The New Juilliard Ensemble continued to break musical and cultural boundaries with its debut in Japan. The 13-member student ensemble, led by its conductor and director Joel Sachs, spent eight days in Tokyo in June giving concerts and seminars in a three-pronged tour.
The main attraction was our debut performance in the elegant Blue Rose Hall of Suntory Hall, one of Tokyo’s premiere concert venues. Sachs remarked that he had been interested in bringing N.J.E. to Japan for quite some time, but it was ultimately a connection made by Karen Tanaka (a Japanese composer whose music had been played by N.J.E. in the past) with the administration at Suntory Hall that was the catalyst.
Each year, the general manager and artistic director of Suntory Hall, Takeshi Hara, presents one ensemble from a college or conservatory in a debut concert. Recently, he decided to expand this program beyond Japanese institutions. Sachs explained, “He had already planned his first international debut concert with a group from England and was eager to have N.J.E. as the second.” On June 7, N.J.E. gave a compelling and well-received performance to an enthusiastic audience.
The second component of the tour was a presentation as part of the program “Basic Course on Contemporary America” at the Tokyo American Center of the United States Embassy. Here, several members of the ensemble spoke about their experiences at Juilliard and performed solo works by Elliott Carter to an audience comprised of Japanese university students, professors, and other interested members of the community. The evening concluded with a question and answer session between the audience, N.J.E. performers, and Sachs.
The third segment of the tour consisted of two days of workshops and collaborative performances at two local universities: Musashino Academia Musicae and Tamagawa University. These programs featured, in addition to some of the pieces N.J.E. performed at Suntory Hall, improvisatory works by Terry Riley and James Tenney, which incorporated the Japanese students into the ensemble. The performances truly demonstrated and symbolized the friendships and cultural interaction that transpired throughout the entire N.J.E. tour.
The works presented on tour were selected to show the diverse culture of the United States as well as provide an overall glimpse into the current state of American music. Pieces by Dorothy Chang, Tania León, Frederic Rzewski, Elliott Sharp, Roberto Sierra, and Karen Tanaka were featured. “I felt very strongly that the program should be by American composers, or at least by composers living in the U.S.,” Sachs said. “In this case, since Japan is a rather homogeneous country ethnically, I thought it would be nice to have composers of contrasting ethnic origin.” Kazumi Minoguchi, programming director of Suntory Hall and the tour manager from the Japanese side, added that the choice of repertoire “revealed the paradigm shift that is now ongoing in new music in the U.S. America is still the frontier—challenging how the music we have known for hundreds of years as classical music transforms and renovates itself, and yet keeps its basic way of communicating itself in the form of man-made music.”
Like the selected composers, the performers in N.J.E. were of widely varied ethnic descent and included international students from around the globe. The featured performers were Kathryn Andersen and David Fulmer, violins; Luke Fleming, viola; Kye-young Sarah Kwon, cello; Paul Nemeth, double bass; Emi Ferguson, flute; Toni Marie Marchioni, oboe; Moran Katz, clarinet; Joshua Firer, bassoon; Molly Norcross, French horn; Avi Bialo, trumpet; Irene Florence Wong, piano; and Chihiro Shibayama, percussion. Juilliard alumnus and staff member Luke Rinderknecht acted as tour manager.
In addition to performing and rehearsing, members of the ensemble bonded while touring the city’s gardens, temples, and light-filled streets. We sampled the delicious cuisine and Suntory brand beer, and explored the many cultural aspects of Tokyo, ranging from Kabuki to karaoke.
For all of us, participating in the New Juilliard Ensemble tour was an incredible experience. But for Japanese-born percussionist Chihiro Shibayama, it was even more momentous. “It is extremely challenging to describe with words how meaningful it was to be a part of the N.J.E. tour to Japan. I was born and raised in Japan, but because I left there at the age of 16 to study music in the U.S., I had never performed professionally in Japan until this tour! It had been six years since any of my family had even heard me play live. It was a very special moment in my life where I was able to return home proud—as a representation of Juilliard, with special performances and special people."