30 years of Suntory Hall in Tokyo

The Berliner Philharmoniker’s second home in Japan

(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

It is the younger sister of the Berliner Philharmonie: Suntory Hall in Tokyo, which was opened 30 years ago on 12 October 1986 with a gala concert by the NHK Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch. Just a few days later, the Berliner Philharmoniker made a guest appearance with three concerts in the new hall – the first foreign orchestra to do so. Herbert von Karajan was in fact due to conduct the performances, but had to cancel for health reasons. In his place, Seiji Ozawa conducted the Philharmoniker in performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth and Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony on 28 and 29 October. This was followed by Franz Schubert’s Unfinished and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben on 30 October. “Notably apparent from the very start was the beautiful cantabile tone of the strings with principal woodwinds very clear and harmoniously blended,” was how the review in the Japan Times described the performance. This concert, which was then recorded by NHK, can be viewed in the Digital Concert Hall.

The concert hall during construction
(Photo: Suntory Hall)
The similarity to the Berlin Philharmonie is unmistakable.
(Photo: Suntory Hall)

Inspired by the Berlin Philharmonie

In May 1988, a year before his death, Karajan himself took to the podium of Suntory Hall for the first time for two concerts. The architecture of the hall owes much to the lively cultural exchange between the Berliner Philharmoniker and Japan: the vineyard-like, arena-shaped hall, which at the time was new and unusual, can be traced back to a suggestion by Karajan. Keizo Saji, president of Suntory at the time, and friend of the legendary Sony boss and Karajan confidant Norio Ohga, wanted to ask Karajan’s advice at a meeting. Although Saji originally favoured the more conventional shoebox-shape like the Vienna Musikverein, the conductor’s arguments convinced him. He just said quietly, “Then let's do it like that”. This swift decision-making very much impressed the chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The acoustics, which are regarded as exemplary, are an early example of the work of Yasuhisa Toyota, who has since taken on a number of famous concert halls, from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Elbphilharmonie to the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin.

Herbert von Karajan and Keizo Saji
(Photo: Suntroy Hall)

World Famous Acoustics

Suntory Hall, which is now one of the most famous concert halls in the world, belongs to the Japanese beverage company Suntory, which has an international reputation as a manufacturer of whisky. Unlike many German cultural venues, it is a privately operated venue. What was absolutely new when it opened was not only the unusual architecture, but the specialisation in performances of classical music, something that Tokyo had never seen before. Even today, there is much that commemorates the association with Herbert von Karajan: the square in front of the hall, for example, bears the name of the conductor, and in the foyer there is a plaque with Karajan’s original greeting when the hall opened. Since 1986, it has been natural for the Berliner Philharmoniker to include Suntory Hall on their Japan tour dates. For the orchestra, the Brahms cycle under Claudio Abbado in 1992 and the first guest appearance under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in 2004 are only two of the numerous musical highlights they have experienced. The most recent guest appearances by the Philharmoniker and their chief conductor was in May 2016 when they performed their acclaimed Beethoven cycle. The orchestra feels a special connection to Japanese audiences: In 1957, the Berliner Philharmoniker went to Japan for the first time and were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception they received, something that has not changed to this day. During guest performances, numerous private contacts, friendships and collaborations have developed between the musicians and the Japanese. And Suntory Hall has become the orchestra’s second home.