Boston Symphony Orchestra Tours Japan

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by Rebecca Chen
Gil Shaham performing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the BSO. Image: BSO Press Office

On November 3, under the baton of music director Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) began a four-city tour in Japan, kicking off in Nagoya before heading to Osaka, Kawasaki, and Tokyo. The tour programs included superstar violinist Gil Shaham performing Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece violin concerto and symphonies by Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Haydn. The BSO has a long history of exchange with Japan, first touring in 1960 under the direction of then-music director Charles Munch, followed by six highly acclaimed tours under famous Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, who was BSO Music Director Laureate from 1973-2002. The orchestra’s most recent tour of Japan took place in 2014 under the direction of guest conductor Charles Dutoit.

Many US orchestras regularly tour Japan, but the BSO’s connection to Seiji Ozawa is particularly noteworthy. With 29 years at the helm, Ozawa was the BSO’s longest-serving maestro. He broke the mold of a traditional maestro with his unique conducting style and forged new cultural ground, winning more than two dozen international awards and honors. Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s youngest music director in 100 years, has big shoes to fill. This is the first time the BSO has toured Japan with a resident music director since Ozawa’s last visit in 1999. The orchestra – and Nelsons – was well-received by Japanese audiences, and many fans waited in line for Nelsons to sign autographs and take selfies with them. Returning to Japan was a meaningful occasion for the orchestra in a long history of exchange and deep connection.

Throughout US-Japan friendship, Japanese musicians have achieved success in the United States, from Kyu Sakamoto’s hit single “Sukiyaki” in 1963 and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “technopop” in the 1970s, to Shonen Knife’s 90s-era punk, and 21st-century vocaloids like Hatsune Miku. Various Western genres such as jazz have infiltrated Japan’s music scene, and American artists such as Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift have achieved huge followings. Music groups from Nebraska have also found receptive audiences in Japan, and the University of Nebraska hosts an annual “Japan Festival” featuring Japanese music, dance, and cinema. The United States and Japan have a decades-long tradition of musical exchange that shows no signs of slowing down.  

Rebecca Chen is a graduate student at Georgetown University and a research intern at the East-West Center.