It’s not rare for a conductor from overseas to collaborate with a Japanese orchestra, but the case of Jonathan Nott stands out because of the speed at which he and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra cultivated their relationship.
The British conductor made his debut with the TSO in October 2011 and, after only one collaboration, was invited to become music director. Nott, 53, assumed the three-year posting in September 2014, and a year later the TSO announced his contract would be extended until the 2025/26 season.
“I was surprised, but I liked that spontaneity,” Nott tells The Japan Times. “I think the quickness of the decision is reflected in the way that I like music to be made.”
After studying music at Cambridge University and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, Nott began his career at the Frankfurt and Wiesbaden opera houses in Germany in the mid-1980s. Since 2000, he has served as principal conductor of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in Germany, lifting the orchestra to prominence as acknowledged by its winning of the prestigious Midem Award in 2010.
Over the past decade, Nott has toured around the world with the Bamberg Symphony, while also giving performances as a guest conductor with many leading orchestras, including the Berlin, New York and Vienna philharmonics, as well as the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Royal Concertgebouw orchestras, to name a few.
“I really enjoyed my time in Bamberg,” says Nott, who is nearing the end of his tenure there and has also accepted another post of music director in Europe at the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande starting this year. He will be in Japan for eight weeks out of the year to perform six programs (nine concerts), and says he looks forward to working with the TSO in the long term rather than renewing the contract every three years.
Having said that, however, Nott also says he likes to avoid long-term planning, favoring spontaneity. That doesn’t mean last-minute preparations, just a preference for not to setting specific annual themes.
“What I like about music is the way that different pieces come together to make one new ‘meta piece,’ which is a concert as a program,” Nott explains.
For instance, the TSO concerts last November began with Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes,” which filled the venue with the tick-tick of metronomes before a silence that led into Bach’s heavenly “Komm, Susser Tod” (“Come, Sweet Death”). That was followed by Richard Strauss’ dazzling Burleske in D minor and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, a piece that ended with another percussive ticking sound, giving it an otherworldly feeling.
“This program explored the difference, or nondifference, between life and whatever happens after this life,” Nott says.
Last July, the TSO also performed Beethoven’s popular Symphony No. 5 under Nott’s baton, which included an extra rhythmic groove that thrilled both his audience and the orchestra’s members.
“These masterpieces cannot be just taken for granted,” Nott says. “I always encourage the orchestra to play with passion, not perfection.”
During the rehearsals, Nott points out that he and the Japanese musicians cannot really communicate verbally. Instead, as someone fluent in the language of music, as he conducts he uses his hands to convey many things — speed, phrasing, the “color” of sound, different rhythms — all the while giving instructions as to who will come next.
“One thing that I can’t do is to describe the content, its historical reason or what picture the music conveys,” Nott says. “I can only do this in English (and German or French).”
At this point, Nott mentions the Japanese concept of mono no aware, or an empathy toward things, as a main strength of orchestras here. It is through this idea that they can express the “spiritual elements of music, such as a transition between existence and non existence” — something he says he sought with the TSO in previous performances.
“I’m sure there is naturally, culturally a very big link between what it must be like to belong to Japanese culture and what I think is the great power of music,” Nott says.
Since it was founded in 1946, the TSO has explored both modern and classic compositions, focusing on contemporary works under conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama, who served as the first music director for 40 years from 1964, and on classical pieces under Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant for the past decade. Marking its 70th anniversary this year, the TSO is scheduled to go on an autumn tour of Europe with Nott and will perform classical works, with one contemporary Japanese piece to show “what we like, what makes us Japanese and the sonority that we are doing, which I like.”
“I simply want anybody coming to a TSO concert to feel as though it was a real experience that they hadn’t quite expected,” Nott says. “That is something that enriches life.”
The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra will perform under the baton of Jonathan Nott in April at Suntory Hall, Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall and Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall. Before then, the orchestra will perform under the batons of Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Norichika Iimori and Dmitrij Kitajenko. For more information, visit tokyosymphony.jp.