A week in Tokyo: Day 3

James JollyWed 17th February 2010
A week in JapanA week in Japan

A surprise panel discussion and 40 winks at the Idemitsu gallery

Pound of flesh time – a short-notice guest appearance in a three-person panel discussion on “The difference in musical journalism and critics of concerts in Europe and Japan”! Fellow panelists were Mr Tokihiko Umezu, a highly respected critic with the Mainichi newspaper and Prof Shinichiro Okabe, who combines a teaching career at Meiji Gakvin University with music criticism – and is a regular visitor to the UK and Germany.

The panel took place in yet another of Tokyo’s concert halls – Toppan Hall in Iidebashi, the venue for concerts by some of the world’s great performers, a 450-seater with a lovely mellow feel and a great acoustic.

Many of the problems facing music criticism in Europe apply here too: a shortage of space, a reluctance by arts editors to see an urgency in running a review, classical music’s relegation (?) to “Culture” rather than “Music” and so on. I think we were all agreed on the need for concert reviews as a necessary cultural barometer, though I think we were all slightly perplexed about how to convey the life of one city to another; and perhaps even how necessary that was. It's clear that musical life here is very rich, and in many ways the Japanese love of tradition will guarantee that certain performance styles and practices (mainly German because many Japanese pianists, in particular, study there) will continue to thrive here even when they’ve died out back in Europe.

Mr Umezu spoke about the different cultural responses different nationalities have: how Schubert’s Erlkönig might invoke a completely different reaction in a German listener to that of a Japanese one. And Prof Okabe spoke of how spring to an European is an entirely other season to that in England, for example. I must say I welcome anything that slows the gradual globalization of styles around the world: long may orchestras retain their unique sounds, and long may maestros cultivate that sound rather than attempting to homogenise it (I loved the sound that the Staatskapelle Berlin made a couple of weeks ago on a visit to London, and all credit to Daniel Barenboim for maintaining its very distinctive sound).

I guess I was more optimistic about how the internet could help music criticism – both Japanese critics were clearly deeply attached to the newspaper in its traditional format – but the ability to report quickly and at length seem to me a real advantage. For the record, my Japanese colleagues did not share my enthusiasm for speed, and while appreciative of bloggers I think they like the gentler tempo of being able to hone their reviews over hours rather than minutes, and would defend the role of the experienced music critic over the spontaneity of the "amateur".

It was a long session – two and three quarter hours – but a fascinating discussion and another confirmation that we share many of the same concerns. (I, for one, will be putting Toppan Hall on my “to return to for a concert” list when I’m next in Tokyo, as I’m sure I shall return.)

Earlier in the day, I made a visit to an exquisite collection of mainly ceramics, “The Elegance of Vessels” (not a boat in sight though) at the Idemitsu gallery. It’s set high up in a building that faces the Emperor’s Palace, a huge moated expanse of green right in the centre of the city. I was amazed that such is the secrecy surrounding the royal family here that no one seems to know what the palace itself looks like! (Eat your hearts out paparazzi!) A row of seats faced the window, and you could sip green tea and admire the view towards the palace…and, as seems to be one of the national pastimes here, gently nod off – and courtesy of jet lag I did just that.

(Soundtrack for Day 3: the Zehetmair Quartet’s still absolutely astounding ECM disc of a couple Schumann string quartets. A Gramophone Recording of the Year that sounds as intense and vital as when first heard.)

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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