The year’s not over till you hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

It’s “Beethoven season.” The run-up to the new year has long been marked in Japan with performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 — known here simply as “daiku” — gloriously performed by large orchestras featuring around 80 instrumentalists and some 100 choir members or more.

In October, however, conductor Seiji Ozawa celebrated the 100th regular concert of the Mito Chamber Orchestra by performing the piece with much fewer instrumentalists — the MCO numbers 48, including the 26 core members.

“Everybody takes a large-member orchestra for granted for this piece,” Ozawa tells The Japan Times. The 82-year-old has himself conducted the symphony many times, including a special performance during the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano that involved seven choirs in six countries around the world. In Beethoven’s days, however, he notes the general size of an orchestra was much smaller.

“The MCO fits the size for Beethoven’s orchestration exactly,” Ozawa says.

While the MCO had focused on Beethoven’s other symphonies in recent years, Ozawa hadn’t considered No. 9 a possibility at first. However, he recently convinced the musicians to give it a try.

The result was a fantastic collaboration by a relatively small number of musicians. Every member from the string section, which usually performs as a group, figured as prominently as solo players from the percussion and wind sections, such as the Czech Republic’s Radek Baborak, who played the prominent French horn solo in the third movement perfectly after having manned the baton for the first two movements. As opposed to performances by bigger groups, the actions of who does what in the piece were much clearer and resulted in a more individualized sense of teamwork. It was even possible to see the faces of the 32 selected choir members and, of course, the four solo singers. By the time Ozawa led the orchestra into the awesome “Ode to Joy,” it felt like the audience had actually gotten to know each of the performers.

The first daiku performance in Japan was done by German prisoners of war at a camp in Tokushima Prefecture in June 1918 during World War I, and it’s believed that the tradition of the year-end spectacles in Japan began in the aftermath of World War II.

For some people nowadays, the year isn’t quite over until they have seen at least one performance of Symphony No. 9. That’s why dozens of daiku concerts are scheduled throughout the month. It may sound strange until you consider the Western insistence that “Auld Lang Syne” be performed at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not in Japan, though … we can hear that one every day when the shops close.