Quake-stricken orchestra plays on in style


Staff Writer

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra faced a setback this year after Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall was severely damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, effectively leaving the musicians homeless.

When Muza’s ceiling caved in, most of the acoustics-enhancing materials, lighting and air conditioning came crashing to the ground. The cost of repairs is currently estimated to be around ¥1.8 billion. An investigation is also under way to determine why the inside of the hall could not withstand the magnitude-9 quake, which had a shindo (seismic intensity) of upper 5 in Kawasaki.

At a recent press conference to announce TSO’s lineup for the 2012-2013 season, managing director Junji Ohno and music director Hubert Soudant expressed gratitude for the financial support they have received from donors both within and outside Japan since the disaster. However, the orchestra wasn’t a stranger to the problem of having no base.

Until Muza was constructed seven years ago, the orchestra had been without a home stage. Soudant became the TSO’s music director in September 2004, two months after the hall was built.

“I was surprised (to hear) that many Japanese orchestras do not have a home hall,” Soudant says. “It is very different from the situation in Western countries.”

Ohno tells The Japan Times how the TSO used a small rehearsal space in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, and how delighted they were when the city of Kawasaki approached them to be the resident orchestra at its new concert hall.

The contract between the TSO and the city gave the orchestra permission to use Muza as its regular concert venue and rehearsal space for around 100 days a year. The orchestra uses other venues the rest of the time.

“(Since) we’ve been able to rehearse in the same place we play,” Ohno says, “it has not only been convenient, but it has also helped a lot to improve the orchestra’s performance.”

Since the earthquake, the loss of their concert venue and rehearsal space has left the TSO in a difficult situation. More than 20 performances were canceled after March 11, but the city of Kawasaki helped the orchestra find alternative venues to use. Those included the Teatro Giglio Showa, in which the TSO celebrated its 65th anniversary on Nov. 12, and Senzoku Gakuen Maeda Hall. Both venues are in Kawasaki.

Ohno says this extra help was appreciated and that, in hindsight, the contract was a good idea — something the city also recognizes.

“It is our responsibility to provide our partner with alternative venues for the concerts that were set to be held at Muza,” says city official Satoko Sasaki. “By continuing the performances, we hope that the musical skills the TSO has refined at Muza will be maintained.”

However, there is still the pressing question of why Muza’s ceiling came crashing down in the earthquake — especially since the venue is more than 300 km away from the epicenter, which was off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. An interim report released in August suggests that the “bearing force” of the ceiling components was not strong enough to handle the seismic tremors, but the details are still under investigation. The structure was designed by the Urban Renaissance Agency and MHS Planners, Architects and Engineers. It supported acoustics-enhancing materials, which were part of a design by Nagata Acoustics. That design was one of Muza’s most popular features and was lauded by a number of top-rated orchestras from overseas. A final report on the cause of the damage is due in March of next year, after which Kawasaki’s municipal government will decide whether to prepare possible legal action.

Reconstruction of the hall will continue until the end of 2012, and Muza is expected to reopen to the public on April 1, 2013.

In the meantime, the show must go on. With the new TSO lineup, Soudant seems to be completing a kind of seven-year training program for the orchestra. The course has followed an evolutionary line from classical (Mozart in 2005-6) and Romantic (Schumann in 2009) periods to modern-era composers (Shoenberg in 2011). Next year, he will mostly showcase the works of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).

“I will not do Mahler’s symphony series, which is performed everywhere. Instead, I am going to introduce his lieder (songs),” Soudant says. The upcoming program will consist almost entirely of vocal works by Mahler, including “Songs of a Wayfarer” and “The Youth’s Magic Horn.” He adds that he plans to collaborate with singers from around the world whom he considers most suitable for Mahler’s pieces.

Of course, there’s still that problem of not having a home. The TSO has decided to temporarily relocate its regular concerts at Muza to Minato Mirai Hall in Yokohama. That venue is easy enough for the typical Muza audience to access and has a larger capacity (2,020 seats) than the alternative venues the TSO had been using up until now.

“Of course, it will be a challenge for us to compete at an established concert venue such as the one in Yokohama,” Ohno says, referring to the fact that Minato Mirai Hall has many other established orchestras playing there.

Despite any butterflies the musicians may feel moving to a new hall, Sasaki says the city of Kawasaki stood behind the decision.

“This is a chance to bring Yokohama audiences to Kawasaki in the future by creating a larger fan base in the meantime,” she says.

Even for an orchestra, the idea of having a home means the risk of losing it. But despite the current situation, Ohno believes having had that home in the first place has led the TSO to show its resilience since the disaster.

“How we keep our motivation high in this so-called homeless condition for another year — that is the key challenge for us now.”

Advance tickets for Tokyo Symphony Orchestra concerts will go on sale Jan. 12. For details, call (044) 520-1511 or visit www.tokyosymphony.com.