During its 2020/21 season, running from April to next March, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall is pulling out all its stops to mark the Beethoven Anniversary, both in their splendid Main Hall and intimate Blue Rose (Small Hall). What’s particularly striking is that it will be possible to enjoy several complete cycles of Beethoven’s works, including the complete string quartets, piano trios, sonatas for violin and piano and more. Apart from the Beethoven focus, season highlights include the annual Wiener Philharmoniker Week led by the dynamic Valery Gergiev, a Japan tour by Mitsuko Uchida with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Christmas concerts by Bach Collegium Japan, who celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall

Suntory Hall’s own season comes into flower in the early summer with the annual “Chamber Music Garden”. Now in its tenth year, the two-week festival is a celebration of chamber music in all forms and sizes, where both young and veteran artists interact with each other. While Suntory Hall is widely known for the fine orchestral acoustics of the Main Hall, its strong emphasis on chamber music is less known. In fact, its current President, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, is an eminent cellist and chamber musician himself and he is also the Director of its Chamber Music Academy, which has produced many talented groups since 2010.

So it’s fitting that Tsutsumi kicks off this year’s “Chamber Music Garden” with an evening of all five cello sonatas of Beethoven with regular chamber music partner, Mami Hagiwara (piano). Meanwhile, Aoi Trio, winner of the prestigious ARD Competition and alumni of the Chamber Music Academy, embarks on a three-concert marathon of Beethoven’s complete piano trio works (with opus number). The complete Beethoven string quartet cycle, which is already a regular feature of the festival, is performed by the charismatic Atrium String Quartet from Russia. The lineup also includes the relaxed weekday lunchtime series concerts by the current Chamber Music Academy fellows and the adventurous “Discovery Night” concerts, which includes world premieres of chamber works by Atsuhiko Gondai and Dai Fujikura.

© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Contemporary music is another genre that is not usually associated with Suntory Hall, but in fact, their Summer Festival in late August focuses on cutting-edge music of today in Japan and abroad. This year, prominent composer Toshi Ichiyanagi has curated a programme titled “2020 Tokyo Avant-garde” showcasing the leading Japanese composers of today, including new works by Akiko Yamane, Kazutomo Yamamoto and Yoichi Sugiyama. In July, Jörg Widmann’s oratorio ARCHE (Ark), originally commissioned for the opening of the Elbphilharmonie, will receive its Japanese premiere, conducted by Kent Nagano making his NHK Symphony debut.

This season, the artist for the “Special Stage” project in October is violinist Midori, perhaps one of the most famous Japanese-born musicians of today. Her all-Beethoven programme, which she also dedicates to the 100th anniversary of the birth of her mentor Isaac Stern, includes the complete violin sonata cycle with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a selection of the piano trios with Jonathan Biss and cellist Antonine Lederlin and the towering Violin Concerto with the New Japan Philharmonic.

Uchida is another renowned Japanese-born artist. Her appearances in Japan are surprisingly rare and when she does perform, it is almost exclusively at Suntory Hall, with which she has enjoyed a close relationship. In the late autumn, she leads the peerless Mahler Chamber Orchestra in two concerts with programmes centred on Mozart’s piano concertos – highly acclaimed in Europe earlier in the year. There is always a palpable rapport between Uchida and the individual players of the MCO that makes each concert an exciting and precious occasion.

Mitsuko Uchida
© Decca | Justin Pumphrey

Uchida is one of many world-class pianists to visit Suntory Hall this season. In June, Rudolf Buchbinder performs the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas – interestingly, giving one concert in the Main Hall but the others in the more intimate Blue Rose. Of the younger generation, Lang Lang and Daniil Trifonov gives recitals in the Main Hall, while Kirill Gerstein appears in a duo recital with regular partner Daishin Kashimoto on violin. There is also a young crop of talented Japanese pianists who are performing with Tokyo’s best orchestras: Tchaikovsky Competition laureate Mao Fujita (with Sebastian Weigle and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony), Berlin-based Kotaro Fukuma (with Alexander Lazarev and the Japan Philharmonic) and Yu Kosuge (with Jonathan Nott/Tokyo Symphony, November).

The most eagerly awaited event of Suntory Hall’s season is the annual week-long residency by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in November. This year, Gergiev is at the helm, conducting three programmes (Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.6, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and more) as well as a gala concert. The soloists are Denis Matsuev in Prokofiev’s epic Piano Concerto no. 2 and the Hall’s own Tsutsumi in Tchaikovsky’s elegant Rococo Variations. More importantly, what makes the residency special are all the extra events: open rehearsal, school concert, a masterclass for young musicians, as well as exchange events with the children in the Tohoku area, as part of the Vienna Philharmonic and Suntory Music Aid Fund project.

Further visiting orchestras include Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre de Paris, Staatskapelle Dresden with Christian Thielemann, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen – who replaces the much-missed Mariss Jansons – and Andris Nelsons with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Meanwhile, the energetic Jaap van Zweden brings both his orchestras to Suntory Hall, the Hong Kong Philharmonic in June, with ARD laureate Haruma Sato as soloist in the Rococo Variations, and the New York Philharmonic in March 2021.

Lastly but no least, Suntory Hall has a lot to offer for children too. Although the popular Open House event in April was cancelled this year due to the corona virus outbreak, it will initiate a new “Music Festival for Children and Young People” in the summer, in conjunction with the Sony Music Foundation. There will be programmes for diverse age groups, from babies to teenagers. The series of children’s concerts with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is also a favourite with families. In such times of uncertainty, it’s heartening to see Suntory Hall invest in the future of classical music.

Click here for all upcoming events at Suntory Hall.

This article was sponsored by Suntory Hall.