In his fourth season as Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi continues his mission to promote the orchestra’s strength of playing Central European music. The Estonian conductor describes the orchestra’s string sound as “ideal for Richard Strauss, for Bruckner, surprisingly also for Mahler” and this European – and especially Germanic – thread draws through the upcoming season, culminating in Bruckner’s Third “Wagner” Symphony and Matthias Goerne singing Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn in June. Supporting Järvi are, amongst others, the orchestra’s Honorary Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt and Tugan Sokhiev, who lead a season decorated with world class conductors and soloists.

Paavo Järvi © Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo Järvi
© Kaupo Kikkas

The NHK Symphony Orchestra’s subscription concerts series started in 1927 and have continued without interruption ever since, even during the Second World War. Taking place at both the NHK Hall and Suntory Hall, the performances are broadcast live nationwide on NHK television. The 2018-19 season is rung in with a New Year’s Concert style programme, including works by Johann Strauss father and son and is crowned with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with Anna Lucia Richter singing "The Heavenly Life" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, drawing a wonderful conclusion to the last subscription concert. Järvi has previously focused on Mahler’s works, including a magnificent Sixth on tour in Europe last year, and it comes as no surprise that the NHK Symphony Orchestra continues this focus in the upcoming season with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the First “Titan” Symphony.

Blomstedt, who first appeared on the NHKSO podium in 1981 and has had a close relationship with the orchestra ever since, also continues his Beethoven Cycle, unusually pairing the “Pastoral” with the Second Symphony by Wilhelm Stenhammar, a work often considered to be one of the great Scandinavian symphonies of its time. The Swedish composer received part of his music education in Berlin and described his First Symphony as “idyllic Bruckner” – a composer he greatly admired, as well as Richard Wagner. Being later influenced by fellow Nordic composers Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, he combines Nordic elements with huge arches and monumental grandeur in his Second Symphony not unlike that of Bruckner.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin UK Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin UK Lengemann

It will be fascinating to hear Järvi conduct two of his favourite composers, Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. Finnish soprano Johanna Rusanen-Kartano and baritone Ville Rusanen as well as the Estonian National Male Choir join the Estonian conductor for an all-Sibelius concert in September, featuring the tone poems Finlandia and Kullervo. Although initially receiving critical acclaim after its première in 1892, Sibelius forbade Kullervo to be fully played during his lifetime after facing criticism for the Finnish text. At the time, Finland was divided into Finnish and Swedish nationalist groups, who considered Sibelius, whose mother tongue was Swedish, a defector. In his two concerts, Paavo Järvi’s father Neeme combines Sibelius’ Andante festivo with the Fifth Symphony of the lesser known Estonian composer Eduard Tubin, while also conducting a French programme with works by Jacques Ibert, César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns, whose Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor will be played by French soloist Gautier Capuçon in a concert led by Stéphane Denève.

Tugan Sokhiev, a regular guest conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, expands the French programme by pairing French works with Russian ones. One concert sees Xavier de Maistre playing Reinhold Glière’s Harp Concerto and Ryo Sasaki as soloist in Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, while he opens his second subscription concert with the suite of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande before conducting Britten’s Simple Symphony and Schéhérazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. Two more Russian concerts will be led by Järvi – one all-Stravinsky evening and one featuring Khatia Buniatishvili playing Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto – and Gianandrea Noseda, who was appointed as the Mariinsky’s first-ever foreign principal guest conductor by Valery Gergiev in 1994, further explores the Russian repertoire with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Prokofiev’s ballet suites from Romeo and Juliet.

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

Joining Noseda for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto, the German Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott returns to the NHK Symphony Orchestra after having previously played with them in 2012 and 2015. After releasing a recording of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto and a selection of Lyric Pieces by the Norwegian composer with Esa-Pekka Salson and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2016, the famously barefoot performing pianist went on tour with an all-Grieg and Liszt programme that saw the norms of concert practice challenged by “using different lighting on stage for Liszt’s B minor sonata”. She “would have the entire hall in darkness and just a spotlight on the keyboard”.

Further concerts see the Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada pairing works by 20th century Japanese composers Kishio Hirao and Akio Yashiro with Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande and Tatsuya Shimono dedicating a programme to Shostakovich with the Russian’s Violin Concerto no. 1 and Weinberg’s Twelfth Symphony “In Memory of Shostakovich”.

It is an exciting season packed with world class soloists and conductors, which won’t make choosing just one subscription series easy.

Click here to view listings for the full NHKSO season.


This article was sponsored by the NHK Symphony Orchestra.