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What It's Like To Go To Japan With The Boston Symphony Orchestra

The BSO during rehearsal at Osaka Festival Hall in Japan. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
The BSO during rehearsal at Osaka Festival Hall in Japan. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

WBUR's Andrea Shea was in Japan with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this month. It was the first time the BSO toured Japan with a permanent music director since 1999, when it visited with its former maestro Seiji Ozawa.

Here are dispatches and photos from Andrea (most recent updates at the top), as she embarked with the orchestra from Nagoya to Osaka, Sendai to Tokyo.


Friday, Nov. 10 — Tokyo, Japan

After some last minute shopping, sushi-eating or sight seeing, the BSO musicians and staff climbed again into three charter buses to get to their last destination in Japan: Narita International Airport, about an hour away. I sat with artistic administrator Tony Fogg, who said the BSO will be returning for another tour in 2022.

The BSO musicians and staff gather at the Narita International Airport in Japan to get ready for the flight back to Boston. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
The BSO musicians and staff gather at the Narita International Airport in Japan to get ready for the flight back to Boston. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

At the airport, I separated from the pack to find my flight. As I walked away I thought about how having the chance to tour with an orchestra has changed my perception of what it's like for the people in it.

An orchestra can seem like one, big organism up there on stage, striving for unison and held together by a seemingly untouchable maestro. But, of course, the BSO is made up of more than 100 very talented, creative individuals.

Nelsons has said many times that touring makes the BSO family closer. They shared stories, meals and illnesses (upper respiratory and jet lag on this tour). Some brought along their spouses and/or children. Nelsons believes this kind of bonding will enhance their music making back at Symphony Hall in Boston.

A few photos from side trips I took today:

A fun way to eat macha ice cream. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
A fun way to eat macha ice cream. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
A fake food display on sale in Tokyo's Kitchen Town, where people could buy displays and supplies for their restaurants. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
A fake food display on sale in Tokyo's Kitchen Town, where people could buy displays and supplies for their restaurants. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Reporter Andrea Shea at Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Reporter Andrea Shea at Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Listen to Andrea's dispatch after the final concert of the tour:

Related audio


Thursday, Nov. 9 — Tokyo, Japan

It's the last full day of the BSO's Japan tour, with one more show to go. Today, I got a tour of Suntory Hall. Backstage in the artists' lounge, there's an autograph wall with a collection of more than 1,600 signatures, including former BSO maestro Seiji Ozawa.

Seiji Ozawa's signature spotted backstage at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Seiji Ozawa's signature spotted backstage at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

The walls of the concert hall are made from old Suntory Whiskey barrels. The Japanese company built the space 31 years ago and the BSO musicians say they love the way it sounds.

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)
(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Suntory Hall spokesman Shinsuke Inoue, who gave me the tour, said seats for the BSO's concerts this week cost between $100 and $300 a pop. The 2,006 seat hall did not sell out. Inoue said sales were at about 80 percent, which was satisfactory. Of course they were hoping for more, but he added this is a competitive month for orchestras in Tokyo with the BSO, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Gewandhaus Orchestra all performing at the hall.

During the final performance that night, Andris Nelsons talked to the audience a fair bit. The musicians rocked their performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1. It was riveting. Nelsons ended on, "We will be back," which was met with enduring applause.

The BSO packs up after the last concert of the tour at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
The BSO packs up after the last concert of the tour at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Wednesday, Nov. 8 — Tokyo, Japan

I've spent a fair bit of time backstage. I love seeing the inside of the musicians' instrument cases, sometimes filled with photos of children and families. It's also been fun to wander around and look out at the concert hall from a player's perspective. Here's the view from the timpanists' seats:

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)
(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

On Wednesday, I paid a visit to Dr. Robert Partridge. Yes, the orchestra brings along its own on-tour emergency medical professional to take care of everything from jet lag (which he says can cause symptoms similar to those that come with concussion) to upper respiratory illness to blisters.

Dr. Robert Partidge, the BSO's tour physician, with his medicine trunk. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Dr. Robert Partidge, the BSO's tour physician, with his medicine trunk. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Wednesday afternoon a large group of Japanese students, all dressed in school uniforms, went to the BSO rehearsal. Nelsons talked them through the repertoire from the podium — he's a good teacher. The evening performance was the first to feature the BSO's Elizabeth Rowe flutist and harpist Jessica Zhou playing Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp.

