am still able to perform and I enjoy performing and I want to perform.”

When Suntory Hall was built in 1986, Tsutsumi was already an established cellist. He sees the story as going back a long way, to Japan’s re-opening to the West in the late nineteenth century. “Japanese people decided that we really have to learn from other countries. At that time, the top people of our government felt that music was also something we can approach to understand the civilization of all these great Western countries: we really have to learn all about it and make it into something of ourselves. People thought music was one of the great educational things, so instead of really enjoying music, it was something to look up to. When Mr. Saji decided to build Suntory Hall, he was looking around the concert halls of the world and one of the things he was really impressed by was that the hall is not only a place to enjoy the music, it is a place where people meet and enjoy socialising.”

At the time, Keizo Saji, Suntory’s music-loving president and Tsutsumi’s father-in-law, received a great deal of advice as to how a concert hall should be architected. Unfortunately, all the opinions were different and many of them disagreed with each other, so he decided to visit the great concert halls of the United States and Europe to find out for himself. First on the list was Vienna, where there was already a relationship with the Wiener Philharmoniker (who remain regular visitors to Suntory Hall, not even prevented by Covid-19 last year, and due to come again this November). After seeing the rectangular “shoebox” design of the Musikverein, the next stop on the trip was Berlin, where they were welcomed by Herbert von Karajan, who argued strongly in favour of the “vineyard” style, in which the artists on stage feel truly surrounded by the audience. Karajan's views won the day, and the acoustic design by Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics turned out to be outstandingly successful (Toyota has since designed the acoustics of both Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, as well as co-designing the Philharmonie de Paris).

Suntory Hall Main Hall, showing vineyard layout
© Suntory Hall

The vineyard style, Tsutsumi explains, has a very direct impact on the way performers feel on stage. “Any audience seat is not that far from the stage. The shoebox is a great acoustic, but if someone is really far back, of course, I try to aim my sound to go to the very end of it, but nevertheless, I have a feeling of the distance. With the vineyard type, even the back of the second floor is not that far, so I really feel that we are making the music together. And the sound that I make comes back very nicely, which is very important too: in some concert halls, I find I play, the sound goes, and that's it. In Suntory Hall, there’s a nice bounce back.” As a cellist, Tsutsumi is accustomed to the feeling that his wooden instrument is an organic, living being and he feels much the same way about Suntory Hall, which is largely constructed of wood: it’s as if the hall has been listening to all the wonderful music over the years and is responding to it.

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi with Valery Gergiev and the Wiener Philharmonker
© Suntory Hall

Suntory Hall and The Symphony Hall in Osaka were built within a few years of each other, in the flush of Japan’s economic recovery after World War II, both with Karajan’s involvement. Tsutsumi credits them with having initiated the spread of concert halls throughout Japan, setting a generation of Japanese on the path of enjoying music as well as revering it – which makes Suntory Hall one of the more successful Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives ever undertaken by a drinks company. The company still sees the Hall as a CSR project (“Giving back to society” is listed as a value in Suntory's official vision statement) and the institution has various ways in which it tries to spread influence beyond the physical boundaries of the building. That starts with the Subscription Concert for Children, which has been running for 20 years. It continues with educational projects such as their Opera Academy and their Chamber Music Academy, which is now in its twelfth year. For this year, the hall’s 35th anniversary, they have produced a concert-hall staging of La traviata (“naturally, we’re not an opera house”) whose purpose is to be toured around concert halls in the rest of the country after its first showing in Tokyo. In common with many other arts organisations, Suntory Hall has been prompted by Covid-19 to look at the possibilities offered by video and have concluded that it’s time to set up their own video channel: their “Digital Suntory Hall” was launched on April 14th, showing concerts, backstage VR tours and other video material. In addition to the digital offering, Tsutsumi is looking forward to more collaborations with other concert halls, both in Japan and in neighbouring countries like Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Tsutsumi spent 18 years as a professor at Indiana University and was happily installed there – with tenure, he points out, “I could have stayed at Indiana University until I died” – and had no plans to return to Japan. Then, in 2004, he was asked to allow his name to be put forward for election as president of the Toho Gakuen School of Music, his original alma mater. He felt he couldn't refuse but was relatively unconcerned, being certain that he wouldn’t be elected. The “certainty” turned out to be wrong, and Tsutsumi felt obliged to take up the presidency and return to Tokyo.

Subscription concert for children
© Suntory Hall

The main difference between his experiences in the US and Japan comes down to the Japanese tendency towards deference. “In Japan, we have this tradition of professors or teachers as somebody you look up to, somebody really great, somebody you really have to follow. If the students in the US or Canada don’t like something that I say, they just say ‘Oh, Mr. Tsutsumi, I don’t think so, I don’t like it’. And then I have to tell them why I feel it should be this way, and there is a going back and forth. But when I am back in Japan, they will just say ‘Yes, sir’. So when I teach in Japan, I try to ask as many questions as possible of the students so that I can understand their personality or their opinion, what they really want.”

Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi during this interview
© Suntory Hall

I ask who are the Japanese composers we should be most looking out for, and he highlights Misato Mochizuki (born in Tokyo, resident in Paris) and Dai Fujikura (born in Osaka, resident in London), who wrote a solo cello piece for him a few months ago. With his 80th birthday approaching, Tsutsumi is showing no signs of hanging up his cello. To the question of what piece of music he feels he would most like to work on at the moment, he answers that although he loves Beethoven and the other classics, he feels that as a living performer, he should be playing music by living composers. “At the end of last year, I had concerts in Tokyo and Osaka with all these contemporary pieces by Japanese composers. It was a very difficult programme, but there were so many people who really enjoyed it. Maybe, if I can stimulate those composers to write for me or for other cellists, I would like to go in that direction. If I have to say what kind of piece I would like to play, the answer is ‘it’s not in existence yet’. But I look forward to performing it.” In Suntory Hall's yearly Chamber Music Garden festival, perhaps.

This article was sponsored by Suntory Hall