“Sending out high-quality Western classical music from Japan” was the goal for renowned cellist and conductor Hideo Saito (1902-74), who studied in Germany. In 1955, he cofounded the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, where he devoted the latter half of his life to music education and taught many Japanese artists, including the world-famous conductor Seiji Ozawa (b. 1935), who has been music director of the Wiener Staatsoper since 2002.
In 1984, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their mentor’s death, Ozawa and conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama, who also studied under Saito, organized a special concert series in Tokyo and Osaka, performed by an orchestra comprised of more than 100 of Saito’s top former students drawn from around the world.
“It was such a breathtaking sound,” recounts Moto Hirasa, who worked on those concerts as Ozawa’s manager — so good, in fact, that Ozawa was inspired to continue performing with the “temporary” ensemble, named the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Saito Memorial Orchestra). Together, they undertook European tours in 1987, ’89 and ’90, then a world tour in 1991. Now they (and their many avid fans) can look forward to their usual monthlong festival of their orchestral delights in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture — within sight of Japan’s Alps — this summer.
After he graduated from the Toho school in 1959, and headed off by ship for Europe, taking his beloved motor scooter with him, Ozawa primarily forged his career both there at journey’s end in Europe, and also in the United States. That year, in fact, he took the first prize at the International Competition of Orchestra Conductors in Besancon, France, before going on to study under luminaries including the French maestro Charles Munch (1891-1968), Austria’s Herbert von Karajan (1908-89) and the U.S. conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). In large part he worked with American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and — for 29 years — at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Despite that long, illustrious resume, however, Ozawa still often uses the term “experiments” to explain his performances of Western classical music as a Japanese.
It was good fortune for Ozawa, who wished to work more in Japan, to find a new stronghold so that the Saito Kinen Orchestra (SKO) would take root at a classical music festival. That came about in 1992 when the inaugural Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto, directed and conducted by Ozawa and mainly performed by the SKO, featured Stravinsky’s opera “Oedipus Rex,” in collaboration with U.S. soprano Jessye Norman (b. 1945). It was an event that excited the local people as well as audiences worldwide through TV broadcasts.
“It was the first live opera for me and the presence of Jessye Norman was overwhelming,” said Gennai Yanagisawa, a Matsumoto resident who runs an engineering company and was in the audience on that occasion.
“I was not a classical-music lover in particular, but on experiencing the live performance in our city, I thought that I should attend the festival from now on, and so I have.”
Ever since, the festival — held annually from August to early September — has gone from strength to strength as it has featured symphonies, opera, chamber music and many related programs, such as outdoor parades by local brass bands and concerts for children. It has even boasted appearances (in 1995 and 2005) by the iconic Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), one of Ozawa’s best friends, impressing both local audiences and devotees of classical music nationwide.
“I think there are three elements for successful music festivals,” said Kazuo Kobayashi, another good friend of Rostropovich through his career as manager of NHK’s Moscow branch, and currently a trustee of the Saito Kinen Foundation. He cites “people, greenery and money,” which he defines as the maturity of the local people; a high regard for the natural environment; and a firm financial basis.
Supported by the spirit of Matsumoto’s people and their love of culture and nature, and with financial backing from Matsumoto City and Nagano Prefecture — as well as generous corporate sponsorship — the festival has forged ahead for 17 years despite changing social and economic conditions.
“There are many other music festivals around the world, but I have never experienced such a good atmosphere in which to make music as Matsumoto,” said New York-based Yoshiko Shiga, one of Saito’s students from Ozawa’s generation. “The artists form friendships among themselves as well as with local residents who really welcome us,” added Shiga, who has been in charge of arranging the orchestra members since the SKO’s first European tour in 1987. With her personal networks around the world, the festival, which started with a core lineup of Toho graduates, has since welcomed talented artists from the four corners of the Earth — as long as they share the spirit of SKO.
“In the case of foreign artists, I make a direct phone call, offering them our next programs. Most of them are happy to come, and once they join us in Matsumoto, they say, 100 percent, that they want to come back again,” Shiga reported with joy.
This year, the festival features, instead of opera, 1962′s “War Requiem” by the English composer, conductor, violinist and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-76). The work was commissioned for the reconsecration of a new cathedral in Coventry, central England, adjoining the old one that was reduced to a (now-preserved) ruin by German bombs in World War II. Britten envisaged the work as demonstrating a reborn spirit of unity through being performed by the Russian soprano and Rostropovich’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, the English tenor Peter Pears and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His vision was indeed realized in an outstanding recording conducted by the composer himself.
According to Maki Takemitsu, a festival staff member and daughter of the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-96), Ozawa does not like political music. However, he was moved enough by the depth of this work to attend a performance of this requiem conducted by Britten — along with his friend Rostropovich. The upcoming festival performance promises to be similarly arresting, as it will feature a choir of local children selected by audition.
This year’s orchestra concerts will be conducted by American musician Robert Mann and Ozawa himself.
However — harsh but true — a question mark surrounds the festival in a post-Ozawa era, as the man who has been its inspiration is already in his 70s.
“It would be a pity if the festival ended after Ozawa. But what is more important than to nominate somebody as his successor is to motivate younger members of the orchestra in their 30s and 40s to continue it. I have always mentioned that to Ozawa,” says Hirasa, who, as general manager, launched the festival with Ozawa in 1992 and continued in that role until 1999.
In April, at concerts that Ozawa conducted in Tokyo and in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, he appeared to be in robust health and seemed fully committed as he threw his body into the performance, fascinating both musicians and the audience.
Backstage at the Mito Art Tower concert hall, at Hirasa’s behest, the maestro was asked a fundamental question: “What is the meaning for us Japanese of performing Western classical music?”
Adding that I do not know why I am so passionate about this music, I then endured a moment of silence before Ozawa, as usual wearing a blue yukata (casual summer kimono) in which to cool down after his performance, answered seriously: “Well, music by composers such as Bach or Beethoven is international from the first. But there is still a feeling of something amiss when we Japanese perform it.”
Intriguing indeed, but by constantly drawing more and more people to his performances, Ozawa continues to amaze as his marvelous experiment lives on.
Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto 2009 runs from Aug. 4 through Sept. 9 at Nagano-ken Matsumoto Bunka Kaikan, Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre, The Harmony Hall and Agata no Mori Bunka Kaikan in Matsumoto City. Tickets, priced from ¥6,000 to ¥23,000, are on sale from May 30 through June 5. For more details, call (0263) 39-0001, or visit www.saito-kinen.com