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Instrumentalists: Invasion from the Orient

4 minute read

Until recently, the idea of Orientals performing Western music seemed about as freakish as Heifetz playing the one-string ichigenkin. Now all that has changed. In the past few years, American and European concert halls have experienced something close to a full-scale invasion by talented Korean and Japanese musicians. Last week, Japan’s Seiji Ozawa, 32, conducted programs of Rossini and Hindemith in Canada; Korean Violinist Young Uck Kim, 20, performed Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 3 in Corpus Christi, Texas; and an eight-year-old Japanese cherub named Hitomi Kasuya played part of a Mozart violin concerto in Albuquerque and in South Euclid, Ohio.

Most of the migrant Orientals are string players, and many are filling chairs in the world’s great orchestras. Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw numbers five Japanese violinists among its ranks. West Berlin’s Radio Orchestra has a Japanese concertmaster, as do both the Oklahoma City Symphony and the Quebec Symphony. The Boston Symphony and the Japan Philharmonic are in the second year of an exchange agreement whereby two string players from each orchestra swap places for a season. And the promising youngsters keep coming: co-winner of this year’s prestigious Leventritt Award was Korean Violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, 19, and second spot in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow went to Japanese Violinist Masuko Ushioda, 25.

Violins & Candy Bars. Western music was introduced into Japan before the turn of the century, but its tonalities and forms were so alien to the whining microtones of Oriental music that it found only a small following. By the 1930s, German music teachers had settled in Japan and introduced their ear-training methods into school music programs. The Japanese, in turn, brought the Western techniques to Korea during their prewar occupation. After World War II, the presence of Americans in Japan and Korea stimulated even more interest in the Western repertory.

Says Conductor Ozawa: “After the war, you could find little grocery stores in the Japanese countryside selling cheap violins side by side with candy bars. The people needed an outlet, and music was the perfect thing.” Violins were easier to make than brass or woodwind instruments. Moreover, the stringed instruments were physically ideal for the Orientals: their nimble fingers, so proficient in delicate calligraphy and other crafts, adapted easily to the demands of the fingerboard.

Start ‘Em Young. Today, while many Oriental string players get their major training in the U.S. with such top teachers as Gregor Piatigorsky and Juilliard’s Ivan Galamian, home-grown instruction has turned into a near industry. The most famous Oriental string teacher is Japan’s Shinichi Suzuki, 70, whose revolutionary start-’em-young technique produced tiny Miss Kasuya—one of a group of Suzuki prodigies now touring the U.S.—and her note-perfect Mozart. Suzuki’s Talent Education Institute, founded in 1946, takes in pupils at the age of three, subjects them first to an intensive course in ear training, technique and performance by rote from recordings, and later to such refinements as note reading. While the course is designed only for a musician’s formative years, at least 100 of Japan’s professional violinists have come out of the Suzuki school. So successful is his method that the New England Conservatory, the Eastman School and the Oberlin College Conservatory have started Suzuki-type programs.

Ironically, as the number of Oriental string players rises, the decline in America is becoming more acute. Nearly every major U.S. orchestra is starved for accomplished stringmen, and the famine is even more apparent in lesser orchestras. So bereft is the great Cleveland Orchestra that it was obliged recently to advertise in the New York Times for violinists, violists and cellists, offering a 52-week season, minimum salaries of $12,480, four-week vacations, pensions, sick leave, medical insurance and other fringe benefits.

Perhaps the Suzuki method will in time overcome the U.S. shortage. Until it does, chances are that more and more orchestras will look to the Far East. The Orientals are not only more available but competent and eager as well. As Isaac Stern explains: “A top-class Tokyo violinist starts at less than $100 a month, while in America today an orchestral musician is a member of an elite, well-paid profession.” Adds Master Teacher Galamian, only partly in jest: “There was a time when all the finest violinists were Jewish and came from Odessa. Maybe now they will all come from the Far East.”

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