Yutaka Sado conducts Shostakovitch and Takemitsu

22 May 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Yutaka Sado

  • Tōru Takemitsu
    From me flows what you call time for five percussionsts and orchestra (38 min.)

    Franz Schindlbeck drums, Simon Rössler percussion, Raphael Haeger percussion, Wieland Welzel percussion (Takemitsu), Jan Schlichte percussion

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47 (59 min.)

  • free

    Yutaka Sado on the fulfilment of his musical dream (16 min.)

When Yutaka Sado was in sixth grade at school and was asked what his life’s ambition was, he answered: “I want to conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker one day.” In the meantime, Sado can now look back on an impressive career. He accompanied Leonard Bernstein as his assistant to the Schleswig-Holstein music festival, and has worked together with Seiji Ozawa and many famous orchestras. In May 2011, Sado’s youthful dream came true when he made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

To open the concert, Yutaka Sado brought music from his mother country: From me flows what you call time by Tōru Takemitsu, Japan’s most famous composer internationally. Audiences should not jump to the wrong conclusion because the work employs five percussionists. From me flows what you call time is no brutal percussive piece, rather a meditative kaleidoscope of delicate colours and accents. Composed just a few years before Takemitsu’s death, the work gives us an insight into his wide-ranging interests, from eastern tradition and western avantgarde, to his extensive work as composer of film music.

While this concert was the first time that the Berliner Philharmoniker played From me flows what you call time, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is regularly to be found in the orchestra’s concert programmes. The composer himself called the work “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”, after his Fourth Symphony had been banned by the Stalin dictatorship for being “formalistic”. With his Fifth, he performed a balancing act: it was to be popular and celebratory, but Shostakovich could not stop himself from formulating his revulsion at the hypocrisy of the regime between the lines. As a result, this symphony is a fascinating puzzle, in which grandiosity changes suddenly to the ridiculous and merriness to desperation.

Caught between East and West?

Both Shostakovich and Takemitsu tried to surmount their cultural boundaries. Only one of them succeeded...

Tōru Takemitsu has often been called Japan’s most significant composer – a judgement that admittedly can be compromised by attempting to identify Japanese composers numbers two and three. At least to Western listeners, Takemitsu’s colleagues are not (or are no longer) familiar. Of the music of Kōsaku Yamada, a Bruch student who wrote the first Japanese symphony in 1912 in Berlin, or that of Toshiro Mayuzumi and Maki Ishii, luminaries of the postwar modern period, hardly a trace is to be found in today’s concert repertoire. All have been played on several occasions by the Berliner Philharmoniker, but eventually they shared the fate of other neo-classicist, impressionist and avant-garde composers from Japan: their fame evaporated.

Takemitsu’s earliest musical impressions were not much different than those of other Japanese of his generation. In a labour camp during World War II, he heard a gramophone recording of Lucienne Boyer’s chanson Parlez-moi d’amour; after 1945 he was able to listen to radio broadcasts of contemporary American music; and in 1949 he discovered Messiaen. During the 1950s Takemitsu experimented with Geräuschmusik (“noise music”) and serial techniques, but in 1957 he suddenly abandoned these borrowings from the European avant-garde. When his Requiem for Strings was lavishly praised by Stravinsky, the young Japanese composer became famous overnight. Thereafter, a greater use of tone clusters, graphic and aleatory elements, along with increasingly frequent references to traditional Japanese aesthetics, produced works that resembled those of John Cage: a kind of absolutism of the single tone, ultimately identical with silence.

His third and final creative phase began in 1975. It made Takemitsu not only the most “significant” Japanese composer but also – along with the writer Yukio Mishima and the film director Akira Kurosawa – one of his country’s most famous artists internationally. From me flows what you call Time (1990) is among the finest of the composer’s late works. Its most characteristic features are harmonic simplification, lyrical melodies and inspiration derived from extra-musical phenomena. The largely self-taught Takemitsu, who throughout his life avoided anything smacking of academicism, unabashedly termed this late style “romantic”.

