In 1978, there was a sensation at the International Youth Orchestra Competition: The Japanese youth orchestra which played Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps won not only the competition, but also the unreserved admiration of Herbert von Karajan. What was so sensational was that an orchestra of amateurs could compete against young professional musicians and win. Although the Waseda Symphony Orchestra, the student orchestra of the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, is an amateur orchestra, it meets professional standards and forms an incentive for many young Japanese people to enrol at the elite institute. Of the 56 000 students at the university, around 300 perform in the Symphony Orchestra. Compared to other professional orchestras, that is quite a large number of members, but joining the orchestra is not easy. Every musician must pass an audition. And once he overcomes this hurdle, a highly professional approach awaits him: three rehearsals a week are the rule.
Full of enthusiasm for music
Since winning the competition so spectacularly in 1978, there has been a close relationship between the Waseda Symphony Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker. During his Japanese tour the following year, Herbert von Karajan visited the university, which awarded him an honorary doctorate. On that occasion, he rehearsed Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel with the young musicians. This friendly contact continued over the years. Even today, a trip to Waseda University is a part of every Japanese tour for the musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker. While there, the orchestral musicians not only perform in various chamber music ensembles, but also teach the young musicians of the student orchestra. The European tours of the Symphony Orchestra which occur every three years are also a result of the friendly relationship between Waseda University and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In their programmes, the Japanese musicians and their conductor of many years Masahiko Tanaka focus on highly demanding orchestral works, with a preference for those by Richard Strauss. This year's tour by the Waseda orchestra also includes two tone poems by the composer: Also sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan, plus the Dance of the Seven Veils from the opera Salome. And one other composition cannot be left out of the performances of the Waseda Orchestra: Maki Ishii's Mono-Prism for Japanese drums and orchestra. Some of the musicians have been trained in the ancient art of traditional taiko drum playing to ensure the piece is played properly. They have mastered these percussion instruments to such a level of virtuosity that the showpiece Mono-Prism has, in a manner of speaking, become the musical emblem of the ensemble. By the way: The concert of the orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonie on 8 March 2015 is being broadcast in the Digital Concert Hall free of charge.