In Japan, land of Living National Treasures, artists and artisans can receive formal recognition—and a state stipend—for their work in disciplines as diverse as gagaku, kabuki, doll-making, metalwork, and weaving. The idea is to preserve what are called Intangible Cultural Properties: the aesthetic traditions that help define Japanese identity and that continue to exert an influence over contemporary Japanese culture.
So it’s not surprising that the island nation would be hospitable to current directions in early music: historically informed performance, in which once overlooked but historically accurate devices such as improvisation are employed to bring ancient scores to life, and the use of period instruments or reproductions thereof, which differ in both sound and appearance from later models. Bach Collegium Japan, which plays an Early Music Vancouver concert this weekend, adheres to both, and has been enthusiastically received at home. But according to its founder, keyboardist, and conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, that’s not because of its deep respect for the past.
Instead, he explains in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, it’s because, to Japanese ears, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries sounds intriguing and new.
“The compositions of Bach, especially the vocal works, are quite far from the kind of Japanese sense of the language and also the culture,” Suzuki says in careful but heavily accented English. “So everything that I loved during my student time and also later on was very fresh.…Languagewise, for example, we don’t have anything in common. But once you learn the German texts, you can understand how important it is to have good pronunciation and the correct accents and intonation and so on.
“Of course, we all are Japanese, so we are very much influenced by our Japanese background and culture,” he continues. “But still, you know, there is so much difference between Japanese and European culture—and especially German culture. That makes it more fresh.”
Suzuki was introduced to Baroque music as a student at the University of Tokyo; he cites the groundbreaking 1950s recordings of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien as particularly influential. Later on, he moved to Amsterdam, where he studied with early-music royalty in the form of conductor and keyboardist Ton Koopman. For the past 28 years, he and Bach Collegium Japan have been repaying his mentors with a string of glowingly received recordings of Bach, including a definitive, multidisc edition of the complete cantatas.
The great German will play a part in Bach Collegium Japan’s upcoming EMV show; Suzuki and company will open with his Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor. But the organizing principle behind the program is to take an intimate look at the milieu that produced Bach, using scores by other composers that he personally owned, studied, performed, and in some cases reworked for the musicians at his disposal.
Bach’s famous contemporaries Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and George Frederick Handel will be represented, but so will two Italian composers of comparable skill but lesser renown, Francesco Conti and Alessandro Marcello.
“Bach was interested in composers of vocal works, and he had made a copy [of Conti’s Languet anima mea],” Suzuki says of a piece that will be sung here by guest soprano Joanne Lunn. “Also, he has added two oboes and a bassoon to his vocal works. This piece also has kind of a halfway-sacred text, and that is a very interesting thing. We have actually recorded this already, but that recording is not released yet—but I’m very happy to perform it.”
Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor, he goes on to say, was quite popular during the early part of the 18th century—and has more recently enjoyed an unexpected rebirth in Japan. “Bach had arranged this piece for the Habsburg court musicians; there were 17 arrangements by Bach for Habsburg soloists—many of them Italian composers’ concerti—and this one was one of them. Actually, the first movement of Marcello’s oboe concerto was once used for a Japanese TV commercial quite a long time ago, so this music has been quite popular in Japan.”
Whether we can deduce anything about either the Japanese soul or Baroque music from this, Suzuki doesn’t say. But it’s a sure thing that the program he’s assembled for Bach Collegium Japan’s North American tour will offer new insights into music that, yes, still does sound fresh 300 years after it was created.
“Bach never travelled, only through the music,” Suzuki points out. “So it is very interesting to know his sources, and to see his library. I’m always very, very much interested in what he had listened to and what he had experienced—and it’s very much helpful to understand his music, as well.”
Bach Collegium Japan plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. on Sunday (December 9).