Sendai, Japan: The Orchestra Comes Of Age

By James David Jacobs

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

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