Suntory Hall, located in the heart of Tokyo, celebrates its 30th year of being the host for art music and musicians. One of the leading venues of art music in the East, the hall has long been dedicated to bringing gems to the audience since the beginning of its foundation, and numerous world class performers and musicians have been invited on stage. From small chamber music to large orchestras, Suntory Hall has faithfully been gaining fame and respect for being one of classical music's central locations in Japan.

Tan Dun © Feng Hai
Tan Dun
© Feng Hai

As part of a series for commemorating its 30th anniversary, the hall invited Tan Dun. The concert consisted of two of his works, plus two compositions by Toru Takemitsu. The first half of the concert was Takemitsu’s Gémeaux, a piece for oboe solo, trombone solo, and two orchestras (with two conductors). The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Tan Dun and Keiko Mitsuhashi, was divided into two smaller ensembles and both groups were on stage – not a conventional set up, but the ensemble techniques of the Philharmonic and the two conductors were impressive. The four-movement composition is canvassed with Takemitsu’s philosophical sound-painting, representing the central theme of “two” (Gémeaux, or Gemini, Latin for twin, is one of the constellations of the Zodiac). Takemitsu sought to treat the orchestra, which has its origin in the West, to an organic group composed of many individual sounds; but with no sound ever overpowering another, yet maintaining the harmony balanced by clear (individual) difference: like a perfect Japanese garden with various individual plants forming the scenic beauty, with no plant outstanding nor overshadowed. Each instrumental part is highly detailed and technically demanding, but never overly virtuosic or overwhelming. The near 40 minutes performance did not feel long due to the ever-engaging and interesting music, impeccably delivered by the Philharmonic and the two conductors.

© Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall

The second half began with Tan Dun’s composition, instrumentation calling for a divided orchestra, bass voice, audience and two conductors. Several woodwind players were set up on the second floor of the hall, surrounding the audience, thus forming the “divided” orchestra. Keiko Mitsuhashi stood where the conductor would normally be positioned, and Tan Dun stood on the side, facing the audience and the woodwinds on the second floor. Tan Dun’s music uses the pitch D, or re in solfège, as the central material, and at many times the music is reminiscent of religious chant, perhaps being closest to Tibetan Buddhist. There were several “theatrical” aspect to this music, such as intriguing vocalization of the bass solo, conductors doing empty conducting, performers using simultaneous turning of the page to making sound, using the reeds and mouthpieces to create sounds that would be heard in a jungle, stomping, and the performers sighing. The music also involves the audience humming a low D at the beginning, and later invited to chant “hong mi la ga yi go” with changing dynamics. Tan Dun explained that though it does not have any meaning, he wishes to see the sound as a “language before language”. In comparison to Takemitsu’s earlier piece that conveyed orchestral music as a garden, Tan Dun’s music is also highly philosophical, with his music seeking to use the orchestra to invite not only the performers to play but also the audience to participate, thus creating a musical experience of everyone in the hall; not one side of the room delivering the music to the other, but all actively involved in the performance to various degrees.

© Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall

The concert ended with two shorter pieces, one by Takemitsu and the other Tan Dun. The program of the concert was perfectly suitable in celebrating the hall’s 30th anniversary, and also in commemorating the famed Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, who passed away twenty years ago. Tan Dun, Keiko Mitsuhashi, and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (and the audience), successfully shared with one another a great joy of relatively “new” music in the classical repertoire, definitely making the night a memorable one for many music fans.

*****