European classical chamber music in Japan
- Some considerations from my recent concert visit

Taken from a glass covered pedestrian bridge. Dai-ichi Seimei Hall faces this channel which leads to the Tokyo Bay.

Pedestrian bridge with moving walkways

European classical music has a considerable number of listeners in Japan. Big names such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are known even to ordinary Japanese people as legendary composers.

When Maestro Karajan was still alive, he was treated almost like Hollywood film stars. His name was often used for jokes, because Karajan in Osaka dialect sounds like a statement that something is empty with a nuance of surprise. An example; when it became lunchtime on a picnic, somebody opened his lunchbox and discovered that nothing was there. He might shout "Karajan!" and everybody would laugh about it. By the way, portable lunch is called "bento" in Japanese and this sound reminds us of Beethoven and many people used to tell jokes using the combination of Beethoven and Karajan.

Entrance of the Dai-ichi Seimei Hall
Classical music penetrated into the cultural life of the Japanese people since the end of the 19th century and the orchestral music without doubt occupied the central place of the Japanese music life. The reason for this was, I suppose, the majestic expression of the full orchestra, which had no comparable competitor in the traditional Japanese music. Symphonies and other orchestral works of classic and romantic composers filled concert programs.

Operas, of course, outdo orchestra music as a splendid show. However, due to financial difficulty and lack of good infrastructure, opera became popular only recently in Japan and in particular after the opening of the New National Theatre in 1997. Nowadays, many fans go to opera performances. When famous opera companies give their guest performances in Japan, expensive tickets are sold out well before the date of performances. But, most of them like the fashionable ambience of opera and not so much the music, I suspect. Modern and avant-garde interpretation of opera is not welcome, because opera fans want to enjoy the traditional style of opera performance as a symbol of gorgeous and maybe kitschy European world of nobles and bourgeois in the 19th century.

In the world of instrumental music, pianists and violinists can also win the support of audience, provided that they have won highest prizes in internationally acknowledged competitions such as Tchaikovsky Competition and have good looks capable of appealing to the people through TV and other media.

In contrast to such major areas of classical music, chamber music is still minor and almost negligible as concert programs in Japan. However, I got enchanted by chamber music, especially the works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Dvorak.
Unfortunately, there are not many concerts of chamber music in Tokyo and when musicians get a chance to perform chamber music, they tend to pick up a few popular numbers which, at least among chamber music, can attract certain number of listeners. They are the piano quintet "Trout" by Schubert and the string quartet "America" by Dvorak. If they play unpopular works - this means all chamber music works except for Trout and America - musicians are dependent on their pupils, friends and relatives to fill the music hall.

My affection to chamber music started rather early. While I was a student in Kyoto, it was impossible to listen to symphonies in my small rent room from audio player in full volume. Therefore, I gradually shifted to quieter music, namely solo or chamber music. When I was living in Copenhagen, I was lucky enough to get acquainted with Danish amateur musicians, who were enthusiastic chamber music listeners and players. I discovered the pleasure to play chamber music with them and added new repertoires to my music life.

Therefore, since I came back from Denmark a year ago, I try to find good chamber music concerts in Tokyo from among very limited possibilities. Last Sunday, I listened to the concert of the Erdödy String Quartet at Dai-ichi Seimei Hall. Mendelssohn's Op.13, Op.44-2 and Op.80 stood on the program. For encore, the third movements of Op.44-1 as well as the third movement of Op.44-3 were played. I was very happy when they played the romantic third movement of Op. 44-1. Though other works are also beautiful, I am particularly fond of it. When I played its second violin part in Denmark for the first time, I discovered the delight to accompany and support the beautiful first violin melody.

The concert was worth visiting. However, the size of the hall was problematic for me. It was too big to create intimate and delicate music. It might be a luxury to wish a smaller space in Tokyo for good chamber music, because musicians want a bigger audience as they have to finance their concerts through sales of tickets. Other halls, where chamber music is often played, are also rather big and all musical notes sound too soft and obscure as if they are veiled with silk. I need to hear edges of sound so that I can feel dynamic musical expressions.

Stage of the Dai-ichi Seimei Hall well before the concert begin

I also miss in all of those halls contact with the nature. As they are constructed to create the best sound, they are shielded from the outside world and look very flat dull. I believe that chamber music works in the early romantic period were composed and first played in the ordinary European style rooms from where people could feel the outside atmosphere and nature. I think that nature must be the background for classical music, in stead of artificial space made of concrete and other synthetic materials. Maybe, my summer house is a better place for chamber music than any of these gorgeous and artificial halls.

Lobby of the Dai-ichi Seimei Hall. Guests have a good view of the bay side area.