The BSO members are certainly enjoying their fair share of sushi and sashimi this week. I am too.

 


Tuesday, Nov. 7 — Tokyo, Japan

The final leg of the tour is Tokyo. On Tuesday, there was an open rehearsal at Suntory Hall, which is considered by many to be the best concert hall in Japan. Some musicians told me it was quite close acoustically to Boston's Symphony Hall.

The public was able to apply for limited, free tickets for the rehearsal. These two very excited 31-year-old violinists Kaoruko Goto and Naoko Kanohzawa spent their afternoon there:

Two attendees of Tuesday's open rehearsal at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Two attendees of Tuesday's open rehearsal at Suntory Hall in Tokyo. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

The BSO looked and sounded great in Suntory Hall. More than one of them reflected on the compatibility between this venue and the orchestra. Being on this tour gave them the opportunity to try out the same repertoire in different acoustic spaces. It really made me realize how a hall is like another instrument in the orchestra.

After rehearsal, Andris Nelsons made some fans very happy by signing autographs. It's been fun to see the conductor interacting with the public and the orchestra.

BSO conductor Andris Nelsons signing autographs in Tokyo, Japan. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
BSO conductor Andris Nelsons signing autographs in Tokyo, Japan. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

He is very approachable, which I think for many is refreshing and endearing. Nelsons' energy is child-like. A trumpet (or two) sit in his dressing room that he plays during breaks.

On Tuesday night the BSO played Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11. Naruhito, the crown prince, and Masako, the crown princess, of Japan were in attendance. There was a lot of scurrying about by security before their arrival (and there were no pictures allowed). The audience and orchestra rose when they entered the hall. Nelsons, BSO managing director Mark Volpe and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe had a private meeting with the royal couple for 30 minutes after the concert.


Monday, Nov. 6 — Ishinomaki, Japan

This was a free day for the orchestra members. Some went sightseeing or shopping in Tokyo. Others led master classes and lectures or performed in recitals. I traveled by bullet train with violist Michael Zaretsky and his dear friend, Japanese pianist Chikako Shibata, to Sendai. That means I missed President Trump's visit to Tokyo, but here's a photo from the paper:

A photo of President Trump with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Monday's newspaper. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
A photo of President Trump with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Monday's newspaper. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

On Monday morning, we drove an hour with the gracious architect Hiroyuki Miyazaki from Sendai to the tsunami-torn city of Ishinomaki. Zaretsky and Shibata were scheduled to play in a small concert hall attached to Dr. Akihiro Suzuki's home there. Ninety-five percent of the city was destroyed by the tsunami in 2011, but Suzuki's home survived.

Miyazaki took me on a tour of the area while the musicians rehearsed for their evening performance. The city is rebuilding, but it's a mess. The sounds of backhoes and dump trucks moving dirt were everywhere. Thousands of residents have been living in temporary housing. Your heart aches for the more than 3,000 lives were taken by the tsunami. The city is turning the hardest hit neighborhood into a memorial park set to open in 2020. This now famous sign there roughly translates to “Don't give up, Ishinomaki."

(Andrea Shea/WBUR)
(Andrea Shea/WBUR)

This excursion made me think about the power of music to cross oceans, borders, languages and cultures. The people I met in Ishinomaki were so warm and open, and they love music deeply. They say it helps them unite and get through the unthinkable.

Listen to my report from the recital: 

Related audio


Sunday, Nov. 5 — Osaka, Japan

Listen to Andrea's dispatch after the first few concerts of the tour:

Related audio


Saturday, Nov. 4 — Nagoya and Osaka, Japan

As the Boston Symphony Orchestra prepped for its tour, I was made privy to what — I realize now — was a comparatively abstract glimmer into the level of dedication, work and sweat that goes into taking more than 100 musicians across the globe.

Just about a week ago, Symphony Hall's basement was bursting with big blue, red and black trunks holding $20 million worth of instruments, wardrobes and gear. Now that 27,000 pounds of music-making tools are in Japan — and I am, too — along with the crew, support staff, musicians and music director Andris Nelsons. And it's eye-opening.

Everyone clearly adores Nelsons. I've heard folks with the BSO say that in the past, but to see him in action in a faraway land is another matter. On Saturday, Nelsons rode with the BSO musicians on a fast train from the orchestra's first stop in Nagoya to its second in Osaka. Here's a picture of him at the station:

BSO conductor Andris Nelsons at the train station in Osaka. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
BSO conductor Andris Nelsons at the train station in Osaka. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

The Chinese characters on his black T-shirt read, “Music is the soul of the universe.”

