“A first-class orchestra,” Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant says when asked about his first impression of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (TSO), where he has been music director since Sept. 2004.
“It was a happy story that began in the 1990s. Little by little, we started to get to know each other,” says Soudant, describing his relationship with the TSO in a way that sounds like a love story.
The orchestra last year performed 173 concerts, which is roughly double the average for an orchestra in Europe — a fact that Soudant finds impressive.
“It’s amazing that they can still perform from their hearts,” says Soudant admiringly. “With them, I always feel that I am a member of the orchestra.”
Having won prizes in his youth at several competitions, such as the Besancon Young Conductor’s Competition in France and the Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin, the 62-year-old conductor has collaborated with many orchestras in Europe, as well as with others in Australia, South Korea and Japan.
“My first visit to Japan was in 1975. Hiroyuki Iwaki (the late, renowned Japanese conductor) invited me to work here. Since I was too young to conduct the leading NHK Symphony Orchestra, I collaborated with the New Japan Symphony Orchestra established by young Seiji Ozawa, who was a friend of Iwaki. And I got a wonderful ‘girlfriend’! Her name was Hiroko Nakamura.”
Top-class Japanese pianist Nakamura, a prize-winner of the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1965, delivered a successful Japan debut for Soudant through their collaboration at the sold-out Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. Their friendship has since led them to collaborate in numerous concerts, including the upcoming opening night of the TSO on April 9.
Today, there are 40 foreign conductors — four of them incumbent music directors — on the member lists of the 27 professional orchestras that form the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras (AJSO).
Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Western classical music has been channeled to Japan by many foreign artists, including the Polish conductor Joseph Rosenstock, who worked for 40 years to raise the standards of the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
But do Japanese orchestras still need foreign guides?
“Foreigner or Japanese, that is not the question,” says Shuhei Deguchi, managing director of the AJSO and a former oboist. “But a kind of chemistry might exist. Players in an orchestra would be frustrated if the conductor in front of them could not draw out their best performance.”
In the case of the TSO, its performers came to appreciate the chemistry they shared with Soudant through several sessions with him, when he came as an occasional guest conductor in the 1990s.
“We were especially impressed by his fresh interpretation of Bruckner, which was quite different from the typical grave version,” says Shigeto Kanayama, executive adviser and former general manager of the TSO. “At the request of orchestra members — which rarely happens — we decided to invite Soudant more often.”
Before long, Soudant became the TSO’s principal guest conductor (in 1999), and when his contract with the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg expired in 2004, he was inaugurated as TSO’s music director.
In 2006, Soudant celebrated the TSO’s 60th anniversary at a gala concert in its basement venue at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, along with fellow conductors Naoto Otomo and Norichika Iimori — as well as his predecessor Kazuyoshi Akiyama, who held the post for 42 years.
“Unlike European orchestras, which change their music director every seven years, or even every three years in Italy, it was an enormous change for the TSO (when Akiyama left),” says Soudant. “Akiyama gave me a very good orchestra. I respect all the things he did. Now I can continue what he started in a different way.”
While the TSO under Akiyama performed many contemporary works, Soudant is taking the orchestra back to the classics, focusing on composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
“I am building up the inside structure of the orchestra. I myself have learned music like that,” says Soudant, explaining his plan to follow the evolutionary line from classical and Romantic to modern times. “Next step is Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner and Mahler, until I complete the repertoire of the orchestra.”
Although he is reviewing classical works with the TSO, he does not stick to the conservative.
“Mozart is not always as sweet as Mozartkugeln,” he laughs, referring to the famous confectionary from Salzburg. “Sometimes Mozart is aggressive. I lead the orchestra to play in a certain way, different from what the others do. That will give them a personality. It’s very important to make the audience curious and attentive about what’s going on on stage. When the audience believes in the conductor, they just follow him.”
Soon, Soudant will open the TSO’s 2008 season, which begins April 9, carrying the banner for a project titled “Schubert Zyklus,” which explores the world of the Austrian Romantic composer. At concerts throughout the year, they will perform seven symphonies, incidental music from the play “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus” and various overtures composed by Schubert.
“Why Schubert? Because Schubert is a very unique composer,” says Soudant. Schubert’s works inherited styles from his classical ancestors and had a great influence on European composers in the 19th century. But his genius never brought him success during his lifetime.
“Schubert was a wanderer, who moved around from friend to friend,” says Soudant. “He wanted to be famous.”
But in those days, the fame of Beethoven, and of Rossini in Vienna, blocked Schubert’s ambition. Performances of his operas were often deemed to long or difficult to stage, and refused or canceled by theaters.
“His pain is always presented in his music, even in his happy pieces,” Soudant says sympathetically. “He never heard his symphonies performed by professional orchestras at a concert hall.”
For the opening night on April 9, Soudant has planned a unique program that portraits Schubert through the composer’s own pieces, as well as pieces by composers he influenced and was influenced by.
The concert will start with the overture from the opera “Falstaff,” composed by Schubert’s teacher Antonio Salieri, the Austrian imperial-court music director from 1788 to 1824, whose pieces are scarcely performed today, but who became more famous as a rival of Mozart in the 1984 film “Amadeus.”
Next, with Hiroko Nakamura as solo pianist, they will perform Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven, his era’s most important composer and Schubert’s idol.
Also featured are parts and movements extracted from Schubert’s symphonies and pieces from “Rosamunde,” with emerging Japanese mezzo-soprano singer Mutsumi Taniguchi.
“I will explain a little bit about Schubert’s music. For the audience, it must be interesting to learn where Schubert’s music came from, and in which direction it went,” Soudant says.
The day after our interview, the TSO’s rehearsal at the Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall showcased their chemistry. Powerful and expressive, with dancing bodies, swinging arms, hand movements and lots of eye contact, the conductor makes himself fully understood, communicating solely in English and without a translator. “Short! Long! I would like to hear a big difference,” he instructed the professional musicians in a comfortably tense atmosphere.
And at the following performance at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, on March 22, a clear ensemble of strings in nonvibrato controlled by the bowing speed made up a rich harmony, with fine woodwinds, bright trumpets and bouncing timpani that truly excited the 1,800-strong audience.
After the concert, Soudant smiled at his musicians, satisfied with their achievement that capped the 2007 season. “They are not just sitting and doing their jobs. They really love to make music and give us lots of energy.”
Opening Night 2008 of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hubert Soudant, takes place at Suntory Hall, Tokyo on April 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets are ¥4,000-7,000; call (044) 520-1511.