Waseda Symphony Orchestra

Guest appearance at the Berlin Philharmonie

Waseda Symphony Orchestra
(Photo: Athushi Yokota)

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. 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.

Frequent Richard Strauss

On this year’s tour, too, the Waseda Orchestra performs one of the composer’s tone poems: the Symphonia domestica, plus Otto Nicolai’s overture to the opera The Merry Wives of Windsor and Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet – and one other composition that is an absolute must in performances by the Waseda Orchestra: Maki Ishii’s Mono-Prism for Japanese drums and orchestra. This piece, based on the ancient art of traditional taiko drumming, has now become their showpiece, the musical trademark of the ensemble. The Waseda Symphony Orchestra performs it together with drummer Eitetsu Hayashi and his group Eitetsu Fu-no no Kai. Incidentally: the orchestra’s concert in the Berlin Philharmonie on 4 March 2018 is being broadcast in the Digital Concert Hall free of charge.