Closer observation of Takemitsu’s late works reveals numerous remnants of the composer’s radical middle creative period. From me flows what you call Time owes a debt to the former avant-garde as an example of spatial music. Following the introductory bars intoned by a solo flute, five percussionists appear on the platform carrying pocket squares in the same colours as five long ribbons linking the players to the wind chimes suspended in the auditorium. The colours are those of the Tibetan flag, each having symbolic significance (blue = water, red = fire, yellow = earth, green = wind, and white = sky). “The performance should give the impression of being completely improvised”, indicates Takemitsu in the score. The piece is devoid of any forceful accents, instead, according to the composer, following “the rules of a prayer”. Nonetheless, the percussive sounds are remarkable in a basically meditative work, as is the fact that they manifest an essential feature of ancient Japanese music: the multi-coloured noise-like quality of the single tone.

Out of a combination of European and Japanese traditions, Takemitsu created a completely new idiom that is in no sense a hybrid. In his works we do not hear a synthesis of differing cultures; we hear only Takemitsu. A few days before his death he wrote to the American pianist Peter Serkin that he wished to have the body of a whale and to “swim in the ocean that has no west and no east” – a dream that many of his compositions realized.

The young Dmitri Shostakovich also hoped to transcend the boundaries of his own culture with freedom and artistic innovation. Unfortunately those very ambitions were punishable by death. He dared to venture far into that life-threatening zone with his Fourth Symphony: a bold achievement owing a debt to both Soviet futurism of the 1920s and the legacy of Gustav Mahler. It was too bold for 1936: Comrade Stalin had already threatened him, anonymously but blatantly, with Siberia. In the notorious Pravda article “Muddle instead of Music”, he raised serious allegations against Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, ending with the sentence: “This is playing at abstruse things, which could end very badly.” Since the appearance of the article in January 1936, Shostakovich reckoned constantly with a visit from the secret police, but he continued to work on the Fourth Symphony, expecting it to earn him rehabilitation. At the rehearsals in December, however, it became clear that the work would have the opposite effect. It may have been a blessing in disguise that party bosses forced him to withdraw the Fourth. His next symphony, it was now clear, must sound completely different.

But how? What was called for was a “Soviet symphonic style”, or even, as Stalin exaggeratedly formulated the demand, “Soviet classicism”. Everyone talked about it constantly – apparatchiks and professors, critics and composers, publishers and writers – but no-one could actually say how to create “Soviet” music. It had to sound as brilliant as Beethoven yet, of course, not like music from 1820; it had to express the spirit of present-day Europe yet not resort to the stylistic devices of the “decadent” West, which were branded as “formalism”; and it had to meet the highest technical standards yet not exceed the grasp of factory workers. To this day, we know of no convincing definition – we know only Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. But did it really fulfil the party’s demands?

Shostakovich’s Fifth calls for a smaller orchestra than the Fourth, reverts to classical formal models and avoids anything suggesting innovation. The opening motif, which flares up wildly and descends in a mournful gesture, powerfully articulates the entire first movement’s atmospheric conflict between passionate struggle and painful resignation. The second theme, entrusted to the strings, conjures up a world of illusory happiness. An aggressive march episode leads to the climax of the development, which now proclaims the opening motif as a baleful peroration on the brass. The movement dies away with the lyrical second theme, but the menacing undertones are not completely silenced.

The Allegretto is also double-edged. There is a rumbustious gaiety about this second movement, though without ever evoking an image of merrily dancing Komsomols (Soviet Communist Youth Organization members). Even the violin solo in the Trio section fails to alter the general impression of a macabre dance of death – after all, it has been the Grim Reaper’s favourite instrument from time immemorial. The Largo is even less susceptible to the usual Soviet interpretative schemes. Critics accused the composer of having opted for a tone “of death and depression”.

This makes it all the easier to hear the final movement as jubilation at a party congress. We know, however, from reports by first listeners in Leningrad and Moscow that they understood very well Shostakovich’s parody of the prevailing triumphalism. Years later, he denied that this finale was in any way an apotheosis: “You’d have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Richard Evidon

