For orchestra, it's old home week in Tokyo

Akiko Suwanai, a wonderful player who seemed rather more wonderful with the Philadelphians framing her.PHOTO: Jan Regan / The Philadelphia Orchestra
Akiko Suwanai, a wonderful player who seemed rather more wonderful with the Philadelphians framing her.PHOTO: Jan Regan / The Philadelphia Orchestra
Posted: June 04, 2014

TOKYO - The adventures in China were all certainly exciting for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but Tokyo's acoustically superb Suntory Hall is an old friend, where many of its best recordings with Wolfgang Sawallisch were made, and during this current tour, it comes near the end, when most residency activities are over.

The orchestra arrived Sunday for "the icing on the cake," as music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin describes it.

Familiar haunts for the musicians here include the Tokyo Tower Records, a bastion of compact-disc culture, loaded with Philadelphia Orchestra reissues not found anywhere else in an entire floor devoted to classical music. Lodgings are the homey, retro- 1960s Hotel Okura, a favorite of Sawallisch that maintains the curious policy of barring persons with tattoos from the health club (effectively counting out Nézet-Séguin).

A surprise, however, was an affectionate note from former music director Riccardo Muti, whose visit with the Rome Opera dovetailed with the Philadelphia Orchestra's arrival in Tokyo. Oboist Richard Woodhams sought out Muti after Sunday's performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and delivered the Muti missive before the orchestra's Monday concert at Suntory. "Caro maestro," began the note to Nézet-Séguin, which went on to praise the orchestra's musicians.

Back to the familiar. At 6:15 a.m. Monday, a handful of orchestra players met in the lobby to play ball (literally) with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians had time for the traditional contest only before their noon rehearsal. Finding an available diamond meant a 45-minute train ride halfway to Yokohama, to a field bordered by train tracks and fans rarely seen in the city's center: homeless people.

One of them actually played his trumpet. "He's very nice. He was drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette and said, 'I like playing high notes,' " tuba player Carol Jantsch recalled after the double-header.

The team is called the Firebirds (as in Stravinsky's ballet) and exists only outside Philadelphia, in a Japan-tour tradition that began in 2001.

"We love to play. Japan and America are the two biggest baseball countries in the planet," explained violinist Paul Roby. "We all had diamond dreams, even though we had to stay inside and practice our instruments. Here, we get to relive our dreams."

"Every time we go to Japan, a bunch of us get together and say, 'Are we playing baseball?' And we contact our friends in the orchestras here and make it happen," said violist Che-Hung Chen, who sprained his ankle during the 16-3 victory against the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

The Firebirds then savored a second victory, 17-5. Not that anybody's head swelled.

"We have moments of brilliance, relatively speaking," said percussionist Chris Deviney. "Like actually getting on base."

"Or catching the ball," said Roby.

"Or making an out," said Deviney.

"All of us were a little out of rhythm at first, but after we got in the groove and got warmed up, we started to hit better," said principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa. "It's a great way to connect with these orchestras. It's the equivalent of a side-by-side concert."

Oh, yes, the concert.

This lead pitcher for the Firebirds also had the opening bassoon solo in Monday's performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique"). Nobody was worried. "We're so jacked up because we won the games," said Chen, who played Little League in Taiwan. Others contemplated Advil. Sure enough, Matsukawa's opening solo came off beautifully. The overall performance wasn't the tidiest, but none of the ballplayers seemed to be a problem.

The piece's first five minutes have a lot of moving parts that can still challenge orchestras. And for all its acoustical glory, Suntory has a clarity that's not so forgiving. What the hall did give the orchestra was amplitude. In contrast to Vienna's Musikverein, where the Philadelphians need to pull back to keep from overloading the hall, Suntory reveals each sound with a kind of dimension that makes the orchestra even more imposing. The string-dominated final movement of the Tchaikovsky felt both monumental and agile, alive to every emotional shade, and with a bass response that revealed a heartbeat, expiring eloquently, near the end of the movement.

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which began the concert, can seem like an aria for violin with orchestral accompaniment. But there was nothing passive about Nézet-Séguin's collaborative performance, in which the orchestra seemed to wrap itself around soloist Akiko Suwanai, a wonderful player who seemed rather more wonderful with the Philadelphians framing her.

During concerto rehearsals (which can often be more emotionally unguarded than performances), Nézet-Séguin apparently noticed one of the Philadelphia players tearing up. He held up fingers to his own eyes and smiled warmly. No wonder the players like him so much.


dstearns@phillynews.com

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