Adventures in folk

Sayaka Shoji, Noriko Ogawa look ahead to classical showpiece 'La Folle Journee'

by Mariko Kato

‘At a festival like this, where you’re collaborating with highly talented, colorful artists during a short, intense time period, there is always a risk. But the wonderful thing about ‘La Folle Journee’ is that the artists are given the opportunities to work with partners who they would not have otherwise met. I can rediscover my own music at this festival. It’s an adventure.”

So says Paris-based 24-year-old violinist Sayaka Shoji, speaking ahead of the weeklong music festival “La Folle Journee au Japon,” which will be held in Tokyo from April 29.

With its “harmony of people” theme, it’s appropriate that the 700,000 classical-music fans expected to attend the event will see performances by rising star Shoji and established pianist Noriko Ogawa (who is based in Britain) — two musicians who have done their bit for internationalization.

The festival presents “nationalistic” works that see the composers paying homage to their country’s traditional folk music, and which portray the nostalgia they feel for their homeland. The wide-ranging programs include Smetana and Dvorak (Czech Republic), Bartok (Hungary), Sibelius (Finland), Grieg (Norway), the French greats (Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Bizet), and the Russians, often considered leaders of this movement. On May 4, Shoji plays “Violin Concerto in D Op. 35″ by the most celebrated Russian composer of all, Tchaikovsky.

“As soon as I heard that it was going to be ‘folk-themed,’ I immediately gave Rene Martin (artistic director) my favorite repertoire,” says Shoji, who in 1999 became the first Japanese contestant — and the youngest ever artist (she was 16 at the time) — to win the prestigious Paganini Violin Competition in 1999. “I’ll be performing the music that I love.”

Shoji will be performing Tchaikovsky with the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Dmitri Liss, with whom she played the same piece in January at “La Folle Journee” in Nantes (where the festival first started in 1995). “We always take a lot of time over intricate details, and we keep practicing until we are happy. At Nantes, we performed a very ‘Russian,’ or should I say ‘Siberian,’ Tchaikovsky. I’m really looking forward to how our performance will unfold in Japan.”

In preparation for her performance of Grieg’s “Violin Sonata No.3″ on May 6 with French pianist Frank Braley, Shoji visited the modest cabin in Bergen, Norway where Grieg composed this piece. “It was in the middle of a forest, with the lake stretching out before our eyes. It was truly inspiring. The third violin sonata was perhaps a passion born from this peace. It’s a very masculine work, yet there is also a deep nostalgia and yearning.”

In conversation and performance, this young violinist shows her maturity. But she’s only starting on her road to self-improvement. “Last year I made time to find out about myself,” says Shoji, “but the more it becomes clear where I want to be heading, the more it becomes evident that I need to do more work.”

Delving into the musical heritage of nations

Below are three recommended concert programs at “La Folle Journee au Japon,” each promising musical highlights from a single country delivered by world-class performers. All concerts take place at Tokyo International Forum.

A vintage French

Chamber orchestra Les Siecles conducted by Francois-Xavier Roth performs Bizet’s “Symphony in C major” and Chabrier’s “Pastoral Suite for Orchestra,” two great orchestral works likely to come to life in the hands of French musicians.

Hall B7; May 2 (9 p.m.); 1,500-2,00 yen yen0

In homage to Gershwin

Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra with Makoto Ozone (piano) and Michiyoshi Inoue (conductor) perform Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F” and “Rhapsody in Blue” in an all-Japanese tribute to Gershwin’s piano masterpieces.

Hall A; May 3, 6 (2:30 p.m.); 2,000-3,00 yen yen0

Two shades of Hungary

Roel Dieltiens (cello) and Maria Petras (folk singer) play Kodaly (“Sonata for solo cello, op.8 Hungarian Traditional Music”) in what is a rare opportunity to hear two different timbres of Hungarian music in the same evening: Classical cello and traditional folk singing courtesy of two talented native musicians.

Hall B7; May 2 (1:45 p.m.), 6 (10:15 a.m.); 1,50 yen0

Shoji’s energy befits the title of the festival, which translates roughly as “days of enthusiasm.” “My personal ideal is still very far off. I was born in the year of the wild boar, so this year I’ll power on ahead,” she says.

Another female Japanese artist with an international profile is pianist Noriko Ogawa, whose popularity in her adopted U.K. grew after she was awarded third prize in the 1987 Leeds International Piano Competition. She now records regularly for the BBC. “I love my musical life in the U.K.,” says Ogawa, “I would not give it up for the world! The musicianship of British artists is always a fresh inspiration. They welcome new ideas and are eager to make something of themselves.”

Ogawa is also well received in her home country. In 1999, she was awarded the Japanese Ministry of Education’s Art Prize in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the cultural profile of Japan throughout the world. “The British audience always gives me a warm welcome as a Japanese artist, and I’m very grateful. But at the same time, I regularly return to Japan, so performing here is also very natural to me.”

Ogawa’s performances at “La Folle Journee” are made more interesting for the fact that she is celebrated for her interpretations of the French Impressionists (namely Bizet, Debussy and Ravel) who are one of the main features at the festival. “Since I was very young, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful sound of Impressionist music. This event is a fantastic opportunity for me to interpret French composers at a festival that originated in France.”

To portray the great span of Impressionist music, Ogawa has chosen popular works by Debussy from his early- to mid- period, and Ravel’s final work for piano, for her recital on May 5. “These two composers are often lumped together in the same ‘period,’ yet they are very different,” says Ogawa. “Debussy is artistic and symbolic, and he goes on an adventure along that road. By contrast, Ravel explores backwards, studying the structure of works as far back as Baroque (1600-1750).”

Ogawa’s musical philosophy is surely inspirational to all the artists participating in this festival, whatever their age or nationality. “As an artist, I want to only express what I truly believe, what I really feel. I think music has the power to do that.”