Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra puts on a good face at Strathmore

It’s an article of faith that music has a universal power to touch the heart. “Music,” in this context, usually means Western classical instrumental music, the kind of music played at formal occasions in times of mourning.

This is the kind of music that the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra of Japan’s state broadcasting network and one of the country’s finest ensembles, is playing on its North American tour this month; the kind of music that impelled the group not to cancel its plans after the devastating earthquake and tsunami last weekend (though two musicians whose homes were destroyed stayed behind); and the kind of music that is keeping them going.

Before the tour’s first concert, which WPAS presented at Strathmore on Wednesday night, Naoki Nojima, the chairman of the orchestra, said to the audience, “We are playing not only for you, but for ourselves, and for our loved ones back at home.

But at such times, the universality of this kind of music becomes a paradox. An orchestra, however cosmopolitan, has an aspect of civic pride; particularly on tour, it is positioned to act as a galvanizing, representative force. At Strathmore, many Japanese residents of the D.C. region turned out to hear an orchestra that appears to be entirely made up of Japanese musicians; there was palpable emotion, concern, thought about the current dire situation in Japan. And yet an orchestra is eminently international, and thus above local concerns. This tour is led by the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Andre Previn, with Daniel Mueller-Schott, the German cellist, as soloist; and the program focused mainly on non-Japanese composers. In short, it was a standard international-level orchestral program.

I’m by no means saying that a Japanese orchestra should play only Japanese music. But on Wednesday, the result of this dichotomy was an odd sense of a commemorative occasion fused with business as usual. The musicians were ready to play their hearts out; the audience was ready to weep; yet somehow the program was an imperfect outlet for the emotion it should eminently have been able to convey.

Though the real fault lay, I fear, in the conducting of the very frail Previn, 81. That he walks with a cane and requires assistance to get on and off the podium is no indictment (James Levine, after all, is often in the same situation these days). The problem is what he does when he’s on the podium: almost nothing. He seems to skirt the problem of interpretation altogether by simply beating time and not taking any kind of stand on the content of what he is leading — which could be charitably taken as an attempt to let the music speak for itself but unfortunately, in practice, simply muffles it. The orchestra opened with an unscheduled work to honor the people of Japan, Bach’s “Air on the G String,” a piece that’s become a veritable classical music convention in times of trouble. Unfortunately, it was played so mechanically that it became no more than a signifier of mourning.

The lone Japanese work on the program, “Green,” was commissioned by the NHK from the late Toru Takemitsu in 1967, and showed the fallacy of thinking that a Japanese composer represents Japan; influenced by Debussy, it revels in timbre and rhythmic subtlety, sending shoots of sound curling out of the winds, emerging from the strings. The effect is both springlike and somber, like green sprouts growing out of blasted earth.

The rest of the program certainly had plenty of emotional content; it’s just that it didn’t always fully blossom. Elgar’s Cello Concerto is searching, dark, light-dappled and poignant. If it seemed muted here, it wasn’t the fault of Mueller-Schott, a clean and accurate player who definitely had his head in a reading marked with some coordination problems (something he countered with heavy eye contact with the concertmaster at the start of the second movement, as if working to keep things on track without reference to the conductor). He followed his strong performance with a somewhat more maudlin approach in an encore, an arrangement of Bloch’s “Prayer,” in tribute not to the Japanese but to the conductor Yakov Kreizberg, who died on Tuesday at 51. That’s a lot of mourning for one concert.

Prokofiev’s popular Fifth Symphony is a quintessential example of a piece that can be taken either as pure music or as representing a specific program: Written in 1944, it is often seen as representing some of the ravages of war, though ending on a hopeful note for the future. It was here that Previn’s lack of interpretation was most evident: He generally failed to draw distinctions between one movement and another, and the first section of the Adagio sounded not searing and tragic, but more like a lumbering country waltz. The fine orchestra, however, was able to make a mark, finding the taut energy in the second movement, and rising to a close that was undeniably moving. Triumphing over obstacles not of one’s own making: Perhaps this was the best message that Japan’s broadcast orchestra could have transmitted, after all.

 
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