A Japanese Violinist in Tune with France


In December 2011 violinist Takezawa Takeshi, the concertmaster in France’s National Orchestra of Lorraine, performed his first solo recital in Japan in two years. In this interview he talks about his musical career and influences and discusses what role music can play in Japan’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Takezawa Takeshi

Won the Nippon Cultural Broadcasting Award while still a student at Tokyo University of the Arts. Studied under the French violinist Devy Erlih at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris. Later studied under the Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis, after receiving praise from him for a performance at a music festival in Switzerland. In 1991 became the concertmaster of the Orchestre National de Lorraine, located in the city of Metz. Performed his debut recital in Japan in December 1993. Received a Muntz Stradivarius from the Nippon Music Foundation in 1999.

Japanese musicians are active around the world in genres from pop to classical music. One who is particularly active overseas is the violinist Takezawa Takeshi, the concertmaster at France’s Orchestre National de Lorraine, based in the northeastern city of Metz. In 1991, at the tender age of 27, Takezawa became the orchestra’s concertmaster. In the two decades since then he has energetically pursued his career in both France and Japan. December 2011 saw his first solo recital in Japan in two years. We talked to Takezawa during his time back in his home country to hear his thoughts on subjects from the differences in the musical scenes in Japan and France to the view from abroad of classical music in Japan.

See a video of the artist in action: Takezawa Takeshi: A French-Inspired Musical Message of Hope

Drawn to France at a Young Age

INTERVIEWER You played a piece by a French composer titled “Méditation” at the end of your recital.

TAKEZAWA TAKESHI The works of French composers are close to my heart. I studied the music of France when I studied abroad there, and I have also been working as a musician in the country. In my recitals I always perform some piece by a French composer. “Méditation” is from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet [1842–1912]. It’s a piece I also performed at charity concerts held across France following the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.

When I was performing Massenet’s music I had the sense that our power as individuals is limited, but that when we pool our strength together it can become a great force. This can give us all the feeling of having many people backing us up, which is a force far greater than the power of money. Experiencing that emotion during the concerts was marvelous.

INTERVIEWER When did you first go to France?

TAKEZAWA While still an undergraduate [at Tokyo University of the Arts] I spent some time studying abroad in Paris. I decided to go then so I would still be young enough to enter the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique.

INTERVIEWER Was it a stressful experience to study abroad?

TAKEZAWA I was quite nervous to live by myself for the first time, and to do so in a place where I hardly knew anyone. My dream had always been to go to France, so I was already majoring in the language at university, but there were no handy electric dictionaries at the time. I had a really hard time communicating.

INTERVIEWER After graduation, you immediately joined France’s Orchestre National de Lorraine.

TAKEZAWA That’s right. I’d heard that the Orchestre National de France in Paris tended to hire experienced musicians, rather than those just out of university. I did a bit of research to find out what other orchestras were out there, not only in Paris but in the provinces as well. And it turned out that the auditions coming up the soonest were for the Lorraine ensemble. I tried out and was accepted. I was the orchestra’s first foreigner member, so it received a lot of coverage in newspapers at the time.

INTERVIEWER Were you the orchestra’s concertmaster from the outset?

TAKEZAWA Yes. When I joined the orchestra there was also an audition for the concertmaster’s seat, so I tried out and got it.

Different Musical Approaches

INTERVIEWER I suspect that the personal relations in a large orchestra can be rather difficult.

TAKEZAWA Certainly, and that’s why an orchestra needs to have a great conductor. A lot depends on whether an orchestra has the sort of conductor who can command attention when standing on the podium. Sometimes there can be friction between an orchestra and its conductor; just as in other cases musicians can become too accustomed to a conductor they like, to the point where the atmosphere is too relaxed. Even a conductor as renowned as Herbert von Karajan had something of a soured relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic near the end of his career. I’d have to say it’s probably not good for a conductor to stay with the same orchestra too long, as he did. Orchestras are more likely to maintain their equilibrium when guest conductors are frequently coming and going.

INTERVIEWER I imagine you must have been a stimulating fresh breeze for the Lorraine orchestra, as its first member from Japan.