Yutaka Sado, born in 1961, graduated with honours from the Kyoto City University of Arts and worked as an assistant at Japan’s leading opera company. From 1987, he assisted Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa in the USA and in Japan. Yutaka Sado started his career initially in Japan and France before going on to win the Davidoff Special Prize in Germany in 1988, and the 39th International Competition for Young Conductors in Besançon the year after. In 1993 he became chief conductor of the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux in Paris; meanwhile he has made guest appearances with all the renowned French orchestras e.g. the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. In 1995, he won first prize at the Leonard Bernstein International Music Competition in Jerusalem, and in 1996 – again in France – was named “Révélation Musicale de l’Année” by the Syndicat Professionnel de la Critique dramatique et musicale. Yutaka Sado has also worked together with other leading European orchestras such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich, the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Munich and the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Since 2005, Yutaka Sado has also been general music director of the opera and the orchestra of the new Hyogo Performing Arts Centre, an important symbol of the rebuilding of the region between Osaka and Kobe following the devastating earthquake of 1995. In 2010, he made his Italian operatic debut at the Teatro Regio in Turin, conducting a production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. This will also be Yutaka Sado’s debut conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Raphael Haeger began percussion and piano lessons at the age of four, and in his youth he was a pianist and arranger for several jazz bands. From 1989 to 1994 he studied with Franz Lang at the Trossingen Musikhochschule. After that he became an active participant in the New Music concert scene, working with, among others, Heinz Holliger, Hans-Werner Henze, Helmut Lachenmann and the Ensemble Modern. In 1994 he became a member of the Mannheim Nationaltheater, where he also conceived and directed two jazz concert series. In 2002, as a pianist, he released a CD with his own jazz compositions. He joined the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2005. In addition to his orchestral activities, Raphael Haeger is a member of the Philharmonic jazz ensemble Bolero Berlin.

Simon Rössler, who has played percussion since he was six, studied with Klaus Treßelt from 2000 at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule. After graduating in 2005 he was taught by Rainer Seegers and Franz Schindlbeck at the Academy of Music “Hanns Eisler” Berlin. Before joining the percussion section of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2008, Rössler had already accumulated several years of orchestral experience: as a member of the Junge Philharmonie of Munich, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, the Bruckner Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart, the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Lübeck Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004, the musician – who also performs in various jazz and pop groups – gave his first major solo concert with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester of Frankfurt an der Oder.

Franz Schindlbeck has been drumming since he was six. At eleven he began regular percussion instruction and studied from 1983 to 1988 with Hermann Gschwendtner at the Trossingen Musikhochschule. He gathered his first orchestral experience as principal percussionist at the Mannheim Nationaltheater between 1988 and 1992, when he became a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker. While still a student, Schindlbeck was already playing in a number of bands and as drummer in the youth big band of Baden-Württemberg state. In 1999, together with Philharmoniker colleagues, he founded the Berlin Philharmonic Jazz Group. Since 1994 he has taught in the Philharmonic’s Orchestra Academy, and since 2004 he has held a visiting professorship at Berlin’s Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule.

Jan Schlichte began his studies in 1991 at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule and continued a year later at the Trossingen Musikhochschule, where his teachers included Franz Lang and Rainer Seegers. In 1997/1998 he was a scholar in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Orchestra Academy, where he continued receiving instruction from Rainer Seegers and was also taught by Franz Schindlbeck. Before joining the orchestra in 1998, Jan Schlichte acquired extensive experience playing in, among other ensembles, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and Southwest German (SWR) Radio Orchestra. His particular interest in contemporary chamber music with piano and percussion led him, after concerts at various festivals, to become a founding member of the Berlin ensemble KlangArt. Jan Schlichte also plays in the Berlin Chamber Ensemble for New Music as well as the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. As a teacher, he has been involved in a music-pedagogical project in Venezuela.

Wieland Welzel started playing the piano when he was four and a year later began percussion lessons. After five years of membership in the Bundesjugendorchester, the German national youth orchestra, he studied from 1993 to 1997 with Peter Sewe (timpani) and Peter Wulfert (percussion) at the Musikhochschule in his native Lübeck. During that period he was a member of the European Community Youth Orchestra and took up his first appointment in 1995 as principal timpanist of the Mecklenburg Staatskapelle in Schwerin. Two years later he assumed this position with the Berliner Philharmoniker. His interest in jazz led him in 1999 to found the Berlin Philharmonic Jazz Group with four of his colleagues. He is also a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Percussion Ensemble and is a visiting teacher at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. From 2002 to 2006 he was active in the internal service organisation Gemeinschaft der Berliner Philharmoniker.

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