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In the nick of time and with extensive COVID-19 precautions in place, the Vienna Philharmonic (VPO) and Suntory Hall continued their annual tradition of holding a concert tour in Japan, which the hall has organized since 1999.

During a year in which most international performances have been canceled or postponed due to travel restrictions and concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, the VPO’s Japan tour took a considerable amount of effort to achieve.

The orchestra and Suntory Hall’s firm intention to hold the tour received diplomatic support from Austria and Japan, including a letter from Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The government granted the orchestra a special entry permit and allowed them to forgo a 14-day quarantine, after considering the “importance of cultural exchange.” Yet, it was not until Oct. 30, one week before the first scheduled concert in Fukuoka, that the hall was able to officially confirm that the tour would take place in early November.

Although the VPO resumed live performances in Vienna in June, the Japan tour was the group’s first trip abroad in eight months.

“Since June, all of us have been taking tests every four days before the performances,” said VPO Chairman and violinist Daniel Froschauer during an online press conference on the same day as the group’s arrival in Fukuoka on Nov. 4.

The arrangements to keep the orchestra members safe while on tour were thorough. The musicians flew directly from Vienna on a chartered aircraft to Fukuoka and continued on to Osaka, Kawasaki and Tokyo by private buses or shinkansen with entire cars reserved for them. At each destination, the musicians were only allowed to move between concert halls and hotels by dedicated minibuses, and dining out or seeing friends was prohibited. Throughout the tour, orchestra members continued to be tested every four days.

“I’m proud that all my colleagues understood and accepted such restrictions,” said VPO General Manager and contrabassist Michael Bladerer during the press conference.

“We recognize that the VPO’s practices and accomplishments since June and our preparations to receive them by arranging accommodations equal to quarantine to prevent infection, were key to the Japanese authorities to accepting the tour despite the 14-day quarantine policy,” a representative from Suntory Hall told The Japan Times via email. The concerts were held in accordance with medical guidelines for infection prevention, with audience members required to undergo temperature checks, apply hand sanitizer and wear masks before entering the performance venues.

Strong demand for tickets prompted Suntory Hall to add an extra concert date to the tour. Tickets for the additional Nov. 12 concert came close to selling out within one week.

Under the baton of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, the orchestra performed a repertoire that included “The Firebird,” a ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky. The large-scale orchestra sat in their normal arrangement, rather than socially distancing, to deliver a stirring performance that resonated throughout Suntory Hall, from the introduction of the cello and contrabass playing in eerie unison to the glorious finale.

“As one of the world’s leading orchestras we are aware of the great responsibility we carry when travelling in times such as these,” Froschauer wrote to the audience in Japan before the tour began. “It is our desire to harness the power and beauty of music in order to offer music lovers around the world, including our beloved Japanese audience, a source of hope and light.”

“It was a big challenge to accommodate ourselves to a quarantine-like state,” Bladerer said during a press conference on Nov. 14 to cap the Japan tour.

During the same conference, Suntory Hall President Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi expressed his gratitude for VPO’s performances.

“Despite the inconvenient stay in Japan, each concert greatly moved the audience,” he said. Tsutsumi, who is also a cellist, collaborated with VPO during the tour. Tsutsumi added that the cooperation between the orchestra and hall embodied the spirit of Suntory’s founder Shinjiro Torii, who would often say “Yatte minahare” (“Just try it out”).

After the VPO’s return to Vienna, the Austrian government called for a second national lockdown on Nov. 17. On Dec. 1, Japan’s health minister, Norihisa Tamura, advised local authorities to “prepare for the worst” as the number of people with COVID-19 serious symptoms surged.

Although it looks as though Austria and Japan will not be ramping up international music performances soon, the realization of the tour provided “a vision toward the future to regain our cultural life,” according to Bladerer.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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