The delicate harmonies and timbres of Suzuki

They play baroque to perfection and worship our pop stars. Christopher Wood and Nicholas Barber report on music trends in Japan
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The Independent Culture

Standing out among the mass of concerts, events and recordings marking the 250th anniversary of Bach's death this year is the recorded cycle of cantatas by a Japanese orchestra. Although European audiences are now used to the technical brilliance of Japanese artists, the Bach Collegium Japan has caught some listeners, critics among them, by surprise by revealing something else: a level of musicality and artistic sensitivity to rival the finest European ensembles.

Standing out among the mass of concerts, events and recordings marking the 250th anniversary of Bach's death this year is the recorded cycle of cantatas by a Japanese orchestra. Although European audiences are now used to the technical brilliance of Japanese artists, the Bach Collegium Japan has caught some listeners, critics among them, by surprise by revealing something else: a level of musicality and artistic sensitivity to rival the finest European ensembles.

The orchestra's project to record all Bach's 200-odd extant cantatas under their founder and director Masaaki Suzuki has been going on for five years, and should be complete in another 15. Time enough, one would think, to get used to the idea that a Japanese orchestra can successfully inhabit a musical world outside their native traditions.

But sceptical voices can still be heard, claiming that the Japanese genius is for imitation, not interpretation, and that just as their electronics industry can take an invention like the transistor to new heights of sophistication, they can also do a very good impersonation of western classical music performance - adding that the architectural and mechanical aspects of Bach's music perfectly suit the Japanese gift for technical puzzles.

Any BCJ recording proves there's more to Japanese music-making than that, but historical events make the theory a tenacious one. Japan was for centuries closed to the outside world, until, in 1853, American gunboats forced a way in and created a desire for - among other trappings of western life - gunboats. Japan proved so good at building a navy and waging war with it that they sat at the peace conference after the First World War as one of the victors. As historian A J P Taylor claimed, the Japanese, "by an extraordinary effort of decision, determined they would make themselves into Europeans ... Modern Japan grew out of European history, and the Japanese view was that if they loyally, carefully, pedantically followed the European patterns, they would be transformed into an acceptable member of the great power family."

But all that was a long time ago, and what was once imitation has become instinct, has in fact become Japanese tradition. If the Japanese are expert at western classical music, it's because they've been doing it for several generations. For many years, Japanese children have learnt the piano, rather than the native koto, shamisen or shakuhachi. As Masaaki Suzuki says, "It's very rare now to learn Japanese musical instruments. The main scene in Japan is western music. Music like Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and so on is the common treasure of the whole world. It's only Europeans who think these composers are just for Europeans."

Tokyo today is a city that feels less and less foreign, where European influences sit comfortably side by side with native ones without anyone mentioning a clash of cultures. In Tokyo parks, t'ai chi is practised next to baseball, which in turn is screened back to back with sumo wrestling on TV. And the 12 million people of Tokyo seem to have an insatiable appetite for European music. Nine symphony orchestras compete for their patronage (London has five). When I visited Tokyo last month, the traditional kabuki theatre in Ginza was shrouded in scaffolding, whereas across the city the luxurious Tokyo Opera City arts complex - four years old, boasting opera house, concert hall, recital room, art gallery, with heaps of shops and restaurants - was very obviously flourishing.

Unsurprisingly, this year there are too many Bach events to count. One of them was a performance by the Bach Collegium Japan of the St John Passion on 28 July, the date of Bach's death, in Suntory Hall, adjacent to Herbert von Karajan Platz in central Tokyo. BCJ - who also play Monteverdi and Schütz, but retain Bach as their core repertoire - have surprisingly not yet played in Britain, but those who know their recording of the St John Passion can be assured that live it is every bit as compelling.

The mainspring and inspiration of the group is Suzuki, who cut his musical teeth playing the harmonium in the "very small church for a very small congregation" of Christians in Kobe, which the Suzuki family formed part of. "It's not essential to be Christian to understand Bach," says Suzuki, "but in my case it was an important motivation."

