For a conductor, there can be a couple of ways to bid farewell to their orchestra. Sylvain Cambreling, who worked with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra as a Principal Conductor for nine seasons, decided to dedicate his final three weeks in Tokyo with these technically superior craftsmen to some of his pieces de resistance, including Ibert's Escales, Debussy's La Mer and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. His latest delicate present to the orchestra and to music lovers in Tokyo was this special concert, entitled "Everlasting Journey of Music" – a full package of rarely played chamber orchestra pieces with a modern French flavor.

Sylvain Cambreling
© Marco Borggreve

The concert was held at Kioi Hall, an 800-seat venue best suited for chamber orchestras. Cambreling came on stage together with seven wind players and one double bass. The night opened with Edgard Varèse's Octandre, a nice short appetizer and prelude for the 20th-century post Stravinsky sound world to come. Despite the small forces, Cambreling conducted every bar, proclaiming to the audience that this was more than a chamber music concert.

Japanese modern music lovers always feel some degree of uneasiness with Olivier Messiaen's Sept Haikai. This piece, to Messiaen what Escales was to Ibert, is a collection of music essays inspired by his first visit to Japan in 1962. The solo was played by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Cambreling's approach to this post-war Japanese soundscape was a very honest presentation of the score without too much commitment to Japonaiserie. Aimard, as well as Cambreling, knew this music so well. Sitting within a lot of percussion musicians and brilliantly playing his cadenza parts, Aimard acted as a member of the orchestra. Even with Aimard's exquisite control and Cambreling's good ear, it was hard to find the perfect balance between winds, percussion and strings in this venue, especially in the third movement "Yamanaka-cadenza" – the songs of birds by the wind instruments after the piano cadenza. The fourth movement "Gagaku" (which is a type of Japanese traditional court music) is awkward to listen to. Japanese audiences and musicians know that this is not a real Gakaku but a piece re-created in Messiaen's head. Cambreling and the Yomiuri wind musicians created a very beautiful non-vibrato Gakaku-like pure timbre, yet the solo trumpet sounded nothing but Messiaen world: maybe this is what Messiaen had heard in Japan. The most impressive movement of all was "Birds of Karuizawa". Without string section, wind and percussion players (Aimard was one of them) it eloquently built up the beautiful sound panorama of a small resort village North of Tokyo.

The best moment of the night came after the interval, with Quattro Pezzi by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. It was almost like having a chamber orchestra on stage, except for the absence of violins. Each movement of this eccentric but very quiet music consists of just one note. The first piece, based on F, brought us really shocking moments, due to different instruments creating the same F sound, yet the whole sounds bearing totally different timbres. We could hear very colorful overtones, although these are maybe impossible to experience when not listening to a live performance. Cambreling and the Yomiuri musicians treated their sound with the greatest care, creating a really special sound world. Finally we understood why this venue was chosen instead of Suntory Hall: it would have been impossible to showcase this intricate sound world inside a larger venue.

"Everlasting Journey" ended with Gérard Grisey's historical piece Les espaces acoustiques. This evening, Cambreling programmed just the third movement of Partiels, played by fewer than 20 musicians. Just after listening to Scelsi's delicate music, our ears were very sensitive. It was the best moment to listen to Grisey's spectral music. The difference between Scelsi and Grisey's interests as artists was very clear in this programme. In Grisey's work, the orchestral sound was more complex, and noises were more aggressively introduced. While using a very similar system to create his music, Grisey is far more of a showman than Scelsi. Sometimes, the beauty of the wind instruments' sound was much closer to the style of Gagaku than the Messiaen's piece, and the overtones, which cannot be heard unless in a live performance, were clearly heard in this venue. This special concert was really a clever and cool goodbye from the Chief Conductor.