Author: Saskia Dittrich

Picture: Monika Ritterhaus


Alessandro Cappone, born in Luxembourg to Italian parents, has been a first violinist with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1980. The current tour to South Korea and Japan will be his last major concert tour with the orchestra before his retirement. In our interview, we look back with him at his musical and personal experiences in Asia.

Mr Cappone, as a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker, travelling to Asia on a regular basis is part of your job. Do you remember how many times you have been there?

I stopped counting after the 35th time. It’s not easy to keep track. Some years I’ve been to Asia three or four times – not only with the orchestra, but also with the Scharoun Ensemble, the Philharmonic String Soloists and other ensembles. And I have taught a lot in Japan. I feel almost at home there. Even the language no longer seems foreign to me. I still don’t understand anything, but it sounds somehow familiar to me now.

What memories do you have of your very first trip to Japan?

I first went to Asia in 1979, with Herbert von Karajan as conductor. My father (Giusto Cappone, ed.) was the orchestra’s principal viola at the time, and I was allowed to travel with him on a temporary contract. It was a wonderful trip with many experiences. My father had already made friends in Japan, which was great for me. For example, we were invited to dinner, which was the first time I had ever had sushi. I remember being less than delighted when I saw this raw fish in front of me. Today, of course, I love sushi.

Things got particularly interesting when we flew on to Beijing after the concerts in Tokyo – for the orchestra’s first ever guest performance in China. Unfortunately, our visit began with a dramatic incident. After landing, an orchestra attendant suffered a heart attack after leaving the plane, so a colleague ran back to the aircraft to fetch the doctor travelling with us. When he reached the top of the passenger steps, it collapsed like a trap door. Two colleagues fell all the way to the ground and suffered broken bones. Fortunately, nothing worse happened. The mood was then subdued at first, and I remember arriving at the hotel with my heart pounding.

I woke up the next morning around half past five to the sound of bells ringing. What was going on? It wasn’t an alarm clock. So I opened the shutters and saw thousands of cyclists riding towards me, all wearing the same blue clothing. It was an unforgettable sight: half the city was cycling to work and everyone was ringing their bells.

Market square in Beijing, shot during the first guest performance in China in 1979. The photo was taken by Gustav Zimmermann, then a violinist with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Does it make you sad that this is your last tour as a Berliner Philharmoniker?

You know, it’s nice in Berlin too (laughs); I like being at home. Some people are prone to nostalgia, but I’m not one of them. I’ve experienced so much as a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker; now it’s the next generation’s turn. It’s nice to know that there are young musicians in our orchestra who are outstanding players and who will continue our tradition. That’s the most important thing for me.

The Berliner Philharmoniker have been touring since they were founded. Why are these tours so important for the orchestra?

Above all, cultural exchange is key. Without guest performances, foreign audiences would have had little opportunity to hear us play Mozart or Beethoven – in a time without the internet and digital concert halls.

And we can see, not least in our Karajan Akademie, there are so many outstanding musicians from Japan, China and Korea. I would like to think that this has at least a little to do with the fact that the orchestra has travelled to Asia and championed the cause of classical music to large audiences there.

Alessandro Cappone with conductor Seiji Ozawa 2016 in Tokyo
Alessandro Cappone with musicians of the university orchestra in Kawasaki in 2017

Do you feel more pressure when you are on tour because the audience hears you much less often than in Berlin?

The pressure is no different, because you should play with the same intensity for every audience. But of course giving concerts while touring is a lot of fun. You are far away from everyday life; there are only your colleagues and the programme. You can feel a special concentration on the music here, which I really like.

Which country do you like touring the most?

I feel particularly at home in Japan. Also because the audience – like it was just now in Korea – is so focussed and polite. For example, people never applaud between movements. As a musician on stage, you realise that people there are particularly engaged with the music.

What are you most looking forward to on the upcoming tour?

I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again, and I’m looking forward to the Japanese concert halls – because they really are all fantastic. I’ve always wondered how it is possible that in every small town I’ve played in – even with chamber music ensembles – there’s a huge hall that looks great and has fantastic acoustics. It’s a great pleasure for me to return there.