It's Sunday afternoon at Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo, where the Japan Philharmonic is performing Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, one of dozens of performances of the piece that take place throughout Japan during the month of December. The house is virtually sold out, and the audience appears to be mostly made up of older people, who chat before the program starts about the lunches they just had. Stomachs full, many nod off during the opening selection, the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's "Marksman," but they wake up when the Tokyo Freude Choir starts filing onstage to take their positions on risers behind the orchestra before the start of the Ninth.

When the fourth movement, the "Ode to Joy," begins, their attention is fixed on the choir, which is also mostly made up of elderly people. They sit rapt as the professional soloists trade off lines of Friedrich Schiller's poetry, the choir giving their all in order to be heard above the orchestra. They're not entirely successful in this regard, but the audience is clearly moved and as the last chord echoes through the hall the applause is moving, too. There will be no encore: How do you follow the most monumental symphony ever written? But the choir, some members leaning on canes, others winded by the effort, remain on the risers after the soloists, the conductor and the orchestra leave. They wave to the audience, and the audience waves back.

Later, out in the atrium, the choir members, still dressed in their austere black-and-white stage clothes, mill about, looking for loved ones. One woman says she's 74 years old, and that this is the fourth December she's sung with the Freude choir. "I always wanted to sing the 'Ode to Joy' on the stage," she says. "That's why I joined."