A 60-year-old love affair

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Asia

Herbert von Karajan in Osaka in 1970
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Exactly 60 years ago, the Berliner Philharmoniker was the first major European symphony orchestra to perform in Japan. This tour – if contemporary press reports are to believed – did not only have a cultural but also a political dimension. At a time when the world was divided by the Cold War into an eastern and a western hemisphere, such musical events were intended to underline the ties between Japan and Germany. Karajan and his musicians had a tight schedule before them: In less than three weeks, they were to give 16 concerts in eight cities. 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 grown between the country and the orchestra since then.

Enchanted by Beethoven and Brahms

It took almost ten years before Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker returned, but since the 1970s they have often travelled to the land of the rising sun. They enjoyed triumphs with their Beethoven and Brahms cycles in particular. Karajan now had the status of a demigod in Japan, such was the almost limitless devotion shown to him. The conductor was in turn impressed by the high concentration levels of his audience which – as was also mentioned again and again in press reports – at that time consisted particularly of young men aged between of 17 and 30.

Detours to China and Korea

In 1979, the orchestra and its then 71-year-old chief conductor made a detour to Beijing after their tour of Japan. “The Berliner Philharmoniker represent the largest single ensemble to date to promote the music of western culture behind the Great Wall of China,” reported the Berliner Morgenpost. The two concerts took place as part of a German-Chinese cultural exchange and presented the organisers with enormous challenges. As there was no suitable concert hall in Beijing at that time, the orchestra performed in a sports hall that was not entirely suitable acoustically. The audience, unfamiliar with Western concert etiquette, received a “concert do’s and don’ts” when they entered the hall, urging them not to spit, speak, smoke, or throw rubbish on the floor during the musical performance. This first China guest appearance was overshadowed by a tragic accident when the orchestra arrived: when leaving the plane, a broken gangway caused two musicians to fall onto the concrete from a height of six metres. Fortunately, both came away with only broken bones.

Five years later, the Japanese tour included a detour to South Korea. To mark the centenary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Korea, the Philharmoniker gave two concerts at the Cultural Center in Seoul. The guest appearances in China and Korea were one-off events during the Karajan era. However, the orchestra travelled to Japan a total of ten times, 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 was an exception. For Karajan’s successor, too, the Japanese tours by the Philharmoniker were 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 anticipation and trepidation. Could he meet expectations, especially since he included a Brahms cycle in the programme – a field in which his predecessor had set the standard? Abbado managed to exceed all expectations. The Japanese press noted a new sound in the orchestra and they noted the increasing youthfulness of the members. Although Abbado’s sound brought a breath of fresh air, programmatically, the Japan guest appearances changed little. The mainstays 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 who had so far never been played in Japan by the orchestra: Joseph Haydn and Magnus Lindberg. New music in particular found a special place in the tour programmes under Rattle: Thomas Adès, Toshio Hosokawa, Pierre Boulez. “On every tour we also try to play at least one great contemporary piece,” as Simon Rattle said in an interview in 2013.

The dawn of a new era

During his tenure, the Philharmoniker, who regularly travelled to the Far East almost every three years, won the hearts of classical music lovers throughout Asia with their music. The legendary 2005 tour took them to Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Beijing and was documented in the film Trip to Asia. The 2011 tour was also unforgettable: the whole of Japan was still in shock after the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Fukushima. With their concerts and performances, the Philharmoniker wanted to show their sympathy and friendship in these difficult times.

Thanks to modern broadcasting technology, thousands of fans can now participate in the concerts at public screenings. Their enthusiasm was instrumental in creating such an advanced and groundbreaking project as the Digital Concert Hall to strengthen contact with this far away, but dedicated audience. Most recently, the Berliner Philharmoniker and its chief conductor were in Tokyo and Taipei in 2016, where they presented their Beethoven cycle. This season, the grand autumn tour takes the orchestra back to China, South Korea and Japan. In addition to well-known cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo and Kawasaki, the orchestra will appear for the first time at the Guangzhou Opera House and the Qintai Concert Hall in Wuhan. The concert programmes to be performed includes works by Igor Stravinsky, Unsuk Chin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók and Johannes Brahms. The piano soloists are Yuja Wang from Beijing, and the Seoul-born Seong-Jin Cho who recently made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker and who is also the first Korean to tour with the orchestra.

1979: Ovations after the concert in Beijing
(Photo: Gustav Zimmermann/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Claudio Abbado and the Philharmoniker in Osaka
(Photo: Helge Grünewald/Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
2004: Simon Rattle together with the Philharmoniker in Tokyo for the first time
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
2011: The Philharmonic Wind Quintet visits the tsunami and earthquake affected areas? 2013: Two Philharmoniker musicians perform in a café in Tokyo
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
2013: Autograph session in Tokyo
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Seoul 2013: Practising in the hotel room
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Taipei 2016: Public screening
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)