Let us begin this round-up of the current Japanese orchestral season with a quick overview of the orchestral scene in Japan. The Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras (AJSO), which encourages the development and promotion of Japanese orchestras, has a membership of 36 professional orchestras (25 full members and 11 associate members) nationwide. AJSO also plays an important role in promoting cultural exchange between Japanese and Asian orchestras: for example, it hosts the annual Asia Orchestral Week in Japan (this autumn, orchestras from Hong Kong and Jakarta visited Tokyo and Koriyama) and sends professional players to emerging Asian orchestras, such as to Vietnam and the Philippines.


The greater Tokyo area alone has nine full-time, full-size professional symphony orchestras. It can be confusing as several of the orchestras have similar names, such as the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and so on. Also, while some of the orchestras (such as the NHK Symphony Orchestra and the New Japan Philharmonic) start their season in September, many start in April – the start of the fiscal year in Japan. To make matters more complex, the Tokyo Philharmonic has decided to start its season in January from 2020. So, this preview will be a mix of new season and mid-season programmes.

Many of Tokyo’s orchestras are currently flourishing under international maestros who have parallel careers in Europe: in-demand Paavo Järvi heads the NHK Symphony Orchestra (NHKSO), Jonathan Nott continues his fruitful relationship the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and German Sebastian Weigle (GMD of Oper Frankfurt) has just started his first season as Principal Conductor at the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, the newspaper-owned group. Meanwhile, Kazushi Ono is now in his fifth season as music director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO), and the New Japan Philharmonic (NJP) is led by unorthodox Toshiyuki Kamioka, who is also chief of the Copenhagen Philharmonic. Younger generation conductors are to be found at the Japan Philharmonic, with Finn Pietari Inkinen – who is slated to conduct the new Bayreuth Ring in 2020 – and the Tokyo Philharmonic with the exciting young Italian Andrea Battistoni. One can catch some of these orchestras in Europe next year; Järvi and NHKSO will tour Europe in February/March 2020, and Ono and TMSO will visit Edinburgh, Santander and Amsterdam in August, as “Music Ambassadors for Tokyo” during the 2020 Olympic Games.

Pietari Inkinen, Paavo Järvi, Kazushi Ono and Jonathan Nott © Yamaguchi Atsushi, Zdenek Chrapek, Miyoshi Eisuke, Enrique Pardo
Pietari Inkinen, Paavo Järvi, Kazushi Ono and Jonathan Nott
© Yamaguchi Atsushi, Zdenek Chrapek, Miyoshi Eisuke, Enrique Pardo

TMSO’s 2019/2020 season is already half-way, and in the latter half, the orchestra has an emphasis on Shostakovich’s late symphonies. Ono will conduct Symphony no. 10 (in March) and Conductor Laureate Eliahu Inbal will conduct Symphony no. 11 and no. 12 in November. The Shostakovich theme will continue into next season when the Finnish whizz-kid Klaus Mäkelä makes a highly awaited return to the orchestra in April with the “Leningrad” Symphony. Of the Tokyo orchestras, one can say Ono/TMSO and Nott/Tokyo Symphony are most committed to contemporary music. Ono conducts Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new work Time Flies (world premiere) and Dai Fujikura’s shamisen concerto (featuring Hidejiro Honjoh) next summer, and Nott conducts Kenji Sakai’s award-winning violin concerto (with Ayana Tsuji) and also Fujikura’s Umi for orchestra in April.

Mahler’s symphonies feature strongly across all Tokyo orchestras with an impressive line-up of conductors. Nott conducts the Seventh Symphony with the Tokyo Symphony in November, Mark Wigglesworth follows with the First Symphony with the same orchestra in December, and in the same month Alan Gilbert conducts the Sixth Symphony with the TMSO. NHKSO performs the Second Symphony with Eschenbach in January and the Ninth with Kent Nagano in June. The Seventh Symphony can also be heard with Kamioka and the NJP in May. In October 2020, Myung-whun Chung conducts the Third Symphony with the Tokyo Philharmonic.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin U.K. Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U.K. Lengemann

With Weigle at the helm since April, succeeding Cambreling, the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra’s current season has become decidedly Austro-German. He will next conduct two programmes in March: Schumann’s Violin Concerto (with Arabella Steinbacher), Brahms’ Symphony no. 1, Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” (with Lukas Geniušas) and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Meanwhile, Principal Guest Cornelius Meister tackles the rarely performed Bruckner’s Second Symphony. Ein Heldenleben features in NHKSO’s new season too, conducted by Fabio Luisi and coupled with the Four Last Songs with Kristine Opolais. Well-loved Blomstedt returns with three varied programmes in November. In February, Paavo Järvi conducts two programmes, one with Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and the other with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, before embarking on their second European tour together.

In Japan Philharmonic’s new season, Principal Inkinen conducts a Beethoven/Dvorak series and Bruckner’s Symphony no.4 (April), and Conductor Laureate Lazarev continues with his ongoing Glazunov series with the Sixth Symphony (November). NJP’s season highlights include a season-long Schubert symphony cycle with different conductors, and Lars Vogt’s guest appearance as both conductor and pianist. Chief Kamioka, who likes to showcase neglected works, pairs Symphony no. 1 by Dutch/Danish composer Leopold van der Pals (1884-1966), a friend of Rachmaninov, with the latter’s ever-popular Symphony no. 2.

Myung-whun Chung © Jean-Francois Leclercq
Myung-whun Chung
© Jean-Francois Leclercq

Tokyo Philharmonic is a busy orchestra, combining symphonic concerts with pit duties at the New National Theatre from April to December, but it features opera in its concert season too. Honorary Music Director Myung-Whun Chung conducts Carmen starring Italian mezzo Marina Comparato, who has sung this role at La Fenice (February), and Battistoni conducts Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini in September. So far, Tokyo Philharmonic seems to be the only orchestra to come up with an Olympic-themed programme: Junichi Hirokami has devised a concert entitled “Charge to Victory!” which includes the fanfare and march composed for the previous Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Highlights of the regional orchestras include Tadaaki Otaka and the Osaka Philharmonic in a programme of Elgar’s cello concerto (Steven Isserlis) and Bruckner’s Third Symphony (January), rising French conductor Maxime Pascal and Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa performing the world premiere of jazz pianist Miho Hazama’s new commission (January), and Tatsuya Shimono and Hiroshima Symphony in a programme including Symphony Concertante for piano and orchestra by Japanese composer Akira Ifukube, better known for composing music for the film Godzilla (February). In March, Olli Mustonen guests with Sapporo Symphony as both pianist and conductor. Gunma Symphony Orchestra has just moved into Japan’s newest concert hall, Takasaki City Theatre – yet another addition to Japan’s growing directory of acoustically outstanding symphonic halls.

Click here to find out more about concerts in Japan.

This article was sponsored by the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras.