A concert of major works by Schoenberg and Dutilleux might sound like box office poison to most orchestras. Not to the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Their concert of music by these two 20th-century composers sold out at Tokyo’s 2,000-seat Suntory Hall Friday night to an audience that fully appreciated what it was getting. True, Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande is lushly romantic music more akin to Strauss and Mahler than to the later Schoenberg that still scares audiences away. But either most concertgoers didn’t know that when they bought their tickets, or, if they did know, they constitute a commendably well-informed crowd.

Kazushi Ono © Stofleth
Kazushi Ono
© Stofleth

As a prelude to the “big” works, we heard Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, the one with the famous Sicilienne movement featuring solo flute (gorgeously played). From the Suite’s opening moments it was apparent that the TMSO’s music director, Kazushi Ono, had matters firmly in control. The music stole in soft as a baby’s breath, gentle as a summer breeze. Indeed, the entire Suite was performed with exquisite pastels and ethereal sweetness.

Tokyo has nine full-size, full-time, fully professional orchestras, yet concertgoers rarely get to hear modern music on any of their programs. Thus, it was gratifying to be offered a major score by one of the late 20th-century’s greatest French composers, Henri Dutilleux, born exactly a century ago and who died just three years ago at the age of 97. His violin concerto, L’Arbre des songes (The Tree of Dreams) was premiered by Isaac Stern in1985 and has already been the subject of at least eight recordings. Like many of this composer’s works, it is the sensuality of sound, the continuously changing, kaleidoscopic whorls of color and texture that leave the most lasting impression. The orchestral palette features much use of percussion (six players are required) and woodwinds − the former providing many elements of shimmering, glistening sound, the latter used both for spotlighting of individual timbres (including the oboe d’amore) and as a multi-colored choir. Dutilleux also makes much use of five timpani, tam-tam, celesta, cimbalom, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and piano.

This continuously unfolding, 23-minute work was obviously prepared with great care and attention to detail. Here was no mere token bow to “modern music.” Soloist Sayaka Shoji (first prize-winner at the 1999 Paganini Competition) demonstrated admirable technical assurance and total commitment to the cause, playing as if she truly loved the music. Ono’s contributions − the crystalline clarity he brought to the most complex textures, meticulous highlighting of each important line, and his command of the overall architecture − contributed to making this a rewarding experience even for those encountering the concerto for the first time. The audience responded accordingly, with sincerely enthusiastic applause that recalled Shoji to the stage four times.

After intermission came Schoenberg’s 40-minute tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande of 1902-03, composed just five years after Fauré’s incidental music of the same title. But what a world of difference! While Fauré’s score is all refinement and delicacy, requiring only a small orchestra, Schoenberg’s is massive, written for an oversized orchestra that includes eight horns, five trombones, five clarinets, and much else. Climaxes of Wagnerian proportion threaten to wash the listener right out of the hall. Dense polyphony and heightened chromaticism, strongly influenced by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, indicate the direction Schoenberg’s music was eventually to take. Some twenty leitmotifs are involved, surrounded with countersubjects and enmeshed in dense webs of plush sound. It’s a thrilling ride, and the TMSO played splendidly. Ono, conducting from memory, brought to his interpretation all the refinement we’d heard in the French scores earlier in the program – transparency of texture, clarity of detail, subtle colors, a huge dynamic range – yet somehow he missed the romantic sweep and passionate warmth this score demands.

The TMSO, now in its 51st season, has enjoyed extended leadership over the years of men like Gary Bertini, James DePreist, Eliahu Inbal, and Kazuhiro Koizumi. It shows. The TMSO may lack the warmth and richness of sound of Europe’s top orchestras, but it makes up for this in brilliance, flair, and technical perfection. Its woodwind section, often the weakest in Japanese orchestras, is superbly balanced, with a homogeneous sound and faultless intonation. Violins soar gloriously. I look forward to hearing this band again.