Music

The man bringing classical music to millions through La Folle Journee returns to Tokyo

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

Instead of explaining the essence of classical music in words, French music producer Rene Martin chooses a piece from an enormous number of musical samples stored in his smartphone.

Breaking the silence, the sound of a piano version of Franz Schubert’s “Serenade,” one of his “Schwanengesang” (“Swan Song”) pieces, issues from a portable speaker.

“Listen. It’s very simple, almost like popular songs,” Martin says during an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo. “Yet, there is something absolutely unique.”

His way of talking and acting echoes how he would similarly play records for his friends in his room when he was young. One day at age 16, Martin, who had been a fan of jazz and rock, was impressed by a string quartet piece by Bela Bartok and became absorbed in classical music. He decided to study both music and business administration to pursue his passion for sharing classical music with a wider audience, which later resulted in staging 1,500 concerts around the world every year. The spectacular classical music festival La Folle Journee (Days of Enthusiasm) (LFJ), of which Martin is artistic director, is one example of his biggest annual events.

Since first being held in 1995 in Martin’s hometown of Nantes, in the northwest of France, LFJ has been held annually and re-created in locations around the world, including Tokyo, Bilbao in Spain and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

LFJ in Japan started in 2005 at the Tokyo International Forum TIF and other venues in the surrounding Marunouchi district. While Martin staged LFJ in Nantes from the end of January each year, “to avoid competing against any other cultural event such as the Cannes Film Festival,” he chose the Golden Week holidays in May for LFJ in Japan.

“It was also a strategic choice because I wanted to invite those who have never attended classical music concerts, especially families with small children,” Martin says. “I was impressed to see an audience of nearly 5,000, many with buggies, at one of the concerts, which was aimed at babies under the age of one.”

LFJ aims to remove barriers to classical music by offering a program of short concerts one after another, simultaneously taking place at several venues around the Tokyo International Forum from morning till night, performed by around 2,500 musicians from around the world at low prices (from ¥1,500 to ¥3,500). Such cheap tickets have been made possible thanks to corporate sponsorship, as well as artists lowering their performance fees to help support Martin’s philosophy.

Marking its 15th anniversary this year, the Tokyo event has developed into the largest La Folle Journee event in the world, with audiences of more than 400,000 in recent years.

Martin says that, of course, there have been twists and turns over the past 14 years — among them, making the difficult decision to hold LFJ events in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

LFJ Tokyo 2019 will host 124 concerts at Tokyo International Forum, as well as some 200 free concerts in the city’s Marunouchi district under the theme “Carnets de voyage — music inspired by travel.”

“From the Renaissance through the 20th century, many composers took off on journeys to seek new musical languages and cultures,” Martin says, adding that ‘carnet’ is a small notebook in the pocket where composers would write down their musical ideas when inspired on the journey.

During a press conference on Feb. 15, Martin gave a presentation about LFJ 2019, which focused on composers who traveled a lot during their lives and how they were inspired by their journeys, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn to Hector Berlioz, Camille Saint-Saens and Alexandre Tansman, as well as contemporary composers Jean-Louis Florentz and many more, including internationally active Japanese composers such as Toshio Hosokawa, Dai Fujikura and Karen Tanaka.

The masterpieces of those traveler-composers featured in the upcoming festival include symphonic suite “Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s string sextet “Souvenir de Florence,” and Liszt’s piano suites “Years of Pilgrimage.”

One of the travelers that Martin will introduce, French composer Saint-Saens, traveled 179 times from 1857 through 1921, visiting 27 countries, including numerous visits to Algeria and Egypt. His works, such as symphonic piece “Suite algerienne” and “Piano Concerto No. 5,” popularly known as “The Egyptian,” will be also performed.

Martin’s vast knowledge and efforts to discover something new in music from the past can’t help but stir up a feeling of curiosity.

“I usually spend four to five hours a day finding new information and another four or five hours combining it all,” says Martin, who owns some 15,000 CDs and, of course, makes full use of the latest technologies via the internet.

For LFJ’s program, Martin has also arranged original projects featuring fresh crossovers and collaborations beyond borders, such as “Silk Road” concerts by musicians from the Middle East, Iran, China and Japan; “Diva Opera” that involves Mozart’s “Il Seraglio” with piano accompaniment; Romani and klezmer music by Sirba Octet in collaboration with traditional Russian balalaika, and other programs featuring guitar and accordion that draw out the sentiment of travelers.

In addition to some regular member musicians such as Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky and French pianist Anne Queffelec, LFJ 2019 features many fresh new faces, including promising young talents such as Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina, Berlin-based Ukrainian violinist Diana Tishchenko and Italian-born pianist Alexander Gadjiev, as well as Japanese violinists Mayuko Kamio and Fumika Mohri.

“The artists that I chose are those who knows how to communicate with an audience,” says Martin, as he points out that even technically skilled artists do not always touch the hearts of the audience.

“I’m sure that the artists I chose will give soulful performances … as if they cannot live without communicating with people,” he says, continuing his bid to transmit the pleasure of classical music to those who have yet discover it.

La Folle Journee Tokyo 2019 takes place from May 3 to 5 at Tokyo International Forum, Yurakucho and other venues around Marunouchi. Ticket sales start on March 16. For more information, visit www.lfj.jp/lfj_2019e.