Part of the instruction he gives to the BCJ musicians is in the rudiments of Christian doctrine, still relatively unfamiliar in Japan. "The singers need practical information and are very keen to know about the text and the Bible story. It also helps the orchestra. In the cantatas, for instance, there are some difficult elements in the orchestral playing which have to do with the text. I try to explain what meaning a particular figuration might have."

Suzuki's special feeling for Bach was honed during years spent in Europe. He studied in Holland with Ton Koopman, conductor of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (who has a rival Bach cantata cycle in progress), and was a harpsichord teacher in Germany. He returned to form the BCJ in 1990 with the useful ability to rehearse an orchestra in English, German, Dutch and Japanese.

Blessed with such a cosmopolitan director, the BCJ choir has built up its German to the standard necessary for singing Bach. According to Gerd Türk, a German who sang the Evangelist in the St John Passion: "Their German pronunciation is close to perfection. Sometimes I correct a few things - yesterday just one word. And when I tell them to do something I find them practising for 15 minutes by themselves. They invest a lot of work."

If idiomatic German performance is now within their grasp, can one discern anything distinctively Japanese about the BCJ sound? "I'm always wondering about that," says Suzuki. "A German musicologist told me my performance is quite linear compared with Philippe Herreweghe or Ton Koopman. They search for different colours, while I like the complexity of polyphonic lines. He said the influence was from the traditional Japanese way of writing and painting with a brush. Personally, I'm always fighting against traditional Japanese feeling. The structures in Bach's music don't exist in traditional Japanese culture. In Japanese thinking, if you have one musical line and another comes, the first vanishes. Every change in the music is horizontal, never above or beneath. Bach doesn't work like this: musical lines co-exist."

A clear advantage of Suzuki's broad outlook is a non-dogmatic attitude towards authenticity in music that is not always found in baroque specialists. The BCJ plays period instruments and typically has 20 players and 16 in the choir, but later this year Suzuki will conduct Mendelssohn's version of the St Matthew Passion for a much larger ensemble playing modern instruments.

"I think we should define the word authenticity," says Suzuki. "According to one opinion, Helmuth Rilling and Karl Richter were not authentic. Of course they didn't use period instruments, but they were together with the mind and spirit of Bach. I have played with Rilling's orchestra. The way of playing is very different, but it has insight. And when I was at school I listened to the Richter B Minor Mass a thousand times. I have no contradiction in me in enjoying both types."

After listening to the BCJ playing a standard work of the European repertoire in the elegant Suntory Hall, kitted out with organ and a bust of Beethoven in the conductor's dressing room, one could believe that Japanese culture today was simply synonymous with western culture. But after the performance, the hall's management are doing something curious. They distribute to the artists small, decorated envelopes containing a 100-yen piece, worth about 60p. It's a kabuki theatre tradition: the concert was a sell-out, and the coin is supposed to bring luck. Now that wouldn't happen at the Royal Festival Hall. CW

Bach Collegium Japan's latest CD in the cantata cycle is Vol 12, featuring cantatas nos 147 and 21. Their recording of Bach's violin concertos is also available. Both CDs are released on BIS Records

It takes more than a rebellious Brit band to whip this lot into a frenzy

If you were a rapper at a Japanese rock festival, you wouldn't have to be content with your traditional request for audience participation, "All the people on the left say, Yeah!" If you wanted, you could be more specific, and go for "All the people in section C3 say, Yeah!" Or even, "All the people on the left of section C3 say, Yeah!" They probably would, too.

Japanese festivals bear scant resemblance to Britain's own mud-drenched refugee camps. Quite apart from the presence on the bill of such domestic hit-makers as the Mad Capsule Markets, Triceratops and Snail Ramp, the Summer Sonic festival in Fujikyu is not held in a field strewn with waxy paper cups. Instead, the ground is blue-painted concrete (during the chillier months, it's an open-air ice rink), while plastic-coated railings fence the site into 12 separate pens, with clear corridors between them. As the punters arrive in the morning, they exchange their tickets for colour-coded wristbands which direct them into designated enclosures.

