Philadelphia Orchestra in Asia: Hosting Eccentrics


Is there such a thing as a Japanese classical-music eccentric?
Almost every word in that sentence defies some sort of conventional wisdom. Yet when you look around at this foreign turf, it often feels like a parallel musical universe with any number of wrinkles that both appeal and repel. A visit to Tokyo’s Tower Records (yes, there is one) during spare moments on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Asian Tour revealed any number of local stars, both homegrown and adopted, all intriguing in one way or another.
Venerability counts for a lot here - one way to explain the phenom that is Fuziko Hemming, who at age 70 something doesn’t let partial deafness stop her from having a concert pianist career. She appears onstage wearing odd hats over her often-disheveled hair, plays selected movements from classical sonatas and has flashes of genuine musical insight – enough to sell discs in the millions in Japan but not enough to sustain a career in the U.S. She played Alice Tully Hall in New York last year, and it was a trip, with New Yorkers scratching their heads at intermission while Japanese ex-pats bought every Fuziko CD in sight.
At the other end of the age spectrum is young, willowy Yoshihiro Kondo, a pianist with definite teenybopper appeal who chose to record Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with a string quintet rather than the usual orchestra. It’s interesting in a palm-court music way, but only because he definitely knows his Chopin, even if he doesn’t always know how to fill the spacious tempos he prefers.
You can’t get very far in Tower without confronting Takashi Asahina, who labored as a house conductor in German radio for decades, came home to Japan and was musically canonized: Before his 2001 death at age 93, he had recorded the Bruckner symphonies endlessly with ever more contemplative tempos. And some of these recordings are pretty great. He earned his sainthood – as well as lots of downloads available on
Then there are the transplants. If there’s an artist you haven’t heard about for three or four decades but is known to be in good health, look to Japan. That’s where Ruth Slencynska, an unjustly-forgotten American pianist now in her mid-80s, has just issued a new Brahms disc. I was the envy of the Tower classical staff when I let it be known that I had visited her in recent years in her Manhattan apartment. Any place else, the reaction would be indulgent.
The big Tower discovery, however, was Éric Heidsieck, a French pianist known for his complete Beethoven sonata cycles in the 1960s, but not a great deal else (at least internationally) until recently recording all the Mozart piano concertos, available only in Japan. It used to be that Los Angeles was where geniuses went to die. Then it was the Curtis Institute of Music. But Japan has always given great but less career-centric artists something of an old-age annuity. Even the great violinist Szymon Goldberg was lured from the Curtis Institute to Japan in his later years – despite the fact that he’d been captured by the Japanese in World War II and sentenced to a few years in a hard-labor camp – many political mutations ago.
- David Patrick Stearns