Toshiyuki Kamioka © Antje Zeis-Loi
Toshiyuki Kamioka
© Antje Zeis-Loi
Japan has the richest and most vibrant orchestral scene in the whole of the Asian region. The history of the orchestra in Japan goes back to the late 19th century; the oldest of the existing professional orchestras in Tokyo is the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra which was established over a century ago in 1911, closely followed by the celebrated NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1926. Currently the Tokyo metropolis alone has nine full-time, full-size professional symphony orchestras. Nationally, the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras (AJSO), which encourages the development and promotion of Japanese orchestras at home and abroad, has a membership of 36 professional orchestras (25 full members and 11 associate members).

Several of Tokyo’s orchestras are currently led by familiar European conductors: NHK Symphony Orchestra (NHKSO) by Paavo Järvi, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra by Jonathan Nott, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony by Sylvain Cambreling, and the Tokyo Philharmonic has forged a fruitful relationship with Andrea Battistoni. Japan Philharmonic and its Finnish chief conductor Pietari Inkinen will be touring Europe in April 2019. Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO), on the other hand, has a well-known Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono as music director, and the New Japan Philharmonic is led by Toshiyuki Kamioka – both born in 1960, the two conductors were classmates at music college.

Nott, now in his fifth season as music director of the Tokyo Symphony, continues to devise eye-opening programming with intriguing musical connections. In November he combines Varèse's Ameriques with Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and next July, he pairs Ligeti's Requiem with Tallis’ Spem in Alium in the first half, followed by Strauss's Tod und Verklärung. Paavo Järvi's NHKSO season is varied, exploring Nordic repertoire of Sibelius and Nielsen, central-European works of Bruckner and Hans Rott (Symphony no. 1), and Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie to close the season in July. Furthermore, his father Neeme makes an appearance in the May subscription concerts.

Battistoni brings his operatic experience to the Tokyo Philharmonic season: a concert performance of Boito's Mefistofele in November (Suntory Hall, Bunkamura Orchard Hall) is surely a highlight of their season. along with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by its Honorary Music Director Myung-Whun Chung in February. Battistoni also guest conducts the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra (the only professional orchestra on the southern island of Kyushu) in a concert performance of Cavalleria rusticana with an attractive Japanese cast.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Marco Borggreve
Ono and TMSO present an all-French programme in October commemorating both Debussy’s centenary and also the tenth anniversary of the death of Jean Fournet who was the orchestra’s long-serving Conductor Emeritus. Ono also highlights fin de siècle Vienna with Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Schreker’s Kammersymphonie. Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto with Patricia Kopatchinskaja in January should be thrilling too. New Japan Philharmonic, the resident orchestra at Sumida Triphony Hall in eastern Tokyo, is performing some unusual repertoire. In March, Kamioka conducts Symphony no. 4 by neglected French composer Albéric Magnard (1865-1914), sometimes known as the “French Bruckner”. It also hosts a line-up of accomplished guest conductors: Hannu Lintu (Lindberg, Sibelius), Vasily Sinaisky (Glazunov’s Fifth Symphony) and Carlo Rizzi in an Italian-themed programme.

The Kansai region in western Japan, which includes Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara, is Japan’s second largest centre of economy and culture, and the area has six full-time professional orchestras. Osaka Philharmonic has the longest history, founded shortly after the war in 1947 by the legendary Japanese conductor Takashi Asahina. From this season, Tadaaki Otaka has taken up the post of Music Director, and he will stamp his mark on the orchestra in January with a programme including Takemitsu’s Twill by Twilight and Elgar’s First Symphony, two composers he has long championed. The other Osaka-based orchestra, the Kansai Philharmonic, is led by music director Augustin Dumay who conducts a programme of Fauré, Franck and Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony in November. Travelling further west, Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra plays an important role in this international city of peace, and Martha Argerich has been its Peace and Music Ambassador since 2015. In February’s subscription concert, music director Tatsuya Shimono is joined by renowned mezzo Mihoko Fujimura in Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder. In addition to its subscription series, the orchestra has a flagship “Music for Peace” series leading up to 2020.

Masaaki Suzuki © Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki
© Marco Borggreve
Orchestras north of Tokyo include the Sendai Philharmonic in the Tohoku region, Sapporo Symphony on the island of Hokkaido, and Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, which is based in the Hokuriku region on the Japan Sea side. Ensemble Kanazawa is a young and vibrant chamber orchestra (founded 1988) with a particularly strong international outlook. Marc Minkowski has just been appointed its Artistic Director. Highlights this season includes a concert of Mendelssohn’s choral works with the RIAS Chamber Orchestra conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, and a Nordic programme directed by maverick pianist Olli Mustonen, including his own Nonet no. 2 for string orchestra. Sapporo Symphony Orchestra is based in Kitara Concert Hall, which is the favourite hall for many international conductors. Young Pole Krystof Urbański is sure to conduct an explosive Le Sacre du printemps in March, preceded by Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto played by Alexandra Soumm. In an all-Ravel concert in February, conducted by Junichi Hirokami, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays both of his piano concertos.

In terms of contemporary music, this year’s Suntory Hall’s annual series “Composers’ Profile II” features two Japanese female composers, Hitomi Kaneko and Yumi Saiki, and will include a new orchestral commission from each. Ryusuke Numajiri will conduct the TMSO. Gunma Symphony Orchestra and its music director Naoto Otomo perform a concert featuring composer Akira Senju’s recent opera Taki-no-shiraito (Act 3), alongside works by Mayuzumi and Akutagawa. In December, young and exciting Japanese conductor Kentaro Kawase and Osaka-based Japan Century Symphony Orchestra will collaborate with Mahan Esfahani on projects featuring Michael Nyman’s Harpsichord Concerto. Finally, Sylvain Cambreling, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Yomiuri Symphony Chamber Ensemble present a special concert of avant-garde composers of the last century, Varese, Scèlsi and Grisey, at Kioi Hall.

So from North from South, wherever you are visiting in Japan (with the exception of Okinawa), most likely there will be an orchestra nearby with a regular season. It hasn’t been possible to mention all of them, but do check out the website of the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras for more information.


Article sponsored by the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras