Sendai, Japan: The Orchestra Comes Of Age

By James David Jacobs   |   Saturday, May 14, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

May 14

As the news media has been treating the last few days as slow news days, we seem to be settling into a new normal, with a certain distance from certain cataclysmic events that are reshaping the world. In Sendai, Japan, which was hit especially hard by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, this new “normal” is anything but, as its residents tally their losses and confront a new version of reality that will never again resemble the one they knew three months ago.

This also applies to that city's orchestra, the Sendai Philharmonic. Our guest blogger Maureen Murchie, who grew up in Sendai and wrote a dissertation on the orchestra, continues the story of the orchestra as it evolved from a semi-amateur ensemble into the fine orchestra that it is today. (If you missed them, read Part 1 and Part 2.) In light of recent events, this might serve to remind us just how special and precious it is for a city to have a great orchestra, and how lucky we are here in Boston to be able to take this for granted.

I hope you'll join me on Sunday mornings in May on 99.5 All Classical for performances from the Sendai Philharmonic.

The news of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bankruptcy has struck me as especially relevant in looking at the journey of the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra. SPO founder Yoshikazu Katoaka was correct in his theory that the first necessary component to building an orchestra was money; he believed that if he came up with the money, the musicians would come to him. He was right.

Thanks in large part to substantial financial assistance from donors such as Sendai department store owner Saburosuke Fujisaki (left), Kataoka managed to pay two players (first oboe and first clarinet, both of whom are still in the orchestra today) an official “salary” (Suzuki’s was the highest at 11,000 yen, just over $500!) for the 1978 season.

Once the assembled personnel started to resemble the skeletal structure of a professional orchestra, and word got out that salaries - however meager - were in the picture, performing invitations increased, as did public and private funding, higher quality players, and consequently the overall operational web of the orchestra. The story of the orchestra’s prodigious growth over just a couple decades involves a couple of key figures.

In addition to giving the orchestra its name in 1989, Yasushi Akutagawa brought the Sendai Phil a well-known conductor, Yuzo Toyama (right), who served the orchestra for fifteen years. Toyama in his prime was known as having some of the best ears of any Japanese conductor. Orchestra members reported that during his “golden years” (the 1990's) with the SPO, his rehearsals were both meticulous and efficient - a rare and precious combination of skills in an orchestra trainer.

The Toyama years saw the addition of a second night for each subscription concert, the execution of the standard audition procedures that involve the entire orchestra voting on the auditioner, the experimentation with open rehearsals (250 people showed up for the first open rehearsal in September 2003), and the commencement of lasting gems such as the Sendai Youth Orchestra and the Sendai International Music Competition. Toyama conducted the orchestra on its first and only international concert tour to Austria and Italy in 2000. His tenure also spanned the orchestra’s most dire period of financial struggle after Japan’s economic collapse in the early nineties, and the tragically short-lived plan to build the SPO its very own hall.

The completion of Sendai’s Youth Culture Center (YCC) in 1990 was one of the most important pivotal points in the orchestra’s history, although this hall was not originally built solely for the SPO. It was intended as a venue for school band concerts, competitions, theater productions, and the like. Even though the stage of the 804-seat concert hall is on the small side and limits programming to some degree, the players reveled in the luxury of rehearsing and performing in the same space.

Schools could now come to the YCC, enabling more frequent educational concerts. Undeterred by limited parking space and inconvenient transportation options to and from the hall, SPO used the space so often that the city started receiving complaints that the Center was not serving its original purpose. Perhaps this served as the catalyst for Mayor Toru Ishii’s plan to build a hall devoted specifically to the performing, research, and outreach activities of Sendai’s own professional orchestra.

Ishii, mayor of Sendai from 1984 to 1993, was famous for his love of classical music and his tremendous support of the arts. He rarely missed a Sendai Phil concert and would often accompany the orchestra on the bullet train to attend their concerts in Tokyo or Osaka. While he was in office, he secured an arrangement for half of the orchestra’s budget to come from the city of Sendai, thus making SPO members, in a sense, city employees.

