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Japan’s hard-hit orchestras find ways to play on

  • JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI / MAY 23
                                Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra violinist Matsuno Noguchi performs at Torimaru, a restaurant in Kadoma, Osaka prefecture.

    JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI / MAY 23

    Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra violinist Matsuno Noguchi performs at Torimaru, a restaurant in Kadoma, Osaka prefecture.

TOKYO >> After the cooked chicken skewers are taken off the grill, there’s an announcement that the show is about to begin. Yakitori orders will be temporarily halted.

A hush falls over a normally bustling Torimaru, a yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant in Kadoma, Osaka prefecture. It is an evening in late May, and Matsuno Noguchi of the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra plays her violin to the accompaniment of a piano.

Local orchestras, among the many businesses hit hard by the pandemic, were imperiled by the cancellation of live performances and dried-up funding. Getting back on their feet has proved difficult, and some have been creative in finding new “stages” from which to perform and rebuild fan bases.

At Torimaru, Noguchi, 34, starts out with an elegant version of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” followed by the upbeat theme song from an old detective drama, “Taiyo ni Hoero.”

Because smoke from the grill could affect the sound from the instruments, the shop stops cooking during the performance. Customers don’t seem to mind; they clap in time with the rhythm.

The Kansai Philharmonic is the leading orchestra in the Kansai region, but it was hit by a series of performance cancellations and postponements during the pandemic. The group was unable to pay the rent for its practice space in Osaka City and moved its base in 2021 to the Osaka suburb of Kadoma City.

“We can’t survive unless we make fans in Kadoma,” said one member.

To deal with the crisis, the group set up a fan club for local residents and instituted some unique perks, such as opening up rehearsals to members. Noguchi’s “izakaya concert,” meanwhile, was well received, and several customers later went to the performance hall.

“It narrowed the distance with the customers,” Noguchi said.

The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, Japan’s preeminent professional wind ensemble, reorganized in April after its split from the Rissho Koseikai, a lay Buddhist body that had managed and funded the group.

After more than 60 years of support and facing financial strain due to the pandemic, Rissho Koseikai issued a notice in November 2020 for the orchestra to disband. Instead, orchestra members decided to pursue a path of independence. Rissho Koseikai has continued to provide a practice room and a temporary, smaller amount of financial aid.

Now the orchestra is soliciting patrons and corporate sponsors. “We’ll do whatever we can,” said chairman Motohisa Katsukawa.

The Pacific Philharmonia Tokyo is also facing hard times and began issuing an annual pass in 2021 for students up to age 25. For 5,000 yen (around $35), pass holders can attend as many concerts as they want. The system not only fills vacant seats; it introduces young people to classical music.

The group has since expanded the list of concerts open to pass holders with performances by affiliated orchestras, and it succeeded in tripling the number of people with annual passes from 2021.

“If it means attracting future fans, we are prepared to continue this program at a loss,” said a Pacific Philharmonia official.

According to the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, comprising 38 professional orchestras across Japan, a total of 1,952 concerts were either postponed or canceled in 2020 when COVID-19 infections surged.

“The number of people enjoying live music has decreased due to the pandemic,” said Hiroshi Kuwabara, the association’s secretary general. “To get people to come to concert halls, each orchestra needs to show its individual character and think of ways to distinguish itself.”

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