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It is common for Japanese classical musicians to study in Europe, but Hisayoshi Inoue is a rarity. With only a diploma from a public junior high school, Inoue journeyed to Vienna in 1979, at age 16, to pursue his piano studies, and ended up staying there 24 years.

Inoue, who eventually switched to conducting, is now back in Tokyo with a new dream. Last year, he launched the Japan Sinfonia to realize his simple but difficult-to-attain ideal: to offer the best possible music to audiences.

Inoue says that as musical director and conductor of the newly founded orchestra, which has 45 regular members, he wants to raise the bar for orchestras here. Orchestras in Tokyo tend to focus on the money and lose sight of the music, he says.

“Under such circumstances, musicians are likely to become cogs in the machinery,” he says. “Japanese orchestras also have this problem. Each orchestra’s identity is weak.”

Japan Sinfonia will limit its concerts to once or twice a year, financed mostly with corporate and individual donations, and devote the bulk of its time to rehearsals. In fact, according to Inoue, some of its members drop out because the rehearsal schedule is so hard.

Self-study

Inoue was first inspired to take up conducting when he was in ninth grade, after seeing a rehearsal of the Yomiuri Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sergiu Celibidache.

“They were rehearsing a crescendo in Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome.’ Celibidache said something like: ‘Imagine the sound of Roman soldiers marching on the Appian Way,’ ” Inoue recalled. “His instructions and the rehearsal were full of such imagination, and I thought, ‘What an amazing maestro!’ “

Inoue says he learned more about conducting by watching rehearsals than he did in the classroom.

“In those years, all the orchestra rehearsals in Vienna were open to the public, except those of Herbert von Karajan,” Inoue says. “I was able to go to them, see and listen to rehearsals by legendary maestros such as Lovro von Matacic, Eugen Jochum, Evgeny Mravinsky, Kirill Kondrasin, Karl Bohm and Leonard Bernstein. It was an incredible privilege. Once, I was even able to ask Jochum questions.”

In the spring of 1981, he started regularly commuting to Munich, a five-hour journey, to attend rehearsals by Celibidache. “I was obsessed with his conducting,” Inoue said. “But one day, I realized that I was merely copying Celibidache’s conducting, and that this was wrong.”

So in 1985 he lengthened his commute: He would ride 12 hours on the night train, from Vienna to Cologne, to study under a different type of conductor. For Gary Bertini, an Israeli conductor whose favorite composer is Mahler, Inoue eventually worked as a unpaid assistant.

Inoue’s conducting debut came in March 1992, when he led the Czech State Philharmonic Orchestra, Brno. He had been invited by the orchestra’s manager, who had scouted Inoue after a conducting contest.

In September 1993, he received a bigger break when Loris Tjeknavorian, principal conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, invited him to serve as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. He was given carte blanche to conduct whatever pieces he wanted to. “For a 30-year-old conductor like me,” Inoue said, “it was a fantastic opportunity.”

He says he did every conceivable piece and composer, including Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Khachaturian, the best-known Armenian composer.

His association with the Armenian orchestra continued to 2002. “Through my experience with this orchestra, I accumulated knowledge and a repertoire, which are crucial for a conductor,” Inoue said.

Higher ground

Marriage to a Japanese woman brought him back to Tokyo in 2003.

“I had time to think. And I thought that as a Japanese with a long experience in Europe, I have something that I can share with Japanese, something that I must do here,” Inoue said. So he hit on the idea of creating a new orchestra, and many musicians offered to help.

His goal is a lofty one: to re-create the image the composers impart to each particular composition and convey those compositions as vibrant, living entities to audiences.

“Japanese orchestras only have a fixed, patternlike image of each composer. This pattern for Mahler, this pattern for Beethoven and so on,” Inoue said. “But they don’t have an image concerning a particular composition. Each one must have a different image.”

For musicians to fulfill their task, just analyzing the score is not enough: They must have the ability to understand the social, cultural and historical factors behind the composer and his compositions, according to Inoue. “When playing Shostakovich’s music, for example, our thoughts must go as far as: Why did the Soviet Union come into being? What is Marxism-Leninism? Who was Stalin?” Inoue says. “In the case of Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 3, we have to be aware that the composer must have been thinking of the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.”

The audience responded positively at the Japan Sinfonia’s first concert in December 2003, but Inoue said there is much room for improvement. For the upcoming second concert, Inoue and the Japan Sinfonia will visit milestones in the history of classical music: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D-Major and Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in C-Major.

Inoue believes that being a musician is a God-given privilege, and it is the musician’s duty to find the meaning of life.

“A concert is not an extension of everyday life,” he says. “If you go to a concert given by a great maestro, it is like prayer at a religious service, and members of the audience are joined with the musicians in a quest for the meaning of life.”

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