Bach leads Tokyo classical festival

by Chiho Iuchi

“I told myself to combine the study of commerce and my passion for music,” says French producer Rene Martin, who has built on those foundations to pursue his vision of democratizing classical music through the annual spectacular he’s named La Folle Journee (Days of Enthusiasm).

Since 1995, when Martin launched the event in his hometown of Nantes, northwest France, it has delighted millions by offering first-class performances at surprisingly low prices.

The LFJ concept has been re-created in Lisbon since 2000; in Bilbao, Spain since 2002; in Tokyo since 2005; in Rio de Janeiro since 2007; and in Kanazawa, Japan, since last year.

Though Martin enjoyed jazz and rock as a teenager, his awakening to classical music came through American jazz bassist Charles Mingus (1922-79) — his idol. On reading Mingus’ biography, young Martin learned that the musician had heard on the radio a string-quartet piece composed by Bela Bartok (1881-1945) on his deathbed in hospital.

“Mingus said, ‘That’s the music I have sought all my life.’ The next day, I bought a CD of Bartok,” Martin recounts. “For me, that was the revelation; that was my (first) encounter with classical music. Bartok’s music is generally considered complicated, but for a listener to modern jazz, it was not at all difficult.”

He then became more absorbed in classical music, learning its history, theory and analysis at a regional conservatoire, while also studying business administration. His future path in life was almost fixed in his 20s when he decide to connect these two fields.

“But I never imagined that I would organize LFJ in Tokyo 30 years later,” smiles Martin, who now produces around 1,300 concerts around the world every year.

The festival at the Tokyo International Forum and venues around the city’s Marunouchi district has been held annually under the title La Folle Journee au Japon since 2005 and spans the Golden Week holiday in May.

This year, some 300 concerts and related programs will take place from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. in TIF’s halls from May 3 to 5, and in the surrounding Marunouchi area from April 28 to May 5.

Most performances are set to last about 45 minutes. The shorter concert time aims to ensure that beginners aren’t overwhelmed, as well as giving established fans an opportunity to enjoy a wider sampling. The price per concert varies between ¥1,500 and ¥4,000, and this year some programs have tickets priced at ¥500 for teenagers.

The event is subsidized partly by sponsorship, despite the current climate.

“Although recent economic conditions caused decline in sponsorship, we have found ways to reduce the festival from five days to three days,” says Junko Suzuki, executive producer from the TIF.

Another reason it’s possible to provide such cheap tickets is because artists voluntarily lower their performance fees in order to support Martin’s philosophy.

The theme of this year’s LFJ au Japon will be “Bach and Europe.” That’s because Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) — the German often dubbed the “father of music” — is the composer most requested in questionnaire surveys of visitors to past LFJ events.

Although he never left his homeland, Bach was interested in the music of England, France, Italy and other European countries that he encountered through scores he then adapted to the traditional German style.

Following the footsteps of the composer from his birthplace of Eisenach through Arnstadt, Weimer and Koethen to his final abode of Leipzig, the festival offers a comprehensive overview of Bach’s masterpieces, as well as works by other baroque composers who inspired Bach, such as Couperin, Vivaldi, Handel and Buxtehude. It also features works by Bach’s family members, including Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christoph Bach.

As the festival’s artistic director, Martin has assembled 1,500 top-rate artists from around the world. Along with regular members — such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under Kazuhiro Koizumi, and Ensemble Vocal and Instrumental de Lausanne, conducted by Maestro Michel Corboz — LFJ 2009 features baroque-music specialist groups, including the Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, and Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin.

Featured European talents include violinists Fanny Clamagirand and Pavel Sporcl; and cellist Tatjana Vassiljeva. Japanese artists include pianists Yu Kosuge and Michie Koyama; violinist Ryo Terakado; and cellists Hidemi Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi.

Programming is also an important job for the artistic director, and Martin explains how he arranges the festival’s complicated timetable by playing CD extracts from various pieces.

“I feel something in common with Japanese otaku (obsessives),” says Martin, who owns some 15,000 CDs and 5,000 LPs, and attends around 400 concerts a year (including LFJ).

“When I make a program, I put myself in the audience’s place. For example, I imagine what a lover of ‘Goldberg Variations’ would expect. So there will be six or seven versions at LFJ to compare.”

In collaboration with TIF and Kajimoto, one of the world’s largest classical-music management companies, Tokyo’s has become the largest LFJ in the world, with astonishing total audience numbers of 323,000 in 2005, 695,000 in 2006, 1,060,000 in 2007 and 1,004,000 last year.

TIF’s largest venue, the 5,000-seat Hall A, is often said to be too large to perform classical music. But Martin brushes off such claims.

“It is not necessarily the best acoustics that provide the best concerts,” he says. “When the sound is good, the audience tends to be passive, but if the acoustics are not so good, they seek the sound by themselves.”

He goes on to mention that the most impressive performances at past LFJ events in Japan have often taken place in Hall A — citing in particular a 2007 performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 by Russian pianist Berezovsky with the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra.

Among this year’s highlights, J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and Mass in B minor will be performed in Hall A, each with a run time of two hours or more.

“When the audience tries to receive actively what the artists are presenting, the artists will give their maximum performances,” says Martin. “This results in a magnificent musical moment.”

La Folle Journee au Japon 2009 takes place April 28-May 5 at Tokyo International Forum, Yurakucho and other Tokyo venues. For more information, visit www.lfj.jp