Conductor Hubert Soudant to put down his Tokyo Symphony Orchestra baton

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant will make his final appearances with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra this month, before his contract with the organization officially expires in August.

The 68-year-old Soudant stepped down from his position as music director at the TSO in March, but will come back occasionally as a laureate conductor. He is followed in his role by British maestro Jonathan Nott.

When I first reported on Soudant, I described his work with the TSO as a love story and as Soudant reminisces about his first impressions of the orchestra, it indeed sounds like it could have even been love at first sight.

Their initial collaboration came in the 1990s, a move that eventually led Soudant to become the TSO’s music director in 2004. In the 10 years since, Soudant has operated under the belief that you must “play a lot of pieces from the classical period (1730-1820) in order to improve classical music orchestras in general.”

“In the large-scale pieces, such as with symphonies by (Dmitri) Shostakovich or (Gustav) Mahler, you hear the big sound but you don’t hear the individual quality of the performers,” Soudant says. “When we do pieces from the classical period (as a smaller orchestra), everyone becomes ‘naked.’ If one of the performers is not playing well, you can hear that.”

Before Soudant started working with the TSO, the orchestra had played many large-scale pieces by modern-era composers and often premiered contemporary classical pieces under conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama, who preceded Soudant as music director at the TSO for a tenure that lasted more than 40 years.

“But,” Soudant points out, “they never paid very much attention to the quality of the sound. And neither did the other orchestras in Tokyo.”

Soudant says the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, are played in a traditional German way in Japan, the way of maestros Herbert von Karajan (1908-89) and Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954). While those artists are great, it was no longer enough to simply copy them.

“It was a high time to (dive into) the score and look for what was really written there,” he says.

Soudant then started “the big cleanup,” a process that was painful for the musicians of the TSO in the beginning as they thought they had been playing well.

The process of reinterpretation would start with him buying a new score and starting again from scratch.

“If you look at the score as if you have never seen it before, you’ll always discover something new,” he says. “It’s a never-ending journey. I do not think any one of us can ever reach the ending, but we can always be better than yesterday.”

Soudant’s method also allowed each performer a chance to play alone so that his or her peers could listen to individual interpretations carefully. He would instruct them to carefully listen to how each contribution to the orchestra sounded and, little by little, things improved.

“The better the intonation of the orchestra is, the bigger the sound becomes,” Soudant says. “It has nothing to do with playing loud, but has to do with the amplitude of the sound. When you play in perfect pitch, the overtones develop, which produces the color and volume of the sound.

“But playing every note in tune requires a lot of attention and talent.”

With this new focus on individual performances and reinterpreting how the musicians approached the pieces, Soudant made the choice to take the orchestra back to the classics. He zeroed in on a different composer every year, following an evolutionary line from classical (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 2005) and romantic (Franz Schubert in 2008) periods to modern-era composers (Gustav Mahler in 2012).

The TSO management was afraid of the lack of drawing power for such programs as “Schubert Zyklus” in the 2008-09 season, but gradually the TSO became an orchestra that music critics wanted to listen to because they heard something different in its sound.

Hiroo Tojo, one such critic, says: “I had never heard such an exquisite sound in extreme precision performed by a Japanese orchestra before,” adding that “the tone of each instrument was so clear, and the orchestra created a sound of mildness and sharpness in its harmony.”

Soudant wouldn’t allow the TSO to simply perform such classic works note for note, he strived to turn them into something new by interpreting them in a way that would “awaken the audience.”

“Performers should know the musical line and the relationship between the notes,” he says, adding that they need to learn how to communicate with one another through their instruments.

Looking back on his 10 years with the TSO, Soudant reminisces about some of the orchestra’s best performances. He mentions the symphonic poem “Pelleas und Melisande” by Arnold Schoenberg (2012); an unbelievably beautiful movement during the 8th symphony of Anton Bruckner (2010); and Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” (2008).

When he attended his final program as music director in March, Soudant chose to perform Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonies and Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 at Tokyo Opera City on March 22 and Suntory Hall on March 29 respectively. At those shows, the audience really could hear the culmination of a decade-long collaboration between Soudant and the TSO. The clear sound and structure of the music came from each player’s good pitch, rhythm and balance, all thanks to Soudant’s strict, yet lively baton. Hearing these classics in such a fresh way will be Soudant’s legacy.

“The TSO had a very tough time when its home, Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, was damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, which also affected the quality of its performance,” says Tojo, referring to the March performances. “These concerts proved that Soudant brought the orchestra back to its highest level.”

Though he has wrapped up his responsibilities as music director, the maestro hasn’t given up the baton quite yet. On July 13, Soudant will perform at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall as part of its Masterpiece Classics series. His choice is an all-Russian program comprised of “Dawn over the Moscow River” from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera “Khovanshchina”; Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, with Russian pianist Ilya Rashkovskiy; and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem “Scheherazade.”

Soudant will also conduct the TSO at the opening of the annual Summer Muza Festival in Kawasaki on July 26, performing Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in collaboration with Japanese organist Naomi Matsui.

As Soudant’s tenure comes to an end, the TSO and classical music fans can’t help but be indebted to the method of thinking that has been established within the institution. New music director Nott began his tenure at the TSO in April, and he has some rather big shoes to fill.

Hubert Soudant will conduct the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall on July 13 (2 p.m. start; ¥3,000-¥6,000; 040-520-0200); and as part of Summer Muza Festival on July 26 (3 p.m. start; ¥2,000-¥4,000; 040-520-0200). For more information, call the TSO at 044-520-1511 or visit tokyosymphony.jp or www.kawasaki-sym-hall.jp/festa.