Ishii ’s arrest and resignation from office as a result of a bid-rigging scandal was one of the most devastating points in Sendai Phil history. When Ishii left office, the plot for the projected Sendai Music Hall had been bought and the land leveled. The plans were far enough along that concertmaster Yumiko Shibuya had seen drawings and was familiar with the smallest details, down to the size of lockers and the location of electrical outlets underneath the stage (to enable microphones or Don Quixote wind machines).

Ishii’s hall was never completed and the Sendai Phil still uses Asahigaoka’s Youth Culture Center as its home hall. The bad news was that the dreams of many musicians and audience members for a Berlin or New York-style “night at the Symphony” environment would not be realized. The good news, perhaps, was that there was money left over for projects like the Sendai International Music Competition, which has probably brought much more world-wide focus on Sendai than a new orchestra hall might have.

In hindsight, I wonder if and how the hall, had it been completed, would have survived the quake and tsunami of March 11th, as the projected space for it was not in downtown Sendai but rather closer to Wakabayashi-Ward where much was recently washed away.

- Maureen Murchie

Next time:  an update on current conditions in Sendai and its orchestra

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4

Sendai, Japan: Looking Back On The Birth Of An Orchestra

By James David Jacobs   |   Saturday, May 7, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

May 8

In the weeks following the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I wanted to find out more about the musical life of Sendai, the major city hit hardest by that disaster.  I learned about the Sendai Philharmonic and eventually found my way to Maureen Murchie, an American musician who grew up in Sendai, studied with its concertmaster, and eventually wrote a dissertation on the orchestra.  I invited her to tell us more about the orchestra, classical music in Japan, and the massive challenges currently posed by the disaster.

You can read her first blog entry for us here, and I hope you'll tune in to 99.5 on Sunday mornings this month for performances by the Sendai Philharmonic and their music director, Pascal Verrot. 

And please keep the people of Sendai and all of Japan in your thoughts during these trying times.  If you are in a position to help, one source offering relief to earthquake victims is Global Giving.

Here is more from Maureen, this time taking us back to the formation of the Sendai Philharmonic.

Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan exhibited an all-inclusive welcoming of Western influences in the areas of medicine, military, and government. Some have suggested that this type of complete, “blanket” approach in order to achieve true healing stems from the Shinto tradition. In short, since Japan hoped to achieve the type of multi-faceted success that they perceived in the operations of Western countries, they decided that indiscriminately taking in any and all Western influences was the best place to start.

In true Japanese fashion, i.e. in a society united in the values of patience, perseverance, and productivity, the attempts to incorporate Western music were highly successful—so much so, in fact, that in modern-day Japan, a work by a Japanese composer on an orchestra concert is somewhat of a novelty item, and concerts involving traditional Japanese instruments are even more rare.

Less than 50 years after the 1926 founding of Tokyo’s NHK Symphony (Japan’s first professional orchestra), another orchestra was founded in Sendai, the largest city in Japan’s northeastern (Tohoku) region and the capital of Miyagi prefecture. In 1973, Sendai’s rather bleak musical scene consisted of a mere handful of concerts each month by local musicians.

Despite Sendai’s relatively close (226 miles/365 kilometers) proximity to Tokyo, few performers were interested in leaving the bustling city life of Tokyo to come play concerts in the “boonies” of Tohoku. The orchestra began as the Miyagi Philharmonic Orchestra, founded by Yoshikazu Kataoka (left), a Sendai native who had returned home after several years of schooling in Buddhism and music composition. (His actual home is a 300+ year-old temple near Sendai Station where I had the pleasure of visiting him for an interview in 2005.) Kataoka held a personal philosophy that the four criteria for a healthy major city were a subway, a professional baseball franchise, a sumo pavilion, and an orchestra. The orchestra would be his project.

