In March, as I was preparing the programming for my weekend shows, I found myself distracted by the images of devastation coming from northern Japan. The news coverage kept mentioning Sendai, a city I had never heard of before. I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to find out what I could about the city and to see if there were any recordings made by Sendai musicians.
In the course of my online research I discovered that Sendai is the cultural center of northern Japan and has a major orchestra, the Sendai Philharmonic. I was astonished to find a local connection: its conductor is Pascal Verrot, who was an assistant to Seiji Ozawa at the BSO in the late 1980s, and served on the faculty of New England Conservatory.
My desire to find out everything I could about this orchestra was fulfilled when I found Dr. Maureen Murchie, who recently completed a doctoral dissertation about the Sendai Philharmonic. Her expertise is not merely academic: she grew up in Sendai and studied with the concertmaster of the orchestra.
Now, as we continue to hold the people of Japan in our thoughts, it’s a pleasure to welcome Maureen to 995allclassical.org. During the month of May, Maureen will be contributing a series of pieces about Sendai, its orchestra, and the role of classical music in Japanese culture. In addition, you can hear the Sendai Philharmonic each Sunday morning, in many recordings that have never been broadcast outside of Japan.
As you read and hear, please keep Japan in your thoughts. If you're interested in helping out, one excellent source is Global Giving.
Shinto Shrine, Sendai, Japan (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Sendai, Japan is my hometown.
Though I was born in Newark, New Jersey, to American parents, we moved to Japan when I was nine years old. I attended Japanese schools from fifth grade all the way through high school and was the only non-Japanese student in my graduating class of 300 girls. Thanks to my height and my blonde hair, I always stood out in the crowd. The home video of my high school graduation shows one “yellow sun” (as the Japanese often described the back of my head) amidst the broad, dark sea of our navy uniforms and the black hair of all my colleagues.
As I was growing up, I studied violin with the concertmaster of the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, Yumiko Shibuya (that's her in the center of the photo at left, with my sister on the left and myself on the right), and I attended many a Sendai Phil concert with my father, who is also a violinist. My parents still live and work in Sendai, their home for over 25 years.
It is no secret that the Japanese today love classical music. The history of Western music in general and the role of a western-style symphony orchestra in Japan is a complex issue and one that has been dealt with extensively by other historians. It involves some key events such as a battle in 1862 when Japanese soldiers, freshly defeated by the British, first heard the strains of triumphant Western military music and decided that perhaps the music was one key to military success.
Shortly thereafter came the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan opened itself up to foreign influences after a couple centuries of strict, isolationist “foreign policies.” The story of Western music in Japan has a strong connection to Boston, through some key figures such as Shuji Isawa (below), a Japanese exchange student in Boston, and Luther Whiting Mason, a Boston schoolteacher who traveled to Japan and wrote Japanese children’s songs that incorporated those strange, exotic tonic and dominant chords.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years and you will find city firemen playing annual summer concerts in parks all over Japan. You will witness a strong commitment to fine arts and music education in Japanese public schools, where elementary school children sing pieces in two and three part harmony at the beginning and end of every school day. You may be surprised to learn that Tokyo has more symphony orchestras than any city in the world. You might hear arpeggios and trills as part of the “next-station” announcement on the bullet trains.
In Japan, music is treated as a necessity, not a mere cultural nicety that all too often becomes the first victim of the budgetary scalpel. Perhaps this view of music is not unrelated to the touching, organized civility of Japan that seems to shine through, penetrating even the horrors of natural disasters and the opaque labyrinth of international media.
Following the events on and since the March 11th disasters, Sendai and its recovery have remained a constant presence for me. The tragedy there is unimaginable in a way, but I hope this short snapshot brings you a closer connection to the people there, the struggle they're enduring, and the hope that classical music brings them. I am truly grateful to James David Jacobs and WGBH for the opportunity to share my experiences with you.
I'll have more next week about one of Sendai's cultural jewels, the Sendai Philharmonic, whose 40-year history was the topic of my recently completed doctoral dissertation.
And in the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy hearing the orchestra on Sunday mornings during May.
- Maureen Murchie
Maureen commented on 05.06.11
Dear Ruth, I believe you’ll be able to hear the Sendai Phil play music by Japanese composer (and former SPO conductor) Yasushi Akutagawa this coming Sunday morning. To Western audiences, Takemitsu is perhaps the most well-known Japanese composer (Tan Dun is Chinese), possibly due to his attempt to fuse Western orchestral music with traditional Japanese instruments in some of his work (November Steps or Autumn for solo shakuhachi with orchestra, for example). In addition to Akutagawa, Yuzo Toyama and Yoshikazu Kataoka are both notable Japanese composers and former Sendai Philharmonic conductors. Others that might interest you are Kosaku Yamada, Joji Yuasa, or Atsutada Otaka. The Sendai Phil is indeed a Western-style symphony orchestra, and they spend most of their time playing music by Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak, et al. Even the symphonic music written by Japanese composers may not sound that foreign to Western ears since many Japanese composers were trained in Western classical composition (in the case of Takemitsu, for instance, his big influences were Debussy and Messiaen). That said, of course the composers themselves are still Japanese, so a closer examination may reveal occasional quotes of Japanese folk melodies (Yuzo Toyama's Rhapsody for Orchestra comes to mind) or the usage of general Eastern aesthetic concepts in many of these pieces. It is in this way, moreso than with specific instruments or genres, that I find the most noticeable Japanese influences on Western-style music of Japanese composers. To use Takemitsu again as our convenient example here, he writes for Western instruments, but he does it in a way that often highlights silence or space as opposed to the busy, florid, “filled” harmonies of a Debussy piano prelude or a Rachmaninov symphony. (Think lavish botanical gardens in the West versus a sparse but elegantly laid-out Japanese rock/bamboo garden..or the ornate costumes and scenery in a Verdi opera as opposed to the solitary on-stage pine tree or the simple black robes worn by Noh theater performers.) Traditional Japanese music (noh, gagaku, etc.) is quite a different ball game and separate from the classical music scene, at least in my observation and experience. If you have access to the Grove Music journal article “Japan,” you might find answers to some of your questions there with the help of experts in the field such as David Hughes or William Malm. Hope this helps, and thanks for listening/reading about Sendai. Warm regards, Maureen Murchie
Ruth commented on 05.03.11
Love the Sendai project--is it possible to include one or more performances by the orchestra of orchestral works by Japanese composers--Tan Dun and Takemitsu come easily to mind--but surely there are others not so well known, at least to this listener. Perhaps a naïve question, but the orchestra we heard today sounds like a Western orchestra--what, if any, features/interpretations/performance practices, carry the influence of Japanese music?
Jan commented on 04.30.11
So looking forward to this. Thank you, James. Thank you, Dr. Murchie.