Classical music has always been a big part of Ikuo Nakajima’s life. He never became a professional trumpeter, opting instead to become a managing engineer, but that hasn’t stopped him from performing.
“There’s an excitement that only an amateur orchestra can create,” says the 58-year-old, who was one of the founding members of the Japan Gustav Mahler Orchestra (JMO), comprised of nonprofessional musicians. “The flawless performance of a professional orchestra is just too safe. Actually I find it a bit dispassionate and boring.”
Professional musicians have the benefit of being able to practice their craft constantly, so “flawless performances” can come easy. And though Nakajima mentions a sense of “dispassion,” it’s likely that any pro will still profess love for what they do. When music is your hobby, though, then passion is really all that’s driving you to continue.
“We make mistakes sometimes,” he admits, “but there’s also a real joy of music.”
Early in Nakajima’s career as an amateur musician he had the fortune of being conducted by Hisayoshi Inoue, who studied in Vienna under the tutelage of conductors such as Sergiu Celibidache and Gary Bertini. Inoue has also served as an assistant to maestro Seiji Ozawa. Nakajima enjoyed his experience with Inoue and the pair became friends.
They recruited some other friends and formed the JMO in 2001 around a particular love for the work of Austrian composer Mahler (1860-1911). While there are 33 professional orchestras registered with the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, it’s hard to know the exact number of amateur groups. It’s believed there are roughly 500 in Tokyo and more than 1,000 across the country — including those in universities and companies.
Besides a passion for Mahler, what drew Inoue to the group was the same thing that attracted Nakajima: the effort the players put into their craft.
“They spend so much personal time on one program that it will result in a very stirring performance,” the 54-year-old Inoue says, noting that the players will devote their weekends to rehearsing. “Therefore the result can be more touching than what you’d get from a professional orchestra.”
The idea of overcoming a challenge has always appealed to the Japanese and could be a reason why audiences here enjoy seeing nonprofessionals pull off a feat as impressive as a classical music performance. In fact, one recent tour by the Kyoto University Symphony Orchestra sold out shows not only in its hometown of Kyoto, but also in Osaka and Tokyo.
The musicians get a lot out of the experience, too.
“Playing an instrument in an orchestra is totally different from just listening to it,” says violinist Takako Furukawa, a restaurant worker who joined JMO to reignite a love she had for Mahler’s music from her student days.
“You can recognize who does what — the profound sounds of the cello and contrabass, or the timing of the percussion. With other people, I can make great music that is far beyond my capacity as an individual.”
The JMO renamed itself the Mahler Festival Orchestra (MFO) in 2015 and, with the help of the city of Kawasaki, presented Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, one of the conductor’s largest in terms of scale, to a full house at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall in February last year. The performance involved 129 people playing instruments, three choirs composed of 189 adults and 88 children, and eight professional singers. Inoue invited members of the resident orchestra for the Berlin State Opera to one of the rehearsals, and he says they were impressed.
In fact, thanks to Inoue’s connections, the MFO often gets the chance to collaborate with professional musicians.
“It’s amazing that we have opportunities to perform with first-class musicians,” says violinist Mitsuko Omura, who works as a full-time translator.
Inoue thinks it’s beneficial for the amateurs to be able to talk about music with the professional players, but he also thinks the pros are equally impressed with the wealth of nonmusical experiences the amateurs bring to their craft. One such professional is violinist Chiyoko Otsu, who regularly provides support to the amateur orchestra as a trainer.
“Sometimes it’s not so easy, but the passion for music shared with Inoue and the orchestra’s members really motivates me,” Otsu says.
After a triumphant performance at Muza Kawasaki last year, the MFO is set to return to the venue to perform on Feb. 12. The upcoming show will feature a collaboration with Berlin-based musician Riyo Uemura, who will play a violin concerto by Austrian-born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). The main program will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.
“Amateur orchestra members take a long time to work on a piece, so we are able to share our thoughts more deeply during the process of making it,” Inoue says. “It’s exciting to go through it all with people who aren’t too entrenched in musical institutions.”
The Mahler Festival Orchestra would like to give away five pairs of tickets to its Feb. 12 performance to Japan Times readers. To apply for tickets, send an email by Feb. 10 to: email@example.com.
The 14th regular concert of the Mahler Festival Orchestra will take place at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall in Kawasaki on Feb. 12 (6 p.m.; ¥2,000; 0422-45-1585). For more information, visit www.mahlerfestivalorchestra.com.