The amateur members of Tokyo Symphony Chorus perform like true professionals

by

Special To The Japan Times

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (TSO) opens its 2017/18 season on April 22 at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, but the performance will be lacking one crucial element during the opening piece: the orchestra.

Instead, the 48 members of the Tokyo Symphony Chorus (TSC) will take the stage in celebration of its 30th anniversary. In collaboration with cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi and a few precussionists, the upcoming concert will feature contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s “The Canticle of the Sun,” which will be performed for the first time in Japan.

The amateur choir was established in 1987, an initiative of the TSO’s then-General Manager Shigeto Kanayama.

“Until then, the orchestra would ask outside choir groups to collaborate with us only when we performed pieces that involved a choir, mainly for financial reasons,” Kanayama says. “However, to improve the quality I realized that we needed a choir that could sing with us exclusively rather than just getting singers from various choral groups every time we needed them.”

Once the search was on, parameters were set: The TSO needed to secure more than 200 amateur members on a consistent basis. They needed to have singing experience, and shouldn’t have to pay membership fees nor secure ticket sales — they were to concentrate on the music alone. In return, the choir was to be put under the direct control of the TSO.

Despite some objections from existing amateur choirs, more than 470 people applied for the group by the end of August 1987. Around 250 made the cut and the TSC was officially established on Sept. 11 of the same year. The choir debuted in December 1987, performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In the 30 years that have followed, they’ve gained a reputation for being one of the best choirs in Japan.

Baritone Tatsu Seiki, a former systems engineer, joined the TSC in 1991.

“I’m now retired, but back when I started working I used to question what I was doing with my life, just going back and forth to the office every day,” he says. “I decided to find a ‘third place,’ and for me that was the choir.”

After taking part in amateur choirs in Osaka for years, he joined the TSC after his company transferred him to Tokyo.

“It wasn’t easy to manage my time,” Seiki recalls. “I tried to finish my duties as efficiently as possible in order to be on time for choir rehearsals every Friday evening. That kind of working style, not doing long hours, wasn’t common among Japanese of my generation. But in a sense, my way of doing things was ahead of the times.”

To keep up the quality, the TSC holds annual auditions for new members. Additional auditions are also held among members for each performance the TSO delivers. Seiki says he doesn’t mind the competition.

“While it’s true that such a system could turn us all into rivals, we manage to stay friends by practicing together before the auditions and prior to the concerts,” he says, adding that there have even been times when senior members who have helped coach their juniors end up losing out to them at the audition. “It happens,” he shrugs.

One challenge the members face in landing a part is memorizing the pieces they perform. Professional choirs are able to take quick looks at the notes in the scores they are performing. Kanayama says that when dealing with amateur groups, though, the singers are “able to deliver good performances only when they practice so hard that they’ve been able to memorize the entire score.”

Though the group is praised for this kind of method, tenor and systems engineer Shinobu Takeda says basic memorization isn’t the goal.

“The point is that we take a long time and make the effort to practice each piece again and again so that we are able to perform from our heart,” he says.

While the TSC is directly under the control of the TSO, choir members organize themselves. Ryuta Inoue, who works as a manger for a pharmaceutical company, served as the liaison between choir and orchestra for 15 years. Since the TSC is a nonprofessional choir, its members are considered volunteers and aren’t paid for their work.

“But when we stand on the same stage as the TSO, we are required to give a professional-level performance,” Inoue says, adding that he feels the TSC is “blessed with opportunities to tackle challenging new pieces, ones that are rarely performed by amateurs” and that’s what motivates him.

According to the official website of the Japan Choral Association, this country is one of the world’s best when it comes to choirs, with tens of thousands of amateur groups run by schools, companies and community groups. Several are also organized by professional orchestras, but many are temporary. The TSO is one of those rare cases in which the system has been allowed to thrive for three decades.

To help ensure professional-level performances, the TSO regularly assigns top-class chorus masters to help train TSC members. One such leader is Kenji Otani, 60, who conducts the Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo. He has trained the TSC before and was brought back for “The Canticle of the Sun.”

“This piece, based on a religious song written by St. Francis of Assisi, was composed for the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007),” Otani explains. “The way the choir and percussion weave with the cello is interesting.” Gubaidulina’s piece revolves around a cello solo, beginning with a sense of dissonance and progressing toward a harmonious finale.

A number of solos are available in “The Canticle of the Sun,” leaving opportunities for some singers to shine. Alto Mutsumi Mizukoshi, an office worker, performs one of the solo parts in the piece and says it’s a big challenge.

“I only have a limited time to work on music because of my day job and household responsibilities,” she says, adding that all the extra work has only strengthened her determination to perform well. “I can get rather burned out after a concert, but I’ll still find myself approaching the next piece as if I’m standing at the foot of a mountain and eager to climb it again. I consider it a privilege that an amateur like myself can pursue my passion for music even though — and maybe more so because — it isn’t my profession.”

“The Canticle of the Sun” will be performed under the baton of Ryusuke Numajiri, who conducted the piece when it was premiered by Rostropovich in London nearly 20 years ago. It will be followed by “The Planets,” a seven-movement suite by English composer Gustav Holst that incorporates a large-scale orchestra and ends with a female chorus. The TSC will perform the final part of Holst’s piece.

“It’s a chance to show off the technical skill of the choir’s women members,” Otani says, adding that he encouraged the performers to sing without vibrato in order to avoid too much of a “human sound.”

The TSC’s members are looking toward this 30-year milestone with a lot of enthusiasm. Soprano Nao Higashihara, who’ll perform one of the solos at the upcoming performance, says she’ll “do my best for the audience.”

“On the stage, there should be no differences between the professionals and the amateurs,” she says.

The regular concert of Tokyo Symphony Orchestra featuring Tokyo Symphony Chorus will take place at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall in Kawasaki on April 22 (6 p.m.; ¥3,000-¥7,000; 044-520-1511). For more information, visit tokyosymphony.jp.