Kataoka’s early partners in this endeavor included a couple of members of the Sendai Broadcast Orchestra (a pseudo-brass band that collaborated with university string players and choirs for sporadic performances of well-known works like Handel’s Messiah) and a pianist friend and colleague at Sendai’s Tokiwagi High School.

For the first subscription concert in October 1974, Kataoka hired a few ringers to fill out the orchestra, but most of the string players were local students or amateurs, some of whom reportedly even had trouble reading music. Violinist Katsuyuki Senoue (left, with his family) was kind enough to share with me many detailed and often humorous anecdotes from the orchestra’s early years, including an account of one concert during which he used his bow to wake up a sleeping stand partner.

During the early years, Kataoka struggled to find players, instruments, and performing engagements. Many of the gigs were school concerts which still make up a significant portion of the orchestra’s performing schedule today. Though he was far from unsuccessful in his rather mind-boggling role as recruiter, manager, composer/arranger, fundraiser, and conductor, Kataoka was savvy enough to realize his own limitations and eventually enlisted other conductors to take the orchestra to greater heights.

Hoichi Fukumura ruled the podium for a couple years as a strict disciplinarian who, while not well-liked by many of the orchestra players, still managed to help the orchestra take a large leap toward professional status by demanding higher quality playing, programming more difficult repertoire, and implementing official auditions. As one might expect, the orchestra’s growing pains included an increasing chasm between disgruntled amateurs who were there to have fun and the more serious players who wanted to strive for professional quality.

Of the early conductors, Yasushi Akutagawa (right), made the deepest and most lasting imprint on the orchestra’s history. Akutagawa was the son of the well-known author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose short stories are still studied in Japanese classrooms today. (I remember that "The Spider’s Thread" left an impression on me in elementary school, but Western audiences may be more familiar with "Rashomon," thanks to the 1950 Kurosawa film adaptation.)

Alongside Kataoka, Yasushi Akutagawa had the vision and creativity that the orchestra needed in order to grow. He possessed not only the musical skills and integrity that made him respected by the musicians, but also the charisma, connections, and public presence that made him loved by audiences and thus invaluable as a fundraiser. Kataoka could hardly have picked a better leader for the young, burgeoning orchestra.

Akutagawa is also the one who proposed changing the orchestra’s name to the Sendai Philharmonic in 1989. The Sendai Phil’s Tokyo debut concert in 1991 was Akutagawa’s brainchild but it also turned out to be his memorial concert.

Akutagawa insisted that the orchestra would be most successful if it kept its roots local but its “face” turned outward, for “that is how the world will know Sendai.” I am reminded of Akutagawa’s wise and prescient advice when I see recent scenes of Sendai Phil members, offering the healing power of music for earthquake victims (left;  photo credit: AP).

For indeed, even in the face of devastating loss, destruction, and fear for what lies ahead, the orchestra remains strongly rooted at home but also facing outward to offer people hope and consolation through music. I believe Akutagawa-sensei would be proud.

- Maureen Murchie

Part 1
Part 3
Part 4


Sendai, Japan: Resilience of a Cultural Jewel

By James David Jacobs   |   Saturday, April 30, 2011
3 Comments   3 comments.

May 1

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 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

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Hear Music From The Royal Wedding

Friday, April 29, 2011
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(photo:  AP)

England's Royal Wedding of 2011 for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge included stunning musical performances.  Hear them on demand:

Processional Sequence:

For Queen Elizabeth:  March from The Birds, by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
For the clergy:  Prelude on Rhosymedre, by Ralph Vaughan Williams
For the bride:  "I was Glad," by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry


"Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer," words by William Williams, translated by Peter Williams and others, and music by John Hughes
"Love Divine All Love Excelling," words by Charles Wesley and music by William Penfro Rowlands
"Jerusalem," by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, words by William Blake


"This is the day which the Lord hath made," by John Rutter, commissioned by Westminster Abbey as a wedding present and performed by both the Choir of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal Choir