Nelsons believes in that idea — deeply — and lives by it, it seems. The BSO musicians appear to appreciate his views, his optimism, his high-level artistry and humanist spirit. More than a few told me they think the orchestra sounds the way it does today because of Nelsons. His passion is invigorating and contagious.

Being on tour is physically and psychologically demanding. Planes, trains, buses — then rehearsals. It's safe to say most everyone suffered from jet lag with the 13-, now 14-hour time change (after Daylight Savings ended this weekend) — me included. Now imagine having to get up on stage for a rigorous performance.

It helps that many of the musicians have a fondness for Japan: the people, the culture, the aesthetics, the food. (Nelsons is in sushi heaven — he also made a trip to buy new Yamaha batons when we were in Nagoya.) But there's also the BSO's connection to Seiji Ozawa to consider. The American institution hired the Japanese maestro in 1973, and Ozawa went on to lead the orchestra for 29 years. He broke ground for Asian musicians interested in Western classical repertoire and many of the players he worked with are still members of the BSO.

This tour to Japan is the BSO's first with Nelsons, but also the first with a permanent music director in 18 years.

The women's dressing room, backstage at Osaka's Festival Hall. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
The women's dressing room, backstage at Osaka's Festival Hall. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

As I wandered around backstage at Osaka's Festival Hall Saturday evening, a frenzy of gifts were exchanged between the the BSO team and its Japanese counterparts who've been working together for months to orchestrate this tour. Gift-giving is a traditional custom in Japan. I brought maple syrup.

One space was filled with the woman musicians' red cases. The men's cases, which are black and white, were in another. In case you're wondering, gender is differentiated by color so the trunks quickly and efficiently end up in the correct dressing rooms.

I came across timpanist Tim Genis rehearsing. His massive instrument made it to Japan, safe and sound.

Timpanist Tim Genis during rehearsal at Osaka Festival Hall. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Timpanist Tim Genis during rehearsal at Osaka Festival Hall. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

At Festival Hall in Osaka, the BSO only had 15 minutes to rehearse Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Opus 103 (called "The Year 1905"). That after an unexpected mishap on Friday (involving a local truck driver who apparently overslept and delivered the instruments late) cut rehearsal short ahead of the first concert in Nagoya.

But no matter, applause for the orchestra, Nelsons and guest violin soloist Gil Shaham after the performances went on and on, calling for encores in both Nagoya and Osaka.

In Osaka, Nelsons talked to the audiences from the podium, first apologizing for not speaking Japanese. "Thank you for being warm, attentive listeners," he said following the Shostakovich, which is notoriously dramatic and sad. Then the orchestra followed up with two encores: another Shostakovich piece, "Galop From Moscow-Cheryomushki," and Leonard Bernstein's "Divertimentor for Orchestra."

Andris Nelsons autograph alongside the composition for Shostakovich's 11th Symphony. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Andris Nelsons autograph alongside the composition for Shostakovich's 11th Symphony. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

After the concert a line of super fans waited for Nelsons to sign their programs, books about Shostakovich and CDs.

They also asked for selfies — and the maestro obliged. These 20-somethings are hoping to go to the rehearsal at Tokyo's Suntory Hall that's open to the public.

Andris Nelsons stopped for a selfie with superfans Takuya Hiroaka, left, and Yuki Satake. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Andris Nelsons stopped for a selfie with superfans Takuya Hiroaka, left, and Yuki Satake. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

I didn't get much free time in Nagoya, but I was able to break away for an hour and visit a busy Shinto shrine, as well as an amazing vintage clothing shop that had a "101 Dalmatians" sweater. Alas, I was not able to eat the eel I was hoping for.

A Shinto shrine in Nagoya. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
A Shinto shrine in Nagoya. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
The owner of a vintage shop in Nagoya. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
The owner of a vintage shop in Nagoya. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Tuesday, Oct. 31 — Boston, Massachusetts

Listen to Andrea's report from Boston as the orchestra packed up for the trip halfway across the globe — with their 27,000 pounds of gear:

Related audio


Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated the BSO had not been to Japan since 1999. The orchestra visited in 2014 with guest conductor Charles Dutoit. We regret the error.

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Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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