In 1957, the Berliner Philharmoniker appeared for the first time in Japan – the first major European symphony orchestra to do so. Led by their new chief conductor Herbert von Karajan, and in the wake of two successful tours of the USA, they now wanted to conquer the land of the rising sun. If contemporary press reports are to be believed, this tour had a political as well as a cultural dimension. At a time when the world was divided into an eastern and a western hemisphere by the Cold War, such musical events were intended to underline the ties between Japan and Germany, and Japanese music fans looked forward to seeing the visitors from Germany with excitement and anticipation. Karajan and his musicians had a tight schedule before them: In less than three weeks, they were to give 16 concerts in eight cities. No less than seven concerts were scheduled in Tokyo, where tickets for the events were sold out only three hours after booking opened. The concert programmes included highlights of classical music such as preludes and overtures from operas by Richard Wagner and Carl Maria von Weber, the most famous symphonies by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák, and tone poems by Richard Strauss and Bedřich Smetana. This first tour of Japan, during which Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker were celebrated like pop stars, laid the foundation for the mutual affection that has developed between the country and the orchestra ever since.

Enthusiasm for Beethoven and Brahms

Almost ten years passed before Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker returned. When they did, they took with them their acclaimed Beethoven cycle which they had performed with triumphal success in Paris, London and New York. And the Japanese audience was unanimous: they had never before heard such lively, transparent and at the same time animated performances of Beethoven’s symphonies. “It is not that Beethoven dominates Karajan, rather it is Karajan who evokes Beethoven,” as it said in a newspaper review. When touring in 1977, there were even two complete cycles: To mark the 20th anniversary of the first Japanese tour and the 80th and 150th anniversaries of the deaths of Brahms and Beethoven, the Berliner Philharmoniker performed symphonic works by both composers – Brahms in Osaka, and Beethoven in Tokyo. Karajan now had the status of a demigod in Japan, such was the almost limitless devotion shown to him. The conductor was again impressed by the high concentration levels of his audience which at that time – as was also mentioned again and again in press reports – consisted particularly of young men aged between the ages of 17 and 30. During the tours, numerous private contacts and friendships developed between the musicians and the Japanese, one of which is the connection to the Waseda University and its highly dedicated student orchestra. The Berliner Philharmoniker travelled to Japan a total of ten times during the Karajan era, and on only one occasion was another conductor on the podium: Seiji Ozawa conducted the orchestra in 1986 as part of the opening ceremonies of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, which was modelled on the Berlin Philharmonie.

New sound, new repertoire

But that, together with two concerts Mariss Jansons conducted in Tokyo and Yokohama during the orchestra’s tour in the year 2000, remained an exception. For Karajan’s successor, the Philharmoniker’s Japanese tours were also an occasion for the chief conductor alone. In 1992, both Japanese fans and the Philharmoniker approached the first guest performance under the direction of Claudio Abbado with curiosity and trepidation. They wondered whether he could meet expectations, especially since he included a Brahms cycle in the programme – works in which his predecessor had set the standard. Abbado managed to exceed all expectations. The Japanese press heard a new sound in the orchestra and they noted the increasing youthfulness of the members. A leading music critic of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun noted that towards the end of the Karajan era, the performances had lacked tension, but under Abbado, “the former vitality, strength, perfection and purity” had returned. As the orchestra chairman at the time Hellmut Stern said, it was important for the Philharmoniker to demonstrate that “the world had not ended after the death of Karajan”. Although Abbado’s sound brought a breath of fresh air, the guest appearances in Japan changed little in terms of programming. The main pillars remained Beethoven, Brahms and the late Romantic repertoire. Change only arrived with the tenure of Simon Rattle who, during its first tour in 2004, programmed two composers which had never been played in Japan by the orchestra before: Joseph Haydn and Magnus Lindberg. New music in particular was to find a special place in tour programmes under Rattle: Thomas Adès, Toshio Hosokawa, and Pierre Boulez. “On every tour, we try to play at least one great contemporary piece,” said Simon Rattle in an interview during the most recent tour of Japan in 2013. For this year’s guest appearance, the focus is once again on one composer alone: Ludwig van Beethoven, whose nine symphonies the Philharmoniker and their chief will perform in Tokyo. Another tradition will be preserved...