"Ubi caritas," by Paul Mealor, a Welsh composer

"Blest pair of Sirens," words by John Milton from At a Solemn Musick, music by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry

The National Anthem

Recessional Sequence:

"Valiant and Brave," after the motto of No. 22 Squadron (Search and Rescue Force), composed for the occasion by Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs, Principal Director of Music in the Royal Air Force
Crown Imperial, by William Walton
Toccata, from Symphonie V, by Charles-Marie Widor
"Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5," by Edward Elgar


And if you missed any of Cathy Fuller's pre-wedding interview this week with conductor Christopher Warren-Green, you can hear it here.

Boston Camerata Explores Mysticism and Richard Egarr Plays Handel

Thursday, March 17, 2011
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West and Antes

By Cathy Fuller   |   Monday, January 24, 2011
1 Comments   1 comments.

The inspiration for this series, pairing works of visual art and music, is the art you can see at the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. I've searched for American music created in the same year as specific pieces in the galleries there, and it been a fascinating treasure hunt.

The year is 1788 (or thereabouts) and the composer and artist were both born in Pennsylvania (two years apart), both died in England, and both had Benjamin Franklin in their lives.

This dramatic - and romantic - painting of Shakespeare's King Lear is by Benjamin West.

West was born in Pennsylvania (where the campus of Swarthmore College is now), the tenth child of an innkeeper. With little education, he initially taught himself. In his memoirs he recalls learning to make paint from the Native Americans, mixing clay from a riverbank with bear grease in a pot. As a very young man, West worked in Pennsylvania painting portraits. It was the Provost of the College of Philadelphia who saw his work and decided to act as a patron. This was Dr. William Smith, whose offer of education and support was crucial to West's career. It brought West into contact with the wealthy and the connected, and it allowed him to meet the London-born painter John Wollaston, whose work famously captured the quality of shimmering silk and satin. West caught on to that technique and made it his own.

West also became a close friend of Benjamin Franklin's, and in fact, his second son had Ben Franklin as a godfather. Still in his twenties, West headed off to Italy where he spent time imitating the styles of the great masters like Titian and Raphael. He then settled permanently in London, becoming well known for his ancient Greek and Roman subjects, and for his portraiture. He became the history painter to King George III and served as president of the Royal Academy from 1792 until his death in 1820. Generations of American artists came to London to study with Benjamin West, and in a certain sense, his studio became the first American "school" for painters.

King Lear was created for John Boydell's popular Shakespeare Gallery in London. It takes us into Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's tragedy, where Lear leaves his daughters to wander into the raging storm. His insanity begins to take hold of him. This wonderfully wild painting marks a new stage for West - the windswept theatricality of it is far from the carefully illuminated poses of his earlier work. As happens with many artists, the collection of countless, diverse lessons have built up within, combined, and expressed themselves with an entirely new voice.

At just about the same time that West was creating King Lear, a musician, also born in Pennsylvania, was writing string trios. John Antes was one of the Moravians in America who, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, fostered musical activities of high quality and rich diversity - instrument and vocal - for worship services and for pleasure. The early Moravian settlers in America had a very rich musical culture - they are an elemental part of the musical history of our country. (Go here for a history of the Moravian church in North America.)

John Antes crafted one of the earliest violins made in America, and his Three Trios are said to be the earliest known chamber music composed by an American. They appear to have been written while Antes was in Egypt, where he'd worked as a missionary beginning in 1769, and where he was tortured and nearly killed by an official of the Ottoman Empire.

It's hard to say precisely when the trios were composed, but 1788 is a good guess. They were published in London in the early 1790's. Antes also wrote string quartets while he was in Egypt - and he sent a copy of them to Benjamin Franklin.

Antes retired to Bristol, England and died there in 1811.

Here is part of Antes’s String Trio no. 2 in D minor, played by the American Moravian Chamber Ensemble. 

Antes: String Trio No. 2 in d minor, III. Presto (excerpt)

(image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)

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