A week in Tokyo: Day 2

James JollyTue 16th February 2010
A week in JapanA week in Japan

Suntory Museum of Art, 21_21 Design Sight and Beethoven sonatas at JT Art Hall

Many of the concert halls in Tokyo are run by large corporate concerns, not immediately connected to music: Suntory (makers of whisky, beer and soft drinks) has its own hall, as does the former state-run tobacco firm, now independent, JT; and the Toppan Hall is run by one of Japan’s largest printing companies. Whether to assuage a social conscience or to fulfil a corporate need for cultural “outreach”, it has provided the city with some lovely performance spaces. And with eight symphony orchestras, not to mention numerous chamber societies, they appear to be pretty busy.

Day 2 started with a visit to another part of Suntory’s cultural empire, the Suntory Museum of Art – and again ancient met modern head on. Housed in the swish Tokyo Midtown (in Roppongi), a large shopping mall with offices over the top, it occupies a couple of floors of atmospherically lit, and beautifully stylish, rooms and displayed a collection of Japanese artefacts associated with hospitality in the home: bowls for the tea ceremony, screens and various decorative containers. It was virtually impossible to date anything as a plate with the merest flick of the brush to create a minimalist design – looking like it was made yesterday – would turn out to be three centuries old.

Behind Tokyo Midtown (and mercifully close as the heavens had opened and the rain was falling hard) is the 21_21 Design Sight, an art space which numbers among its directors the fashion designer Issey Miyake. The building, 70 per cent of which is below ground, is the work of Tadao Ando and is a miracle of design: a single sheet of folded steel runs the full length of the building and the window, a mere sliver of glass, is apparently the longest single span of double-glazing in Japan. The exhibition on today focuses on the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude whose work includes wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag, Paris’s Pont Neuf and filling New York’s Central Park with over 7,000 gates complete with an orange banner on each (I remember seeing it “live” in 2005 and being knocked out by the ambition and craziness of it all). There was a strangely moving documentary about the Running Fence, an extraordinary sail-like fence that Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected in Marin County in California in the mid 1970s and which ran over nearly 40kms of undulating countryside – much to the consternation of some extraordinarily upset locals who tried every trick in the legal book to stop it, but failed. The irony being that it was only left standing for 14 days. The film closed with a shepherd and his flock (I didn’t even know the US still had shepherds in the 1970s!) who’d watched the fence go up, going about their sheepy business, and, as the Pacific mists blew in, the flock guided by a sheep dog, hopped through an opened panel. The 21_21 Design Sight seemed an ideal building in which to watch pure art collide with everyday life.

So to the day’s music and the destination was the JT Art Hall affinis, a lovely light-wood chamber-size hall, set on the fist floor of the JT tobacco company’s headquarters in Akasaka. It was a recital of four sonatas for piano and violin by Beethoven played by Ikuyo Nakamichi with Martin Beaver, the first violin of the Tokyo Quartet. Artists often say how quiet Japanese audiences are, and they’re absolutely right – it makes for a concentrated atmosphere, and four violin sonatas in short succession is quite a focused programme.

Why don’t we hear more “chamber musicians” splitting away from their regular partners to give us duo recitals? They offer a totally different response to the music from a couple of big star names: I think it’s not just about projection – these were intimate performances, though by no means lacking in mettle – but there’s a very special rapport between the players that always seems to put the music centre stage. And to follow Beethoven from his Opus 12 No 3 to his Opus 96 made for a fascinating journey – and one constantly recalled that Martin Beaver, with his Tokyo Quartet hat on, would have made a parallel journey on numerous occasions via the quartets.

The JT Arts Hall seats about 255 people and the acoustic seemed near perfect: a tiny bit drier than you might have expected but wonderfully responsive to the music. And when these two fine musicians (Ikuyo Nakamichi a pianist of fibre as well as delicacy) gave us the slow second movement of the Spring Sonata as an encore, the charm and warmth of the audience was much in evidence. (I shall never get used, though, to seeing people sitting in surgical masks! Who is scared of whom, I kept thinking!)

(My soundtrack for Day 2 was a couple of volumes in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s live SDG Bach cantata series – music, like so much of Tokyo, which brings the old and new together to powerful effect and where, despite the horrors that history inflicts on people, there is the realisation that human emotion, and its hopes and disappointments, remains constant though time and around the globe.)

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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