Kazushi Ono with TMSO and Noism (detail) View full image

Indomitable energy

As he opens the new season at the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono looks to the great composers for inspiration and strength in the face of Coronavirus

The title of Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc article about the research I led with Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra was ‘Breakthrough?’, and the first comment was written by an American musician saying that despite the trial, they didn’t feel that normal conditions would come back. And yet, along with other Japanese orchestras, we’re making efforts to welcome audiences back and it seems that we have been successful. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to follow up the research by reporting the orchestra’s activities since then, including the opening of our season, in the hope of contributing to bringing back the magical power of music across the world.

In Japan, the government’s policy, introduced in July, attempts to balance Covid measures and economic activity. Venues such as classical concert halls, museums, cinemas, Kabuki theatres and other traditional Japanese arts are permitted audiences up to 50 per cent of their capacity. At first, hardly any of these institutions were that full. TMSO gave its first concert since February with fewer than 500 in the audience, even though the 50 per cent of the full capacity of the concert hall would have allowed 900. This is despite the fact that the team of doctors in the June trial found no evidence to indicate any increased risk either to performers or mask-wearing audience members compared with those who were socially distanced outside the concert hall, which gave us encouragement.

Our very first concert, on 5 September, was for the Tokyo Met SaLaD Music Festival, which was originally supposed to be one of the City of Tokyo’s Olympic-related cultural events. Now in its third year, SaLaD is an acronym for Sing and Listen and Dance, so each concert consists of these three elements, always with the orchestra. For this we used the string section strengths we had established during the June trial: 12 desks of first violins, 10 of seconds, 8 violas, 6 cellos and 4 double basses.

Originally, we were going to play Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps as a second half, with a huge orchestra on stage and performers of the Noism dance company and its Artistic Director Jo Kanamori dancing in the space in front of the orchestra. This didn’t seem suitable, so we changed the programme, making the concert shorter, but still including an interval.

The revised repertoire was Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, with the soprano standing by the organ to avoid splash and aerosol reaching the orchestra or audience; the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, danced by Noism; Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, again with Noism; Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte; and finally, Milhaud’s Le Bœuf sur le toit. The programme was specially constructed so the audience felt the fresh intensity of the first half followed by consolation and joy in the second half.

The 50 per cent capacity was sold out and the audience’s passionate applause touched all the musicians’ hearts. One player said after the concert, ‘I have never experienced an audience’s applause piercing my heart like that before – it was more emotional and moving than ever before.’

We gave our first subscription concert on 12 September and another on 16 September – the first since we’d closed down in February. Again, we had to change the programme. Originally, we were going to play Richard Strauss’s gigantic Zarathustra in the second half, but we decided to play Schumann’s Symphony No.3, ‘Rhenish’. For this we arrived at a new formation: 14 first violins, 12 seconds, 10 violas, 8 cellos and 6 double basses, bigger than the previous concert.

The symphony was written in 1850, following Schumann’s final move, from Leipzig to Düsseldorf. He would only stay there four years due to his declining mental health, but during his first year there, he and Clara enjoyed exploring the Rhine area, including Cologne and its magnificent Cathedral. It was there that he came across a ceremony of the archbishop of Cologne being installed as cardinal, which had such a powerful effect on him that he worked it into the solemn fourth movement of the symphony, with its ending that rises up to the heavens.

The symphony illustrates the talent and inspiration of the final lucid moments of a genius about to descend rapidly into a mental darkness that would last the rest of his life. During rehearsals the orchestra and I became immersed in his miraculous creative power and the importance of this positive moment that he experienced.

For the subscription concert on 16 September we performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Third Symphony, ‘Eroica’, to an audience of 900, the full 50 per cent capacity of Suntory Hall. The two pieces are closely related, both written in 1803. After he wrote the Second Symphony at the age of 32, in 1802, Beethoven had to admit that his hearing was in catastrophic trouble. In despair, he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he describes turning away from the world. However, this man, with incredible spiritual power, conquered his fate and revolutionised the symphonic form for the new era.

We must remember the undertakings of these historical giants, and how they overcame the most difficult periods through absolute resolve and will. We carry their testaments on our shoulders in order to spread their precious messages. This is surely the meaning to which we are born as artists. Don’t give up. We can certainly pass this indomitable energy to those who need the arts to feel human.

Finally, the Japanese government has announced that the condition only filling 50 per cent of the hall will be withdrawn by the end of September. Of course, we will respond with as much flexibility as possible, while carefully observing the Covid situation.

Kazushi Ono is currently in Barcelona, conducting the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (OBC), where he is Chief Conductor.

All photos: Rikimaru Hotta