World View

Attention to detail characterises the new Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall in Tokyo, from a cut-out device for mobile phones to the graffiti board ready for visiting artists to make their marks.

John Robert Brown takes a tour.

A brand new concert hall has been added to the Tokyo skyline, and the Japanese enthusiasm for technology is evident before you even park the car.

Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall is replete with ingenuity, in a protean variety of detail. In the space-saving basement car park, vehicles are mechanically stacked one above the other, on racks. Above, in the auditorium, technology ensures that mobile phones are jammed, so that they display a 'no service' message. The stops on the hall's organ include a shakuhachi and a shou.

Any gaijin(foreigner) new to Japan is immediately aware of progressive technology. The bullet train offers a precisely punctual service at speeds of 170 mph. Built for the 1964 Olympics, the service is said never to have suffered a derailment, nor lost a life. You can really set your watch by it. In hotels, toilet seats are heated, the lids automatically raising and lowering themselves as you approach and quit, even offering you a range of hot and cold wash-while you sit alternatives. Your pre-concert bath can be run at a precise temperature, ready mixed, with a digital display of the day and the date. Should you need to know what day it is as you lie and soak, here is the answer. To visit Japan is to see the future, or at least a version of how life will be for the advanced nations.

At the hall, Mr Seigo Kashiwagi, chief producer, is my guide and host. We sit on leather seats - which still smell new - as Mr Kashiwagi, a cellist and business man, proudly discusses the new hall. As he visited London frequently in his days as a Toshiba executive, he speaks excellent English. Kashiwagi brings a world view to his job. In his conversation he constantly makes cogent observations, say, on the use of wood in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, or the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall in London. As a Toshiba employee, Seigo Kashiwagi played in, and conducted, the Toshiba Philharmonic. 'I was called a semiconductor,' he jokes. He quit Toshiba to join the Kawasaki Hall team, having lived in the neighbourhood for 25 years.

The Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall opened on July 1st this year (2004), with a gala inauguration concert given by the resident Tokyo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of long-time maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Designed in vineyard style, the auditorium has a capacity of 1,997, and the staggered seating around the stage includes space for ten wheel chairs. These spaces, generous and clearly signed, are distributed around the hall, not placed together.

'The first priority of the new hall was a good acoustic,' says Mr Kashiwagi, who speaks of the building being an 'aggressive' structure. Design of the acoustics, undertaken by Nagata Acoustics, was by computer simulation, the scatter of the sound being important.

The same company was responsible for the Disney auditorium in Los Angeles, the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and dozens of other important halls from Beijing to Brisbane.

A multitude of details makes this hall special. Wooden choral risers are designed to interlock. White graffiti tablets (panels) are arranged on a backstage wall for distinguished visiting maestri to make their mark. A large plasma TV screen backstage gives a clear view of what's happening onstage from the cafe-style waiting area. Carefully designed giant 'pigeon holes' are provided for instruments. An air of calm prevails on the corridors leading to seven individual dressing rooms, five larger dressing rooms, and three practice rooms which hold ten people each.

Throughout, one has the impression of a lavish use of hardwood for walls and floors. However, 'impression' is the correct word, for this is an illusion. The wood is only a thin veneer, fixed over concrete. Fire laws affect every hall in Japan: wood can only be used in this way.

The stage is unusually low. From the front rows of the stalls, the platform comes to knee height, providing a view of the musicians and good sight lines. even when seated you can see across the surface of the platform. Look carefully and you can spot various spy holes and windows opening onto the stage from above, to provide good viewpoints for photographers and TV cameras.

Symmetry is avoided in Japan. Nature, according to Shinto principles, is not comprehended as being either symmetrical or having a fundamental geometrical order. This is exemplified in the design of the hall's interior. The pattern of the lines of seating (viewed from the stage) is asymmetrical. Staggered blocks rise in a spiral pattern. 'It's like a garden,' says Mr Kashiwagi. The floor slopes very gently as you walk along the rows of seats. An abundance of female toilets is provided. In the entrance foyer, the call to latecomers is given not by a spoken announcement, nor by gongs or chimes, but by a hand-cranked portable organ, placed by the entrance doors. Once seated in the auditorium one can see a digital clock, high above, to the left of the stage. This is switched off a couple of minutes before the performance. It reappears during the interval, to display the duration of the remaining intermission.

The hall has three Steinway pianos and one Yamaha, and a Kuhn organ with 71 stops and 5,200 pipes. Deservedly, the organ, made in Switzerland, has a fine glossy publicity pamphlet all to itself.

There is a small concert hall to hold 150 people, a library for scores, and rehearsal rooms. These are on the lower floors of the hall block, connected by a multi-storey glass-enclosed shopping mall. A pedestrian deck links JR Kawasaki railway station with the new buildings.

The height of the adjacent tall building, housing general office space, is 27 storeys, limited not by fear of earthquake, as you might imagine, but by take-off restrictions imposed by Tokyo's Haneda airport nearby, which handles more than 300 flights a day.

Unlike the corporate finance which paid for the famous Suntory Hall, also in Tokyo, the cost of the Muza Kawasaki Hall was met from city taxes, for the Kawasaki Cultural Foundation belongs to the city of Kawasaki, which is effectively a suburb of Tokyo. Greater Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world. Having an incredible 33 million residents, around 26% of Japan's total, it is equal to more than half the population of Britain. Kawasaki is within the Tokyo metropolitan area, 18 minutes from central Tokyo. The intention is to create 'Music City Kawasaki', the core of the project being the new hall.

No fewer than nine professional symphony orchestras are based in Tokyo. Founded in 1946, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is the second oldest in Japan, the oldest being the NHK, which was founded in 1926. Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall is the new home of the TSO.

The presence of nine orchestras in the city does not appear to inhibit ticket sales. On a Friday afternoon in late September the hall was full for a performance of Toru Takemitsu's A Way Alone and Beethoven's Ninth. The hall was full. According to Mr Kashiwagi, since Muza Kawasaki's gala opening concert the hall's concerts have enjoyed sell-out and near sell-out audiences.

Forthcoming visitors include the CBSO, the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle, Yo-Yo MA, Manhattan Transfer, Kathryn Stott, and the BBC Philharmonic. They seem to be assured of full houses. Visiting performers will certainly experience prompt trains, bathwater at the perfect temperature, no need to lift the lavatory seat themselves and freedom from mobile phone noise during concerts.

After his 2003 BBC Prom, when Rite of Spring with the Berlin Philharmonic was interrupted by a cellphone going off in the circle, Sir Simon Rattle will certainly approve of that.

Useful short Japanese travel videos on the Bullet Train, Japanese Culture, Tokyo Fish Market

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine, 20th November 2004.
Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb