In a metropolis the size of Tokyo, it is no surprise that there are several large orchestras and a number of high-quality concert halls. But the number of orchestras performing daily can be hard to keep track of, particularly as some have very similar names: Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra — and these are just the ones that are regular members of the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras.

It seems difficult enough for Tokyo to support all these groups, but outside the capital, the situation for regional orchestras is unlikely to be better.

Enter The Festival of Visiting Japanese Orchestras. Started in 1998, it is held at and sponsored by the Sumida Triphony Hall in the Tokyo district of Kinshicho, along with support from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, among others. From March 20-28, this series of concerts features The Orchestra Osaka Symphoniker, Century Orchestra Osaka, Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyoto Symphony Orchestra and Gunma Symphony Orchestra.

Rarely do Tokyo residents venture outside the capital to listen to classical music, with the Seiji Ozawa-led Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, being a notable exception.

For the conductors leading these regional orchestras, the reasons to perform at the festival differ.

“I want to introduce my orchestra and show how much and to what degree it has improved in a short time,” says Junichi Hirokami, chief conductor of the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra. “Of course, in Tokyo there are a lot of wonderful orchestras. For the Tokyo audience to see and appreciate Kyoto Symphony Orchestra and say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know about that kind of orchestra, but it’s not bad,’ that’s a very good feeling.”

Hiroshi Kodama, general music director of The Orchestra Osaka Symphoniker, has a different educational take on the festival: “We would like to pose the question ‘What is a masterpiece?’. . . Besides the common works that are played in concerts nowadays, there are many pieces with cultural and historical value that are buried in oblivion because of reasons other than the works’ musical value. . . . The chance for these works to be played in concerts is limited due to the fact that they are ‘unknown,’ but we believe it is the orchestra’s social and cultural responsibility to provide opportunities for the audience to determine the value of the works for themselves.”

For Pascal Verrot, principal conductor of Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, the exposure is important. “This creates a good opportunity for the public to know about Sendai Phil, or to meet again,” Verrot says. “This is also a good reason for us to tell our public in Sendai: ‘Look, your orchestra belongs with the best!’ “

While occasionally playing in Tokyo may be good promotion for an orchestra, wouldn’t the musicians prefer to join an orchestra in Tokyo or abroad?

“Musicians make their own choice,” Verrot says. “But the lifestyle in Sendai — not only in making the best music — is a big argument to stay.”

Toshiaki Umeda, who led Sendai Philharmonic until four years ago and is guest conducting for the Gunma Symphony at the festival, is optimistic about change. “With Gunma Symphony Orchestra, last year we performed Beethoven’s Ninth, as we have done for the past two or three years,” he says. “Every year, there is great change in the members — new musicians bring new possibilities.”

Kodama adds: “We don’t prevent them, and we don’t think of it as an outflow of talent. Rather, we encourage it. In thinking about the future state of orchestras in Japan, we see that the regional orchestras play an important role in providing a base for gaining experience.

“In order to enrich the base of orchestral culture, it is a prerequisite that orchestras in Tokyo or abroad become not only stepping stones for new musicians with great technical talent but also a destination for orchestra members who have acquired experience over time.”

This is not to say that orchestras in Tokyo or abroad are superior to regional ones. Kazuhiro Koizumi, music director of the Century Orchestra Osaka, added: “For musicians, it is important to have overseas experience. After coming back to Japan, I think that the experience is useful to improve not only their music but also the quality of Japanese orchestras.”

All conductors improve the quality of their orchestras in various ways.

“Basically, my opinion is American orchestras, European orchestras, Japanese orchestras are the same, same great musicians,” says Hirokami, who frequently conducts orchestras in Tokyo and has had extensive experience leading European and American groups. “Each orchestra has a special character. For example, Kyoto Symphony Orchestra has a Kyoto character.”

Hirokami says Kyoto Symphony was in a better financial situation before he became chief conductor in April 2008.

“But since my time there, there’s been an economic problem in Japan,” he says. “Kyoto Symphony Orchestra was supported by the city, by taxes. Kyotoites paid to support the orchestra. About a year ago this system changed. Half of the support is still from taxes; half is ‘you must work hard to survive.’ It used to be a nice orchestra but quite relaxed, with no worry about the future. Now the musicians wake up, they have to work hard to play each concert 220 percent for the audience because we have to keep the audience to help support our orchestra. For me, I think their character is changing in a good direction.”

Verrot worked with Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1986-1990 and recalls Ozawa telling him, “Pascal, be precise and musical all together.” This has helped him while conducting Japanese musicians because, he says, “I still think those two qualities are part of Japanese culture.”

At Sendai Philharmonic, “we try to keep interest in new opportunities, introduce new repertoire and make everyone responsible for himself being at his best,” Verrot says.

As for the festival’s musical program, all the visiting orchestras, except The Orchestra Osaka Symphoniker, will have guest musicians. Kodama will have his orchestra play Sir William Walton’s ballet music for “The Wise Virgins,” Richard Strauss’ Divertimento for chamber orchestra (after piano pieces by Couperin) and Alexander Glazunov’s Symphony No. 5.

Century Orchestra Osaka will feature Noriko Ogawa on Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 followed by Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.

Verrot will have two soloists: Soprano Hisara Sato will sing to Florent Schmitt’s ballet music for “La tragedie de Salome” and Samuel Barber’s “Andromache’s Farewell”; pianist Teru Kurato will help end the program with Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” ballet music.

For the Gunma Symphony, Umeda has chosen challenging pieces.

“Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ is a big piece requiring extra players,” he says. “We performed this years ago and there are some overlapping members, but a lot of the members are new, so it’s a great challenge to perform this piece.”

For Hirokami, the technical details of how his orchestra will perform are secondary to what he believes is the first and most important job of a conductor.

“The main, important thing is communication with the musicians. If you lose the trust, everything will be in vain. Even if you say good things, if you conduct by moving fast, that is nothing because conducting cannot create sound — it’s just cutting air,” Hirokami says as he makes whooshing sounds.

Attending a concert is also about communication. “What determines the value of musical works are the values of each and every listener,” Kodama says. “Each person’s values are different from another’s as long as one is independent, so there is no sense in comparing one’s own values to those of others. For those who will hear these pieces for the first time, we hope that they will cherish their own impressions and continue to hold a curiosity for works they have yet to encounter.”

As for the festival competing with an already numerous presence of Tokyo orchestras, Hirokami dismisses the notion that it’s an overcrowded arena.

“We need 20 more orchestras in Tokyo, but the government doesn’t allow it. Even in London, they have five orchestras but they should have 10 orchestras,” Hirokami says. “We have a lot of good musicians now, mainly due to music universities, but they don’t have occupations. It’s a very, very hard competition.

“When I teach students, compared to my student time, they are much, much better,” Hirokami says. “But unfortunately, they don’t have any chance to get a position, to play in front of an audience.”

The Festival of Visiting Japanese Orchestras 2010 will be held at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo from March 20-28. All shows start at 3 p.m. Ticket prices start from ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.triphony.com or call (03) 5608-1212.

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