Author: Nicole Restle

A second home for the Berliner Philharmoniker in Japan

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko at their first concert together in Suntory Hall on this year’s tour of Asia.

Suntory Hall in Tokyo is the younger sister of the Philharmonie Berlin. As in Berlin, music is literally the focus here – because the 2,006 audience seats are grouped around the podium like the rising terraces of a vineyard. Thanks to this architecture, according to the Suntory Hall website, the “sound falls like sunbeams on all the seats”. This is one of the reasons why the concert hall became a second home in Japan for the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Inspired by the Philharmonie Berlin

Suntory Hall owes its architectural design to the lively cultural exchange between the Berliner Philharmoniker and Japan: Herbert von Karajan, the orchestra’s chief conductor at the time, suggested that the arena-shaped hall form that had proved successful in Berlin should also be realised in Tokyo. His arguments convinced the developer Keizo Saji, who originally favoured the more conventional shoebox shape like that of the Vienna Musikverein. At the end of the conversation, he simply said quietly: “Then let’s do it that way”. This quick decisiveness greatly impressed Karajan.

Herbert von Karajan and Keizo Saji

World-famous acoustics

The outstanding warm, mellow sound in the hall came from Nagata Acoustics; the design team at the time also included the young Yasuhisa Toyota, who has since overseen a number of famous concert halls: from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to the Elbphilharmonie and the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin.

Suntory Hall, today one of the most famous concert halls in the world, belongs to the Japanese beverage company Suntory, which has an international reputation as a producer of whisky. Unlike many German cultural venues, it is a privately run establishment.

It was not only the unusual architecture of the hall, never seen before in Japan when it opened in 1986; but also the specialisation in performances of classical music. Tokyo had seen nothing like it before. Even today, many things recall the collaboration with Herbert von Karajan: the forecourt of the building bears the conductor’s name, and a plaque with Karajan’s opening greeting hangs in the foyer.

A special connection

Since 1986, it has been a matter of course for the Berliner Philharmoniker to appear at Suntory Hall on each of their tours of Japan, and the orchestra has enjoyed many musical highlights there. To mention just a few: the first concert in 1986 under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, who stood in for an indisposed Karajan; Karajan’s only appearance with the Philharmoniker in this hall in 1988; the Brahms cycle under Claudio Abbado in 1992, and the acclaimed Beethoven cycle with Sir Simon Rattle in May 2016.