Sendai festival offers classical music for all

by Chiho Iuchi

Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture will be transformed into a musical amusement park for three days from Oct. 11 during the third staging of the Sendai Classical Music Festival.

The festival is commonly known by the abbreviation Sen-Cla (pronounced sen-ku-ra). The “Sen” part refers to the city of Sendai, of course, but it also means 1,000, as in “sen en” (¥1,000).

“The price per concert is uniformly ¥1,000,” says Yo Hirai, the festival’s producer since Sendai City started the event in 2006. “The concept of Sen-Cla is based on the tastes of ordinary people, among whom classical-music fans are considered to represent only around 1 per cent,” says Hirai.

Having analyzed why most people rarely go to classical-music concerts, in 2006 Hirai listed the reasons in a comment on the festival’s official Web site: The pieces are unfamiliar, inaccessible and too long; the concerts are also too long; the tickets are too expensive, but cheap concerts are low in quality; children are not allowed to go along; going to concerts in the evening is inconvenient for those who take care of small children or elderly parents; and so on.

In order to overcome these barriers, Sen-Cla holds 101 concerts, each lasting about 45 minutes, in nine halls at four venues, from morning to evening, rendering it convenient for various audiences.

“When I planned Sen-Cla, I referred to three concepts: the famed music festival ‘La Folle Journee (Days of Enthusiasm),’ launched by French music director Rene Martin; a series of CDs, ‘Your Best Tunes 101′ (which compile short familiar pieces or phrases) released by Universal Music; and ¥100 shops,” explains Hirai.

Originated in Nantes in western France in 1995, La Folle Journee has been delighting millions around the world by bringing them first-class performances at surprisingly low prices. Its concept has been recreated in Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Japan. Since it started in 2005, LFJ Tokyo has become the largest event of its kind in the world, with audiences of more than 1 million in 2007 and again this year.

“We rearranged LFJ’s concept to suit a regional city such as Sendai,” two hours from Tokyo, comments Hirai. “The biggest difference from LFJ is that Sen-Cla provides no specific theme, such as LFJ’s ‘Schubert and Vienna’ theme in 2008.”

Catering to the needs of the Sendai audience, Sen-Cla offers programs featuring short pieces that people might have heard sometime or somewhere in their lives, such as those that have been adapted for film music.

“Like it or not, the CD series from Universal Music has been selling well,” says Hirai, suggesting that diehard classical fans may turn their noses up at the concept. “We can learn from this fact.”

From the ¥100-shop example, Hirai learned that people tend to buy more than they had originally planned.

“Instead of buying only one thing for ¥100, people go on buying one thing after another that add up to two or three thousand yen!” Hirai laughs. “That’s why we fixed the ticket price uniformly at ¥1,000. Maybe people will buy tickets for two or three concerts.”

As a unique project in a regional city, Sen-Cla has been well received by audiences, numbering around 30,000 in 2006 and 38,000 last year (which this year’s figure looks likely to top).

This year, the festival features 50 groups composed of 600 carefully selected artists, including three local orchestras — one being the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kazufumi Yamashita; and Tokyo-based brass ensemble Siena Wind Orchestra. Japanese soloists include pianist and composer Yuji Takahashi; violinist Toru Yasunaga, who has been performing as concertmaster at the Berliner Philharmoniker; accordionist Miki Mie; jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita; poet Shuntaro Tanikawa; and many more. Foreign artists include Korean baritone singer Kyu Won Han, and pianists Tan Xiaotang from China and Georg Friedrich Schenck from Germany.

Mutsumi Hatano, a mezzo-soprano singer and specialist in baroque and earlier music who also appears this year, recalls 2007′s event.

“When I was asked to join as a performer, the Sen-Cla project sounded quite exciting,” Hatano says. “I performed at four concerts on the same day! It was challenging for me and actually quite hard. But to my surprise, some audience members attended the whole day along with me. Of course, they went to other concerts in between, but they came back to me for my next performance.”

Indeed, the low-cost tickets mean that people can run to as many shows as physically possible without breaking the bank. Of last year’s festival, Hatano recalls: “Ticket-holders looked so delighted, moving from one venue to another by Metro. Sendai is not as crowded as Tokyo. People seemed to be having a nice musical excursion.”

Sendai Classical Music Festival 2008 takes place Oct. 11-13 at Sendai City Youth Cultural Center; Sendai Mediatheque; Taihaku Ward Cultural Center, City of Sendai; and Izumity 21. Each are near stations at short intervals along the city’s one Metro line. Tickets for each concert are ¥1,000 (in advance). For more details, visit www.sencla.com/en/