I'm in Japan for the weekend with British band Reef, who are due on at 11.30am. When the day's first band takes the stage at 10.30am - exactly as specified on a large noticeboard - Heineken is already doing a roaring trade, but 'No Smoking' notices are everywhere, and no one disobeys. Not that they have much option. Wherever you are, you're never more than a few yards away from a security guard.At the front, one peers down at the crowd from a high chair like a swimming pool lifeguard. And if all these men let the situation get out of control, there are some serious reinforcements on standby.

Wearing camouflage trousers, jackboots and black T-shirts are a squad of American soldiers, brought in for the day from a nearby military base. Each one is a trained killer, and built like Mike Tyson, so they are well equipped to check tickets and point people in the direction of the toilets. The last band of the day - strangely, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - is off stage by eight o'clock.

If Summer Sonic speaks of a careful, regimented society, it does so all the more loudly when Reef are in attendance. Britain's longest-armed, squarest-jawed hard-riffing West Country rock band like to get as close as they can to their fans. This means that Gary Stringer, their vocalist, doesn't feel a show is complete if he hasn't jumped off the stage and into the audience. Summer Sonic's promoters don't see things in quite the same way.

Stringer may be a 27-year-old father, but he remains the dictionary definition of "youthful high spirits". It is he who wears a shirt only when he absolutely has to. It is he who, on the road to Osaka for the next show, persuades the coach driver to pull over so he can vault over a metal barrier and down an obstacle course of massive concrete spurs for a swim in the sea. And so, when the promoters instruct Stringer not to clamber in to the audience, he's decidedly miffed. "It's what we are," he pouts at the interpreter backstage. "We're a living, breathing rock band!"

Sure enough, four songs into Reef's set, Stringer is off the stage and in one of the pens, roaring his words directly into the faces of the faithful. The security guards are agitated, but the audience is showing no signs of mutating into a blood-crazed mob. When Stringer drops his microphone, a guard makes a gesture with his arms and the crowd parts like the Red Sea, leaving an empty circle around the singer. It's fair to say that in Britain this would not happen.

Reef carry on with their set. At the end of every song the fans clap and cheer, then they fall silent and wait patiently for the next song. When Stringer shouts, "Come on!" they shout back obediently. Then they fall silent. When he claps his hands above his head, they all do the same, perfectly in time.

MTV is slowly educating Japanese audiences in the ways of rowdy abandon, but their politeness is legendary. In clubs, when a DJ drops a new record into the mix, it's been known for revellers to stop dancing and applaud. And although Summer Sonic's security arrangements wouldn't have been out of place at an England v Germany match held on Battle of Britain day, it's just as common for law and order at gigs to be enforced by two men in white uniforms holding up a white rope. Everyone knows to stay well back from the rope.

This uniquely civilised consensus is the stuff of awestruck tour bus anecdotes, but one glance at the people at the front of Summer Sonic's crowd confirms that they are happy and unbruised. And in the summer of Roskilde, the Danish festival at which nine fans were crushed in the melée, who are we Westerners to mock?

Mind you, it does everybody good to have Reef come along and shake things up a little. After their performance in Fujikyu, the group have an appointment in the signing tent. When Stringer learns that just 50 fans have been selected to queue up for autographs, while the same number have to content themselves with standing on the other side of a barrier and observing, he hops up from his chair and signs everything that's proffered over the chest-high fence.

Security guards rush over. The interpreter, fearing that someone might be squashed against the barrier, remonstrates with Stringer about the safety implications. Stringer has a simple solution: he slides through a gap in the fencing and into the main compound, where he continues scrawling his signature. Fans flock around him. None of them is less than 18 inches shorter than he is. "I hate this," grimaces the translator at the breach of etiquette, but Reef and their fans don't seem to mind at all. NB

Reef's new album 'Getaway' (Sony) is released tomorrow