Cherry blossoms decorate Orchestra Day in Japan

 Cherry blossoms decorate Orchestra Day in Japan
Tokyo families across the city head to Western classical music concerts, an art form widely supported by the government and the people. (Association of Japanese Symphony / Association of Japanese Symphony)

Tuesday here felt like ground zero for spring. The weather was lovely. Schools were on spring break. Families were everywhere viewing cherry blossoms. The city was white with petals.

In Bunkyo, a northern district of Tokyo, the attractions were many. Ueno Park, the most popular site for picnicking under sakura, the cherry trees, is nearby. Next to the main metro stop in Bunkyo is the Tokyo Dome, a famed venue for baseball and rock concerts. Across from it is an amusement park with a spectacular roller coaster looping over a shopping district and Bunkyo Civic Hall.


Yet with all those diversions, families flocked to the concert hall. March 31 is Orchestra Day in Japan. Every orchestra in the country puts on family-friendly concerts with inexpensive tickets.

In Bunkyo, there were events for children all day. Each of the dozen professional orchestras that operate in the greater Tokyo area had booths. Kids could shoot dart guns aimed at portraits of Beethoven and Brahms. The day ended with an early evening concert by a Festival Orchestra that included players from all the Tokyo orchestras.

Japan loves orchestras, and Tokyo is the orchestra capital of the world. Within the city limits there are nine major orchestras and six large concert halls. Some are part of grand performing arts centers. One belongs to a department store. All the top orchestras of Europe and the Americas travel regularly to Tokyo.

There may be many reasons for this devotion to a Western art form, but education is the main one. As a way to restore Japan's sense of purpose after World War II, the violinist and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki developed a method of teaching music that was intended to inspire good citizenship as well as develop excellent instrumental skills.

Thanks to its great success, Japan became the first Asian country crazy about Western classical music. It created a wealth of fine musicians and a population of devoted listeners. To this day, there are very few foreigners in Japanese orchestras; they don't need them. On the other hand, most of the important orchestras in Europe, the U.S. and Canada have Japanese musicians: We need them.

Still, times are changing, and orchestras in Japan depend on promotion as much as ensembles everywhere else. In Tokyo, the orchestral cornucopia also means a colossal amount of competition. Plus, the classical music taught in schools can be dry and unpopular with the kids.

The recession hurts too, although state support remains significant. The combined spending by local governments and federal arts agencies on 33 orchestras in Japan last year was $56 million. That is more than one third of the full budget for our National Endowment of the Arts.

Orchestra Day was an idea of the Assn. of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, a support group modeled after the League of American Orchestras in the U.S., to liven things up. It began nine years ago, and March 31 was chosen because the Japanese pronunciation of the date is similar to that of the word for "ear."

The concerts held across the country, however, needn't be on the last day of March. They are often earlier, especially on weekends. The events for children do seem to work. Kids with their parents flocked to the day's events in Bunkyo.

But the Festival Orchestra concert was not full, despite ticket prices under $25, a tenth or more of what it cost to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Suntory Hall two days earlier. The program was popular fare: Mendelssohn's Wedding March and Violin Concerto along with Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Masahiko Enkoji, one of the busiest conductors in Tokyo, led the concert. The soloist was Yasuko Ohtani, one of Japan's hardest-working violinists. There was little rehearsal for the program, but the players consider it an honor to be selected. The Civic Hall is not one of Tokyo's top venues, but it boasts the loudest acoustics. The concert packed an impressive punch.

It did not, however, address the bigger issues with Japanese orchestras. There are complaints that too much of the country's orchestral life is concentrated in Tokyo. Only two of Tokyo's orchestras, the Tokyo Symphony and the NKH Symphony, have strong international reputations. Japan does not lack interesting composers, but they are not very well represented in the programming.

The biggest worry I heard from many administrators is that of attracting younger audiences. Orchestra Day may help. It has plenty of charm and good will, even if it is not exactly hip.

Still, we should all have such worries. Audiences, the state and the educational system all still support classical music here to an impressive degree.

I've heard most of Tokyo's orchestras, and all are very capable. Programming has broadened considerably over the last decade. Both Tokyo Symphony and Yomiuri Nippon Symphony have music directors — Jonathan Nott and Sylvain Cambreling, respectively — who are new-music specialists. The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony provides more adventurous programming than the majority of American orchestras.

The largest problem may be that of image. In a dazzling city, the orchestras, especially in their advertising and image, seem understated for the younger crowd. Amenities at the concert venues, in this hedonistically epicurean capital, are surprisingly poor.

But audiences remain large, and attending a concert in Tokyo is pure pleasure. You will not find more attentive or appreciative listeners anywhere. People exit clutching packets of colorful fliers for upcoming programs. The lines for autographs from performers are always long.

The cherry blossoms have already fallen, leaving, an orchestra official emailed me Friday, beautiful ribbons of white petals on the Sumida River. And what better way to create a lasting impression on young people than to imprint the fragile beauty of sakura, family, spring break and renewal with Orchestra Day.