If you closed your eyes during Tuesday night's concert at the Kennedy Center, you could easily believe that one of Europe's or America's finest orchestras was playing. The precision of intonation and ensemble playing was exemplary; the tone well rounded and beautifully balanced. The performance style was completely idiomatic in Grieg's Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. And the orchestra's emotional involvement, though sometimes slightly understated for some tastes, was always appropriate and structured into a convincing total statement.
There could be no more impressive demonstration of the way Japanese musicians, in this instance conductor Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, making his first North American tour with the Japan Philharmonic, and, in the Grieg, piano soloist Ikuyo Nakamichi, have become masters of Western classical music. The development of performers and audiences for this music in Japan, Korea and China in the past generation is proof that it can be an international language. Kobayashi is clearly an expert interpreter of that language, with a fine sense of musical structures and a vocabulary of gestures that are precise and expressive.
The program opened with the "Requiem" for string orchestra of Toru Takemitsu, a slow, sweetly elegiac composition in a harmonically conservative and thoroughly Western style. The Grieg concerto sounded well proportioned and balanced but somewhat smaller in scale than many other orchestras might have made it -- perhaps in deference to Nakamichi, who seemed to be at her best in a gentle, poetic reading of the slow movement, though she generated all the energy needed for the music's climactic moments.
The Tchaikovsky is one of the all-time great thunderers and tear-jerkers in classical music, and after the Grieg one couldn't help wondering whether this orchestra would generate all the emotional and sonic energy the music needs. It did, while playing with a precision that did not slip even during the most roof-raising fortissimos.
An enthusiastic audience gave three prolonged ovations, after the Grieg, the Tchaikovsky and a multi-flavored arrangement of a Japanese folk song that was played as an encore.