Sunday, May 21, 2006

Is Japan the Spiritual Home of Classical Music?

That is the question posed by about the article Why they are hooked on classical by Ivan Hewett in The Observer (U.K.) (May 20, 2006). An excerpt:
Even quite modest provincial towns have lavish arts centres, thanks in large part to the so-called "bubble" economy of the '80s and early '90s. One of them, the Mito Art Tower, has one of the world's great chamber orchestras in residence, whose chief conductor is Seiji Ozawa. The chief executive, Yazawa Takaki, is clearly proud of the centre, and is keen to show me the theatre, modelled on Shakespeare's Globe. But, once inside the concert hall, he reveals an anxiety about the arts in Japan. "You hear the silence in this hall? That is what music really needs, but we have so little silence in our lives. I really wonder whether the younger generation will be able to hear music at all."

It was a surprise to hear Yazawa unwittingly express the ancient Japanese idea of ma. This guiding concept behind much traditional music performance says that music lives only in constant dialogue with silence. It was a reminder that many factors come together in the Japanese love affair with classical music, some ancient, some new. The most obvious factor is fairly recent - Japan's decision in 1868 to end centuries of isolation and open itself to the West. One of the first imports was Western music. By 1872 Western music had supplanted traditional music in the Japanese school system, and in 1884 the philosopher Shoichi Toyama actually suggested that Christianity should be adopted because it would help the new music to take root.

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