A pair of star-cross’d lovers from opposite ends of the globe formed the highlights of this visit of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra to Cadogan Hall. Three movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, taken from his tailoring of the ballet score for concert suites, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” made for a Shakespearean second half, which provided a much-needed rise in emotional temperature following some underwhelming Tchaikovsky.

Eiji Oue © T. Ijima
Eiji Oue
© T. Ijima

Before their explorations of the Bard, Eiji Oue and his orchestra chose to open with a calling card from home. Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Bugaku was commissioned by New York City Ballet, following its 1958 tour of Japan. George Balanchine had asked for something composed for western instruments, but imitating the traditional instruments of the Gagaku Orchestra. Mayuzumi almost introduces each string line one by one, gradually manufacturing a crescendo before a battery of percussion is unleashed, including plenty of gainful employment for marimbas. Among the effects most evocative of traditional Japanese instruments was a combination of harp and plucked second violin.

Oue, whose dark jacket adorned with epaulettes gave him the bearing of a naval officer, martialled his forces with military precision. His sharp, angular conducting style was suited to the second section, which is more rhythmic, its percussion-led motor whirring busily while a pied piper piccolo danced something akin to a Highland fling.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was a curious affair. Oue set the orchestra off at a brisk pace, but soloist Kyoko Takezawa immediately pulled him back with her opening statement. The first movement then developed into a game of orchestral tug-of-war, Oue urging the orchestra on, Takezawa reining it in. She revelled in reflective melancholy, with barely whispered playing in the cadenza, while Oue brought out the bombastic in Tchaikovsky’s orchestral tuttis. It didn’t make for the happiest combination. The cantabile Canzonetta second movement brought them into closer harmony, with a lovely interplay between flute and clarinet echoing Takezawa’s softly murmured solo line, floated on a thread of sound. The initial tempo set for the finale was livelier, but the playing hardly matched the Allegro e vivacissimo score marking and the slow middle section nearly ground to a halt. This was a carefully controlled reading of the concerto, with Takezawa seeming reluctant to let go. More studied reflection was evident in the encore, an arrangement for violin and piano (Oue) of “October, Chant d’automne” from Les Saisons.

Passions were raised after the interval as we ventured to Verona in three numbers from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Eschewing the popular “Dance of the Knights”, Oue opened with the Balcony Scene, the Tokyo strings finding an icy chill for Romeo’s first appearance, before thawing into glowing warmth for this emotional pas de deux. Some incisive brass playing made for a bracing “Death of Tybalt” scene, Oue taking the timpani strokes at a metrical ‘straight’ tempo at Tybalt’s death spasms. “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave” then delved into greater emotional depths for the ballet’s climax, the blanched violin tone at the end beautifully judged. Ideally, a larger venue than Cadogan Hall would have allowed the orchestral sound more bloom.  

What a contrast to the sassy sound the orchestra discovered for Bernstein's West Side Story. I wasn’t initially convinced by Oue’s switch from metrical precision to his snake-hipped podium gyrations, but it seemed to inspire the right response from his orchestra! Their “Mambo” was brash, but infectious, and “Cool” featured a fine trumpet solo. The softer moments, such as “Somewhere” contained some tenderly shaped solo string lines and “Cha-cha” had just the right level of coyness about it. There was even a hint of a portamento from the strings during the finale, which I suspect Bernstein himself would have adored. An exhilarating excerpt from Yuzo Toyama’s Rhapsody for Orchestra was offered as an encore to a programme of generous length.