There are few things more reassuring than the sight of Paavo Järvi taking to the podium, baton in hand, wearing a wry smile. After a year where most orchestras and opera companies have had their schedules wiped due to the pandemic, new season announcements are seen as an affirmation of the classical music world building some sort of recovery, while adapting to the new climate and regulations. Among jargon such as the “new normal”, it’s reassuring to see the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo announcing its usual roster of international conductors and soloists for its 2021-22 series of subscription concerts. 

Paavo Järvi conducting the NHK SO
© Lorraine Wauters

This is Järvi’s final season at the helm. Music Director from 2016, the popular Estonian steps down in 2022, handing over the baton to the Italian maestro, Fabio Luisi. There is a natural feel of transition next season, with Luisi already scheduled to conduct five different programmes in Tokyo. Järvi opens proceedings with an all Bartók concert, pairing the suite from his sinister pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (the subject being an assault victim who refuses to die) with the more jocular Concerto for Orchestra

Järvi then reappears in February with two programmes that play to the NHK SO’s strengths in core, central European repertoire. Igor Levit joins the orchestra for Brahms’ magnificent Second Piano Concerto, more autumnal and elegiac than the mighty First. Järvi follows it with Schumann’s Second Symphony. The next week then sees two Richard Strauss pieces, one familiar – the epic mountain trek that is the Alpine Symphony – and one decidedly unfamiliar – the 25-minute Symphonic Fragment from the ballet The Legend of Joseph, based on the biblical tale of Potiphar’s Wife. For his final subscription concert as Music Director, though, Järvi turns to English and American repertoire. The Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes are incredible evocations of the sea and skies of Britten’s native Suffolk coast, while the Enigma Variations not only capture Elgar’s friends in musical portraits, but also his beloved Malvern Hills near Worcester. In between, American violinist Hilary Hahn steers matters stateside with Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. 

A season ahead of taking up the reins, Luisi rolls up his sleeves and conducts five NHK programmes. Like Järvi, Luisi is an advocate of Franz Schmidt’s symphonies, rich in fin de siècle Viennese sumptuousness, and he has chosen the Second Symphony (1911-13) to open his account. Anton Bruckner is another Luisi favourite (he recently bid farewell to the Opernhaus Zürich with the Seventh Symphony) and he conducts the Fourth (often dubbed “The Romantic”) in the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre. A third programme pairs Paganini’s First Violin Concerto, featuring Italian violinist Francesca Dego, with Tchaikovsky’s fatalistic Fifth Symphony. 

The following May, Luisi offers a classical evening of Mozart and Beethoven, but follows it with a colourful programme featuring Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic Scheherazade and Ravel’s jazz-inflected Piano Concerto in G major

Fabio Luisi conducting the NHK SO
© NHK SO

The legend that is Herbert Blomstedt returns to Tokyo next season. Now 94, the Swedish conductor shows no signs of slowing down, taking on a three-week residency in October. There’s an appropriately Scandinavian feel to each programme. Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony has long been a Blomstedt speciality, a craggy work whose first movement features a battle between the orchestra and a renegade snare-drummer. Grieg's Peer Gynt is familiar to many audiences, especially the dewy Morning, depicting sunrise over the Sahara Desert. Wilhelm Stenhammar is a less familiar composer. Blomstedt conducts his Serenade in F major, a substantial five-movement suite – try the charming Canzonetta. Other venerable conductors appearing in the NHK season include Marek Janowski, for a programme including Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, and Christoph Eschenbach, who conducts Beethoven’s Seventh and Mahler’s Fifth

The younger generation is represented by a trio of Russians – Dima Slobodeniouk, Vasily Petrenko and Tugan Sokhiev – often in Russian fare. Sokhiev offers an all-Prokofiev evening that looks especially promising, which features Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang in the Third Piano Concerto. Another conductor revelling in their “home” repertoire is Stéphane Denève whose two French programmes include Ravel’s Shéhérazade (with Stéphanie d’Oustrac), Florent Schmitt’s ballet suite La Tragédie de Salomé and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (with Olivier Latry). Even Denève’s interloper has a French connection: Gershwin’s An American in Paris!  

Young Japanese talent is represented by Kazuki Yamada, conducting Brahms, and Keitaro Harada, who has Stravinsky’s Firebird on the bill. Early in the season, Ryusuke Numajiri takes audiences to Vienna with Mahler’s First Symphony and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, featuring Viennese soloist Andreas Ottensamer. Masato Suzuki's June concert closes the season, featuring Japanese violinist Sunao Goko playing Britten’s rarely heard Violin Concerto. 


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This preview was sponsored by the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo