The Toru Takemitsu Composition Award, organised by Tokyo Opera City, is unique among international composition competitions in that it is judged by a single-person jury. This was founder Takemitsu’s idea although he didn’t live to see the competition set in place. Each year a different composer is appointed as the judge – previous judges in its 20-year history include Steve Reich, Harrison Birtwistle, Toshio Hosokawa and Kaija Saariaho – and this year it was German-based Korean composer Unsuk Chin who had the huge task of studying 143 scores and choosing the four orchestral works to be performed at the final concert at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall.

Yoichi Sugiyama and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra © Michiharu Okubo | Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foudation
Yoichi Sugiyama and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra
© Michiharu Okubo | Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foudation

One concern about a single-judge competition is that because the applicants are most likely admirers of the music of that year’s judge, it could limit the stylistic diversity of the submitted works. Yet, having heard the four orchestral works performed in this year’s final, I was quite surprised how different they were from each other, and that two of the pieces were not of the type I expected Chin would choose. In fact, she explained afterwards in her speech that she had chosen four scores that would be sufficiently different from each other so that the selection would result in an interesting concert programme, and it certainly did.

Intriguingly though, there were some common themes between the compositions. UK composer Barnaby Martin’s work was entitled Quanta, whereas German composer Lukas Hövelmann-Köper’s was called Quantum Vacuum, both works taking this scientific notion as the starting point. There was also an Asian (especially Chinese) element in three of the four works. The most direct use of Chinese material was in Brazilian composer Paulo Brito’s Staring Wei Jie to Death, a sort of multi-movement tone poem based on a story from Chinese antiquity, in which both the narrative and sound world reflected Chinese elements. Chinese-born composer Bo Li’s piece Sleeping in the Wind takes its inspiration from a story by the Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai about a bird without feet, although his musical language is not particularly Asian but more idiomatic and universal. Meanwhile, Hövelmann-Köper explored the musical idea of “long-lasting tones” – which can be seen in Sino-Korean court music of 17th and 18th centuries – as the structural basis of his work. The work was the only abstract work – all the others had some form of narrative, be it programmatic or more structural.

Unsuk Chin with the winners © Michiharu Okubo | Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foudation
Unsuk Chin with the winners
© Michiharu Okubo | Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foudation

In terms of instrumentation, all the works were fairly standard and there were no unusual instruments or spatial settings (the requirement is a composition for orchestra in any format except concerto). Paulo Brito’s work stood out for using a small string section and double winds to achieve a delicate, chamber-like sonority, with characteristic use of chime-like sounds. His work consisted of four compact, beautifully crafted movements which were like tableaux from the Chinese fable. On the other spectrum, Barnaby Martin’s Quanta – inspired by various aspects of quantum mechanics – was the longest and most dramatic of the four. With a work of multi-layered structures with quotations from Purcell and Tallis (although not easily audible), Martin has a strong flair for bold orchestral colours and he succeeded in taking the audience on an exciting sonic journey.

In all four pieces, Yoichi Sugiyama and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra gave an outstanding and strongly committed performance. The orchestra has been a regular partner of the competition, but they gave a particularly fine performance under the enthusiastic baton of Sugiyama, who as a composer himself showed a thorough understanding of the inner workings of each piece. In the preceding two days, each finalist had two hours of rehearsal time with the conductor during which they could discuss the details and make adjustments, and also receive advice from Unsuk Chin – invaluable professional guidance for young composers at this stage of their career.

In the end, Unsuk Chin gave joint first prizes to Barnaby Martin and Paulo Brito, and joint second prizes to Hövelmann-Köper and Bo Li. Personally, the delicate orchestration of Brito’s work remained in my memory, but I would happily listen to all four works again, and I hope there will be opportunities for repeated performances. Budding composers may already be looking forward to future editions of the competition, in which the judges will be Philippe Manoury (2019), Thomas Adès (2020) and Pascal Dusapin (2021).