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

By James David Jacobs

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
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