Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Alice Tully Hall, New York – review

It wasn’t a bread-and-butter symphonic concert on Tuesday at Lincoln Center. The locale was Tully Hall (capacity 1,096), not Avery Fisher Hall next door (capacity 2,738). The programme avoided hum-along concessions. The event was presented by outside sponsors. The partisan audience listened, really listened.

This was the US debut, at age 100, of the Tokyo Philharmonic. It represented the first stop on a tour spanning three continents. And it commemorated the third anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011.

Under the circumstances, one might have expected an uplifting evening of instantly accessible bravado. But Eiji Oue, the well-travelled conductor on duty, wanted things tough, taut and energetic.

He sometimes waved a baton, seldom consulted a score and demonstrated some of the most agitated, most expressive body language this side of theatrical terpsichore. He crouched, sprang, gesticulated, threw exaggerated cues, emoted, sawed the air, and, in the ostentatious process, drew mostly appreciative responses from his eager ensemble. It was, in all, a bit much. It also was disarming.

The first half of the musical menu focused on Asian quasi-overtures: Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Bugaku and Kiyoshige Koyama’s Kobiki-Uta. The Mayuzumi entry, bravely stark and richly nuanced, was created in 1962 as a vehicle for the New York City Ballet, intimately supervised by George Balanchine. It remains a rewarding challenge even when divorced from stage action. In this context, the Koyama exercise, which dates back to 1957, sounds harmless, folksy-naïve and sentimental. Still, its ceremonial flourishes provide potent punctuation.

After the interval Oue & Co. turned to the pagan pizzazz of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Neatly articulated, it made a properly mighty, rhythmically propulsive noise.

Incidental intelligence: at encore time, according to a lingering colleague, solemnity was thrown to the wildest of winds. Cartoonish pantomime accompanied a medley of popsy American tunes, followed by an ethnic routine replete with comic byplay and unabashed audience-participation. Sometimes, for some of us, it is wise to flee before the fun begins.

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