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On the current demand for Sibelius and Finnish music in Japan

by Yuri Nitta

“It is easy for the Japanese audience to sympathise with the musical characteristics of Finnish works,” writes Yuri Nitta, conductor and chair of the Sibelius Society of Japan.

I am a conductor who has been deeply involved in Finnish music for the last 25 years or so. In addition to my activities as a conductor, I am also the third president of the Sibelius Society of Japan. The Sibelius Society of Japan was founded in 1984 with conductor Akeo Watanabe as its president. Since then, the baton has been passed from Watanabe to pianist Izumi Tateno and to myself. The society will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2024.

The history of performances of Sibelius’s orchestral works in Japan began with Finlandia, conducted by Gustav Kron at the Tokyo Academy of Music (now Tokyo University of the Arts) in May 1923. Symphony No. 2, which is particularly popular in Japan, was premiered in May 1927 by the New Symphony Orchestra (today’s NHK Symphony Orchestra) under Josef König. This was the first performance of Sibelius by a professional orchestra in Japan. After that, Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 1938 by the New Symphony Orchestra under Josef Rosenstock, and Symphony No. 1 by the orchestra of the Tokyo Academy of Music under Helmut Fermat in 1948. It is rather remarkable that the Japanese premieres of the remaining four symphonies were all conducted by Watanabe: No. 7 in 1948, No. 5 in 1959, No. 6 in 1961 and No. 3 in 1977. A Sibelius Cycle was organised in 1981 by the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under Watanabe’s baton. 

Various reasons have been given for the Japanese love of Sibelius’s music, such as a feeling of proximity to Finland as a country, sympathy with the sound, and affinity with the personality of Sibelius, who is regarded as a taciturn composer. Many Japanese people feel that these aspects are close to Japanese culture and the Japanese temperament. 

The Sibelius Society of Japan compiled a history of the Japanese reception of Sibelius’s music around 20 years ago. This survey reveals that Finlandia, Symphony No. 2 and the Violin Concerto have been performed overwhelmingly frequently. Statistical data from subscription concerts by professional orchestras until 2004 show that the number of performances of Sibelius’s works increased steadily from the first performance in 1923 to the post-war period. Especially since 1980, Sibelius’s works have been performed actively in Japan. According to this data, by 2004, Symphony No. 2 had been performed 139 times, the Violin Concerto 98 times, Symphony No. 1 55 times, and Finlandia 44 times. It should be noted, though, that Finlandia is not so often included in the subscription concerts. Instead, it is often performed as an encore at family and other concerts, and is even mentioned in music textbooks, making it Sibelius’s best-known work in Japan. Of the symphonies, No. 3 had been performed the least, with only six performances since its Japanese premiere. 

Following the 50th anniversary of Sibelius’s death in 2007 and the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2015, however, the number of performances of his works in Japan and the trend in the selection of works has changed. The number of performances of symphonies other than No. 2 has increased significantly since 2007. Particularly noteworthy is the increase in the number of performances of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. This is also what the audiences desire. Although it may be related to the issue of attracting audiences, Sibelius-loving listeners have regretted the fact that there had previously been so few opportunities to hear the symphonies from No. 3 onwards in performance. Also the number of conductors who have taken up these two symphonies has increased. 


On Japanese Sibelius recordings and joint performances

At the moment, there are five releases of the complete Sibelius symphonies by professional Japanese orchestras. In chronological order, these are the 1962 recording by the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Watanabe (Columbia); another recording by the same orchestra and Watanabe in 1981 (Denon); the 2013 recording by the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, this time conducted by Pietari Inkinen (Naxos), the 2015 recording by the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka (Fontec); and the 2021 recording by the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sachio Fujioka (ALM Records). All of these conductors have worked with Sibelius on a regular basis. 

In Japan, the activities of amateur orchestras also play an important part in the musical culture. There are more than 1,000 amateur orchestras throughout the country, which are very active. Many of these orchestras also like to play Sibelius. The Sinfonia Ainola (with myself as its regular conductor) is particularly unique in that it has focused on performances of Sibelius’s music since its foundation in 2004 and has given several Japanese premieres of Sibelius’s works. Japanese premieres by Sinfonia Ainola include the Overture in E major, Overture in A minor, Wood Nymph, the first version of Spring SongMusic for the Days of the Press, and Origin of Fire. The orchestra also performed Kullervo in 2007, 2015 and 2023. In 2015, the orchestra organised a joint performance of two male choirs: Laulu-Miehet from Finland (with Matti Hyökki as the chorus conductor) and Oedo Choraliers from Japan (with Takuya Yamawaki as the chorus conductor) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth. This project was co-organised with the Sibelius Society of Japan.

Yuri Nitta conducting a performance of Kullervo in 2023. Photo: Ainola Orchestra

Continuing collaboration between the two countries

Many Finnish orchestras have visited Japan and many Finnish conductors have made guest appearances with local orchestras. Among these, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s first visit to Japan in 1999, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, was a particularly electrifying event in the Japanese music world. The exquisite performance of Sibelius’s complete symphonies with a well-honed, transparent sound captured the hearts of the Japanese audiences. I myself was one of those who, as a result of this concert, had the opportunity to study in Finland from the following year. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra visited Japan again in 2003 and 2006 under Vänskä’s baton. The 2003 concert was voted the best concert of the year in a survey by a music magazine.

The next generation of younger Finnish conductors also continues to visit Japan. Pietari Inkinen is currently Principal Conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra – a position he will hold until the summer of 2023. Towards the end of his tenure, he will conduct the Kullervo with the YL Male Voice Choir in April. Also Finnish composers other than Sibelius also appear more and more frequently in Japanese concerts. For example, pianist Izumi Tateno, who had a close relationship with the Finnish composer P. H. Nordgren, performs his works, Kaija Saariaho’s operas have been performed by the Hall Project, and works by leading composers such as Kalevi Aho and Magnus Lindberg are being increasingly performed. 

Interest in Finnish works has been high in the choral world in Japan from early on. Japanese choirs often participate in choral festivals in the Nordic and Baltic countries. There are also choirs in various parts of the country that have commissioned works from Finnish composers.

Because of the climate, culture and language of Japan, it is easy for the Japanese audience to sympathise with the musical characteristics of Finnish works. For example, the culture of forests and the ancient custom of learning a lot from nature are often felt in Finnish compositions. There are also many Japanese musicians who are currently studying or working in Finland. We hope that the exchange of our rich musical cultures will continue in the future.


Featured photo: The Ainola orchestra performing Sibelius’s Kullervo, with Yuri Nitta conducting the orchestra and Takuya Yamazaki conducting the choir. Photo: Ainola Orchestra