Vienna’s Arming strikes the right note

by Chiho Iuchi

“During these five years, we have often tackled contemporary works,” says Austrian conductor Christian Arming, music director of the New Japan Philharmonic (NJP) since 2003. “I believe that broadened our horizon.”

Born in Vienna, Arming, 37, studied at the city’s University of Music and Performing Arts and is one of Austria’s most in-demand conductors, successful both in opera and symphonic orchestra. At the age of 24, he was appointed as chief conductor of the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic, where he served until 2002. He also worked for the Lucerne Theater in Switzerland from 2001 to 2004.

As an assistant to Japanese maestro Seiji Ozawa (born in 1935), Arming worked with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the renowned music venue Tanglewood in Massachusetts. He also came to Tokyo with Ozawa to work with the New Japan Philharmonic several times in the 1990s, which led up to his appointment as the NJP’s music director after Ozawa vacated the role to become honorary conductor laureate in 1999. At the time, Arming’s appointment to that top position at one of Japan’s leading orchestras caused a sensation, as he was then aged only 31.

The NJP was founded in 1972 by a young Ozawa as an independent orchestra. Since 1997, it has had a contract with Sumida Ward in Tokyo, enabling it to use the newly opened Sumida Triphony Hall in Kinshicho both for daily rehearsals and as a concert venue — a rare double facility for an orchestra in Japan.

“Rather than obeying the teachings of some established maestro, we chose a way in which a young orchestra and a young conductor could nurture each other,” explains Senji Mori, managing director of the NJP. “In addition, Arming is from Vienna, a center of classical music, where top-level concerts take place and rising artists emerge — and that was also a consideration.”

The role of the music director varies between different orchestras in different countries. In the case of Arming and the NJP, he has a mandate to suggest programs, soloists and guest conductors, which are then discussed at orchestra meetings.

At the NJP, Arming has attracted particular attention with his fresh programs featuring a variety of contemporary works that he combines into annual themes, including “Love,” “Life” and “Secret.” For example, the program of his NJP concert at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo on Nov. 29 featured Symphony No. 9 by Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75), that was commissioned in 1945 by the then-Soviet Union; ” . . . Geraume Zeit” (” . . . Considerable Time”) by contemporary Austrian composer Herbert Willi (b. 1956); and Sinfonietta by Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928).

“When I am thinking about the programs, moving from this idea to that, my wife often says, ‘Why do you make things so complicated? Mozart or Brahms would be fine.’ But it is my pleasure to make up new programs,” says Arming with a smile.

The conductor looked delighted to introduce the Japanese premiere of Willi’s work, on which he collaborated with flutist Matthias Schultz from Vienna and Hansjorg Schellenberger, the former top solo oboist of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

“My awakening to contemporary music was not so early,” says Arming. “When I was 26 or 27, I was attracted by ‘Gruppen’ by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), featuring three orchestras and three conductors together.”

Also, Arming has presented an opera in concert style every year since 2004, including the Japanese premiere of Beethoven’s “Leonore” in 2005; and the dramatic oratorio “Jeanne d’Arc au Bu^cher” by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). In September 2008, at Sumida Triphony Hall, he performed the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by his favorite composer, Richard Strauss. Then in November, he conducted Janacek’s opera “The Makropulos Case” in collaboration with Nissay Theater.

Arming’s approach has established the NJP as a challenging orchestra, often offering its audiences works they have never heard before. That he is striking the right chord is clear from the fact that attendances were close to capacity throughout 2007 (the last year for which data is available), even though the programs were not always famous masterpieces and often included unknown and difficult pieces.

Arming conducts half of the NJP’s regular concerts, a high rate for a foreign conductor working here. His frequent engagements in Japan, despite his wife and two children waiting at home in Vienna, have helped him to become very close to the orchestra’s members.

Arming’s European sense, and his connections in Vienna and beyond, have brought many foreign artists to collaborate with the NJP. Guest performers in the 2008/09 season include American soprano singer Nancy Gustafson, German violinist Isabelle Faust and Italian pianist Roberto Prosseda, while the season’s guest conductors include young Daniel Harding from Britain and veterans Wolf-Dieter Hauschild from Germany and Frans Bruggen from Holland.

Meanwhile, among the season’s program highlights is February’s “Haydn Project” led by 74-year-old Bruggen, a master of 18th-century music. They will perform the oratorio “The Creation,” composed in Haydn’s last days, and the complete “London Set” comprising the 12 symphonies he composed in that city and which were the last from the artist known as the “Father of the Symphony.”

“This is a great project. I am sure the NJP will have a wonderful experience with maestro Bruggen,” says Arming, who has extended his contract with the NJP until 2011.

By both revisiting the roots of symphony music with its specialist guest, and opening new horizons of classical music with its young director, the NJP will likely continue to excite — and challenge — its eager audiences again this season just as it does every year.

Christian Arming conducts the NJP’s “Master Works Series” at Sumida Triphony Hall, Kinshicho in Tokyo on Feb. 1 at 3 p.m. Tickets are ¥1,500-4,000. The NJP’s “Haydn Project,” conducted by Frans Bruggen, takes place at Sumida Triphony Hall, with oratorio performances on Feb. 6 and 7 (¥6,000-12,000), and symphony performances on Feb. 11, 15, 20 and 28 (¥4,000-6,000; 4-day tickets ¥12,800-19,200). For further dates, information and tickets, call (03) 5610-3815 or visit www.njp.or.jp/njp/ english/triphony.html