“My job as a conductor is actually to translate musically and expressively the feeling of the piece.”
On a serene spring night at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Midtown Manhattan, the talented group of students from The Juilliard School and Yale University performed Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. The conductor was internationally renowned, Masaaki Suzuki, who has recently been awarded the honorable Bach Medal from the city of Leipzig, Germany. He chatted with Chopsticks NY backstage, sharing his passion for Baroque music.
Congratulations on receiving the prestigious Bach Medal. Can you tell us a little bit more about this award?
This medal was created to honor exceptional achievements of Bach specialists, including their recording works such as the monumental recording project of Bach Cantatas by N. Harnoncourt and G. Leonhardt that started in 1971 and was completed in 1990, to record all the Bach Cantatas. Around the time of their recording, the sounds of the actual period instruments hadn’t been known and they had no idea what the instruments sounded like during the baroque period.
So the most crucial challenges to make recordings of such Bach’s repertories for them were how to play on period instruments and how to be faithful to the original sound of Baroque music. All the musical instruments nowadays have been greatly developed. They have more keys, for example. And we have so many great musicians in the world who play those modern instruments exceptionally. Meanwhile, we have lost many great sounds from the baroque era. It’s all a game of loss and gain: as we get to improve instruments and they actually perform better, we are getting away from the original sounds of the baroque period.
Did these challenges influence your style as a conductor?
Yes, absolutely. Up to the 1980’s, this kind of concept was not really recognized by the musical scene all around the world. Since 2000, because of many baroque orchestras’ efforts performing baroque music repertories across the world, including our group Bach Collegium Japan, we have seen a great surge in all the modern symphony orchestras that launch new initiatives in playing baroque music works with modern instruments by copying the techniques in early music performance. In that context, the NY philharmonic that I am going to conduct next spring, is going to have a Bach Festival. A philharmonic orchestra is composed of a lot more musicians than needed to play a baroque piece such as the ones found in the Bach repertoire. But this time, I observed a real new flexibility of an orchestra that will reduce and re-arrange the floor of musicians. We are all looking for a common ground that we can share to provide the best experience for our audience. So we are preparing a mixed program “Bach-Mendelssohn” which seemed to me like a very interesting combination, and I hope it will open new doors for Baroque music concerts at the Philharmonic.
Growing up in Japan, how did you get interested in European classical music?
I was born in a half Christian family and I grew up going to a Protestant church, so I started to play organ
in worship when I was 12 years old. I naturally became interested in Bach music, but pipe organs were very rare in Japan, so the first instrument I played on at church was an harmonium, and I didn’t know it was not possible to play any of Bach’s music on that. I think that Western classical music, such as Bach or Mendelssohn, is very easy for Japanese people to understand. Actually, I even think that Japanese traditional music is more difficult to understand for us. In school for example, Japanese traditional music was only a very small part. My generation was never taught the techniques of our national classical music. We were more exposed to European music and we became much more familiar with that.
How do you plan on passing on this passion for Baroque music to newer generations?
This is what I really focus on and it is very important. I taught for 20 years at Tokyo National University of the Arts, and I’ve realized it is very important to do a regular master course for younger people and let them play together in an ensemble. I think what Yale and Juilliard are doing now is a wonderful idea. In 2009, I was appointed as visiting professor at Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Last year for the first time,
we had a collaboration with the Juilliard Baroque Orchestra and we have been touring in New York and Italy. It was a great success and we are so happy to continue this year with this joint project. Next year will be even more exciting as they have decided to bring the ensemble to Japan and Singapore.
What do newer generations bring to the music that you don’t find in professional orchestras?
The basic techniques are there for sure. To tell you the truth, they are sometimes better than the professionals because they train more! Sometimes, the younger the better, especially for instrument skills, but sometimes they don’t have enough experience to maintain their focus during the whole rehearsal. Today, for example, I had to repeatedly remind them to concentrate and preserve their energy especially when playing with the ensemble. They tend to do very well for their solos because it is their moment and it is the only thing they have to focus on, but for the ensemble they also have to keep listening to others. It is something that you can’t really learn in school. It’s the role of the conductor, to make sure that from the first row to the last, the orchestra shares the same energy. All these relationships amongst members are quite complicated. All these little things can be learned only by experience.
How did you make the transition from being a musician to being a conductor?
Playing organ and conducting is actually very similar. Organs have five voices at the same time when you play a fugue. The polyphonic way of thinking is always there, and you apply exactly the same thing to a choir. You need to control all the voices coming at different times and in a different way, and still need to make sense of the harmonic structure of the music. Technically, it is, of course different, but the feeling is quite the same as playing the organ. My job as a conductor is actually to translate musically and expressively the feeling of the musical piece.
During your international tours, did you notice a difference between the audiences?
Each time you get different reactions in any country, so for me it doesn’t matter where I perform. In Japan, the audience for Bach repertory is very special and very different than the regular opera audience. Most of them are really serious and learn in advance their repertory, some of them are holding the scores. That’s the same with some German audiences. They have lived for such a long time with it that they know everything about Bach’s music. So each of them may have a personal experience with this piece or that piece.
So when you don’t listen to classical music, what do you listen to?
I love Jazz. Oscar Peterson was my favorite pianist. I actually met him once. We happened to stay at the same hotel in Lubec, but I was too nervous to talk to him!
———- Interview by Ruth Berdah-Canet
Masaaki Suzuki bio
Masaaki Suzuki combines his conducting career with his work as organist and harpsichordist. Born in Kobe, he graduated from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music with a degree in composition and organ performance and went on to study harpsichord and organ at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam under Ton Koopman and Piet Kee. In 1990, he founded Bach Collegium Japan, and has regularly taken them to major venues and festivals in Europe and the U.S. Founder and head of the early music department at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he is currently Visiting Professor of Choral Conducting at the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum. He is internationally recognized as a leading authority on the works of Bach.
Masaaki Suzuki Career Milestones/Timeline
1990 Founded Bach Collegium Japan, a Baroque orchestra.
1995 Commenced a project to record Bach’s complete sacred cantatas.
2001 Suzuki was decorated with ‘Das Verdienstkreuz am Bande des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik’ from Germany.
2009 Appointed as Visiting Professor of Choral Conducting and conductor of Yale Schola Cantorium.
2012 Awarded the Bach Medal by the city Leipzig, Germany
March 2013 Scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic for its Bach Festival.