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06.05.2018 / ArtsPeople, Sydney

Passing on the Legacy of Japan's Musical Greats

As part of our role representing the Australian Chamber Orchestra in Japan, we help facilitate engagement with the Japanese community through education and outreach programs, led by Japanese violinist and ACO member since 1990 Aiko Goto.

On a chilly Sydney morning in June, ArtsPeople Director Kathryn Hunyor and translator Shoko Ono sat down for a coffee with Aiko-san to learn more about her involvement with some of Japan’s most important classical music institutions. 

Read on for a rare opportunity to learn about classical western music education in Japan.

ArtsPeople (AP): The prestigious Ozawa Matsumoto Festival (OMF) is held in Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture), Japan in August through September each year. You are a regular member of the Saito Kinen Orchestra (SKO), which performs at the festival. Please tell us about your connection with the SKO.

Aiko Goto (AG): I’ve been a part of SKO since 1995. The orchestra was formed in 1984 at the call of Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama. The name Saito in the orchestra’s title refers to Hideo Saito, a brilliant educator and one of the founders of Toho Gakuen School of Music – a leading music institution in Japan. The orchestra gathered about 100 musicians who had received instruction from Saito before making their mark on the world. The year 1984 marked 10 years since Saito’s death, and every summer since, musicians usually found performing all around the world, gather in Matsumoto in the Japan Alps, and give concerts under the musical direction of Maestro Ozawa. This opportunity to reacquaint is like the Tanabata Festival, with the key players only able to meet once a year. For me, the chance to participate in SKO is a great inspiration and stimulation – an invaluable experience.

The festival is held in the Japanese summer, which is mid-winter in Australia and overlaps with our ACO performance season. But I somehow manage to weave it into my schedule and make sure I get to Matsumoto every year.


AP: SKO is famous as a gathering of top-level world-class musicians. You could even say it's a dream orchestra. How would you describe musical director Seiji Ozawa?

AG: When I attended The Juilliard School of Music, I remember very clearly being given the essay topic “My hero” and I didn’t hesitate to write with gusto about Seiji Ozawa (laughs). His presence has been an overwhelming influence on me – both then and now.

I first met Maestro Ozawa in a music class as a student at Toho Gakuen Music High School in Tokyo. He was already based in Boston at the time, but never failed to drop in on chamber music and orchestra classes on his visits home. You could feel his aura the moment he stepped into a classroom. There was a tension – born from awe and respect – which made us all sit up straight. In an instant our music changed. I still feel that aura at SKO now: the maestro appears, and the orchestra’s sound is suddenly different. He’s got this incredible charisma.

In my high school class, I remember distinctly how he’d nod his head as he stood behind the conductor. During instruction, I’d watch his face as he listened attentively to each student’s performance – there was a message for everyone in his eyes. It wasn’t necessarily a message that could be conveyed with words. I felt it even stronger when he later conducted the Toho Orchestra at Les Rencontres Musicales d'Evian (Evian Music Festival). That’s how he is when he faces the music with sincerity and works to draw out the potential in young musicians.


AP: You spend a great deal of energy as an educator of the younger generations. In addition to regular performances with the ACO, you lead the ACO Academy program and you also teach at the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy.

AG: Yes that’s right. Recently, I’ve had many opportunities to take on the roles of string orchestra leader and teacher. I’ve spent my life being nurtured by eminent teachers and my superiors in SKO, and I’ve been deeply influenced by friends and those older than me at Toho and Juilliard. I’m always thinking about how to pass on these experiences to the young musicians of today. 

For instance, even though I didn’t have a personal connection with SKO’s Hideo Saito, I’ve had the chance to sense his spirit by learning from his former students, such as Seiji Ozawa, violinist and violist Masao Kawasaki, and violist Nobuko Imai. Ozawa and other SKO members talk of how Saito was incredibly passionate and extremely strict, often berating his students, but that he treated them with love and respect.

In my very first lesson with Mr Kawasaki, I was totally shocked because he proceeded to tell me everything I lacked. He was cool and calm and not trying to squash my talent; he took utmost care in my lessons to ensure I never lost what was good about me. At the time, I was just desperate to learn, and now as I get older, his words come back to me more than ever.

Over the past ten years, when I go back to Japan in the winter, I sit in and observe Ms Imai’s lessons. She never acts superior and she looks closely at each of her students and works tirelessly to extract and extend their unique qualities, while also supplementing in areas where they are lacking. I learn so much from this approach.

Likewise, at SKO, no matter what kind of performer Maestro Ozawa is dealing with, he pours all his energy into them to help bring out their potential and their spirit. Young people respond so quickly because they’re so earnest and hungry for it.

Since last year, I’ve also been teaching at Seiji Ozawa Music Academy. The instructors are all senior members of SKO who perfectly capture the spirit of Ozawa and Saito, with a teaching style characterized by a sincere approach to music and generous instruction built on affection for the students. I find it so stimulating. I’ve got a long way to go before I reach the level of these other teachers, but the fact is there are different teaching styles and we need to work earnestly with each student to draw out their energy and react sincerely to the music together. My task now is to make sure I can share that core style.


AP: How do you think your experience as a teacher is reflected in your performances?

AG: The biggest joy in teaching is seeing the change and improvement in young musicians. It’s so encouraging for me. I learn so much in return from my students, and it’s a great caution to myself to never let my performance level fall. Young people are always looking upward. One day they’ll surpass their teachers and blossom.

And this is the case even for those not directly under our tutelage. Young people full of potential come to our performances to see us playing on the stage and hear our music. We can’t give them a sub-par performance – that’s enough to make me sit up straight.


AP: Playing in a chamber orchestra like the ACO must be very different to the SKO which is a symphony orchestra. What's the appeal of playing with SKO?

AG: They are totally different styles but motivate me equally and foster within me the same level of tension. They both have good kinds of pressure: the ACO being that we take the stage as a group of just 17; the SKO being that I perform with so many world-class musicians. In addition, performers change seats for each song on the festival program and we take turns as concertmaster. This year again, as with last year, I have the honor of performing as concertmaster for Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro, Overture”.

The SKO is often said to have a passionate sound. It’s intense, and the sound is very deep. The music has an energy, pulsing with Saito’s emotions and Ozawa’s passion. I think an energy builds up from the excitement of meeting all together just once a year. There’s a mutual recognition that for a year we all worked so hard wherever we were in the world, and we share a conviction to work hard until we meet again the next year.

And because it’s a festival, the whole town gets into the swing of it. On one occasion, there were more than 10,000 festival volunteers. As you know, Matsumoto is a town known for its rich natural environment and deep history and culture. It is also famous as the birthplace of the Suzuki method. The atmosphere during the festival is just amazing.

I really hope you will visit sometime!

The Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival runs 17 August – 7 September 2019. Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” will be performed at the 1 September “Orchestra Concert with “Peter and the Wolf””.


Interview & Translation: Kathryn Hunyor (ArtsPeople) + Shoko Ono (Sydney-based translator & Koto musician)


Image: Aiko Goto with Toho Gakuen students. Photo courtesy ACO.

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