Music

Bach to basics with father and son maestros

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

Without a doubt, Western classical music developed in part through Christian practices, possibly reaching a peak of sophistication with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), arguably one of the greatest composers, who lent his influence to the music of later periods.

In the course of modernization and Westernization since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan has accepted this music and religion in its own way.

“The acceptance of classical music in Japan has coexisted with a loss of cultural identity, but Japanese people of the era made efforts to absorb and digest the new culture and have made classical music their own language, even though it’s not the mother tongue,” says organist and harpsichordist Masato Suzuki, who serves as the principal conductor of Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ). “As generations coming after World War II, our activities happened to coincide with the movement of period performance.”

Founded in 1990 by Masato’s father, Masaaki Suzuki, BCJ is an ensemble comprising a choir and an orchestra playing period instruments and focusing on works from the baroque period. The ensemble has acquired an international reputation through its recordings and tours, with performances at major festivals such as the BBC Proms, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Hong Kong Arts Festival, New Zealand International Arts Festival and Mexico’s International Cervantino Festival under its belt.

Ahead of BCJ’s 30th anniversary, Masato took part in a talk event in Tokyo in November, to which he invited his father as a guest speaker. During the event, the father and son looked back on BCJ’s history, including its recording of all church cantatas composed by Bach, a project that took 18 years, from 1995 to 2013.

Also, they released the programs for the 2020-2021 season, which include Bach’s three major religious works — St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion and Mass in B minor — as well as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Mass in C major. A commemorative concert on May 24 will restage BCJ’s debut, a concert in Osaka held 30 years ago.

As suggested in the conversation between the father and son, the two musicians are determined to collaborate in leading BCJ to further promote Bach’s music in Japan and beyond.

Born in Kobe in 1954 to a Christian mother, Masaaki remembers that he got baptized of his own will when he was “still a kindergarten child.” As both of his parents loved classical music, he has been familiar with the church and music since childhood. Fascinated by the sound of the pipe organ, Masaaki decided to pursue a career in music, and studied composition and organ at what is now Tokyo University of the Arts and Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam.

While teaching at Kobe Shoin Women’s University, Masaaki established a small-scale choir and started chapel concerts there. When he was invited to inaugurate Izumi Hall in Osaka in 1990, he brought together choir singers and instrumentalists from Tokyo and Kobe, naming the ensemble Bach Collegium Japan.

Since 1992, the ensemble has regularly held concerts focusing on Bach’s works. “(Before then), there was no professional group that regularly performed Bach’s music in Japan,” Masaaki says.

Around the time of BCJ’s foundation, Masaaki started teaching at his Tokyo alma mater, establishing an early music course at a time when Masato was 9 years old.

“In my case, both of my parents were Christians and professional musicians,” says Masato, 38, who was born in the Netherlands while Masaaki was studying there, and returned to Japan, later moving from Kobe to Tokyo. “I just naturally started playing the piano, although my parents never forced me to do so.”

In his junior high school days, Masato was active in conducting the school orchestra, taking initiative in producing and organizing a concert with his peers. He also studied musical theory, looking at concepts such as harmony analysis and composition, under his father’s colleague and composer Masayuki Nagatomi.

“Rather than making my son a professional musician, I just wanted him to become able to share a sensitivity to the harmonies of good music with me,” Masaaki says.

Eventually, Masato also studied composition at Tokyo University of the Arts, further studied at Royal Conservatory in The Hague in the Netherlands and forged a career as a player, conductor, composer and producer.

“BCJ has been always in my life,” says Masato, who was involved in the group’s choir rehearsals as an accompanist since his high school days, and who has served as organist and harpsichordist for BCJ since 2002.

“At home, I would discuss our jobs as musicians quite openly with my wife, and Masato would join our discussions,” Masaaki says.

Having grown up in these surroundings, Masato today works in tandem with his father in aiming to introduce as many people as possible to the joy of Bach’s music.

“It’s not that we want to do missionary work,” Masato says. “What is great about Bach’s music is that it reaches and touches every person, Christian or not.”

“Pursuing an answer to what touches people, we have continued performing Bach’s music. It’s something that cannot be expressed in words, but we can express it only through music,” Masaaki says. “Although it may be based on Christianity, I believe that Bach’s music contains universal message to humans, not only for Christians.”

In addition to tours overseas, BCJ has been involved in the Chofu International Music Festival since 2013, in collaboration with the city of Chofu, Tokyo, with Masato serving as executive producer and Masaaki as supervisor. The participating performers, from around the world, include musicians from a number of Asian countries.

In September 2018, Masato took up the position of BCJ’s principal conductor.

“It doesn’t mean that I took over from my father,” Masato says. “BCJ’s music director is Masaaki Suzuki.”

BCJ had been conducted almost exclusively by Masaaki, and it was something new for the group to have Masato take a step up, even though he is a member of the ensemble.

“My position has become more official, with a great responsibility, of course,” Masato says. “I’m grateful that BCJ’s members accepted that.”

“Although working in a very close field, our ways of performing and approaches to music can be different,” says Masaaki, who enjoyed his first performance as harpsichordist under the baton of his son this year. “We should respect each other.”

On Nov. 24 at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, Masato conducted a BCJ concert, which featured the performance of all six of Bach’s instrumental Brandenburg Concertos. Masato led the tightly interactive counterpoint ensemble in various instrumental combinations while also playing the harpsichord, including an impressive improvised solo, delighting the fans that filled the hall.

“By studying the instruments and the way of singing of the period, we can re-create Bach’s music more vibrantly,” Masato says. “The music that may be regarded as difficult to understand for some people can sound more accessible. It will touch people in Japan today, too.”

Bach Collegium Japan will hold a Christmas concert at 4 p.m. on Dec. 22 and will perform George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 23, both at Suntory Hall in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. For more information, visit bachcollegiumjapan.org/en.