TAKEZAWA I suppose you could say that. In France, orchestra members prefer to interact between each other by verbalizing everything and talking things out in a logical way. But I thought that, as a Japanese person, I should communicate my message to the other musicians seated behind me through my style of playing. Of course some things need to be communicated verbally, but apart from a few unusual situations, just about everything can be expressed without saying a word. Even when the conductor has some suggestion to make to the orchestra, I don’t take it upon myself, as concertmaster, to brashly go up to talk to the conductor personally on behalf of everyone else. Because of this way of interacting, there’s been very little tension inside the orchestra. But I’m also careful to seek a balance so that things don’t become too freewheeling.

INTERVIEWER Have you ever played on an orchestra in Japan?

TAKEZAWA In my university days I was a substitute player but I’ve never played as a professional in Japan. Whether in Japan or in France, orchestras basically adopt the same sort of approach, but I think their aims are slightly different. If you say this sort of thing these days, those on the Japanese side will raise an objection—and I hope they’re right to do so—but in the past orchestras in Japan were aiming for all the musicians to form a tidy whole, where no one stands out and everyone is doing the same sort of thing. That approach, though, makes it difficult for powerful music and a sense of flow in the musical phrasing to emerge. If that flow can be achieved, then the players can all adjust to each other. But if the whole focus is on getting everyone in line from the outset, the musical flow will break down. I should add, though, that orchestras in Japan are changing every day and making progress.

The Peerless Sound of a Stradivarius

INTERVIEWER As a violinist, you use a Stradivarius presented to you by the Nippon Music Foundation. Does that make a difference?

TAKEZAWA It was loaned to me back in 1999 when I was playing in a recital series held in Japan and France. It’s a “Muntz Stradivarius,” created near the end of Antonio Stradivari’s life. Inside the violin is an inscription he wrote, which reads: “This is a violin I created at age 92.” Although it’s a bit strange to say, the violin is a real beauty despite the advanced age of its creator—it really is a magnificent instrument. The harmonics for high-pitched notes on the Stradivarius are remarkably rich. If you just play a single note, as it sounds it expands to the surrounding notes. It takes a bit of time, though, to get used to the instrument. It’s a bit like someone who has only driven a car with a top speed of 120 or 130 kilometers per hour, suddenly hopping in a Ferrari and taking it out for a spin. It feels a bit scary at first, but once you drive at high speeds you never want to slow down. [Laughs]

Passing On Culture to Preserve Its Vitality

INTERVIEWER How do audiences in Japan and France differ?

TAKEZAWA Audience members in France—indeed, in Europe and North America as a whole—will immediately express what they feel at a performance. If they don’t like what they’re hearing, they won’t hesitate to boo an orchestra. So orchestra members get a direct sense of what an audience is thinking and feeling. In contrast, audiences in Japan give the impression of being focused on listening to the music. So the atmosphere in a hall is different.

INTERVIEWER Classical music has been consistently popular in Japan. What is the situation like in France?

TAKEZAWA There’s a trend away from classical music among young people. This is true in Germany as well as France. French people are always surprised when I tell them—and I think it’s surprising—that some of the Western music taught in Japanese schools since the end of World War II doesn’t appear in the French curriculum. In Japan, proper time is allotted to teaching that content. In most Japanese elementary schools you’ll also find an organ, whereas that’s far from the case in France. Moreover, France lacks the class hours dedicated to music that you find in Japan. People in France used to regularly hear classical music at church; that was their musical education. But that culture is disappearing.

Now is precisely when France needs to dedicate a proper amount of time to musical education. I’ve tried to help out in this respect. For instance, when my kids were in elementary school I proposed to their teacher that the students come to see our orchestra’s rehearsals. The same situation faces the traditional arts in Japan. We have to convey these arts to the younger generation so that they can continue to exist. Of course it’s important for us to introduce those traditional arts to other countries, but we also have to make the effort to pass them on within Japan.

Conveying the Power of the World’s Art to Japan

INTERVIEWER Finally, do you have any message you’d like to convey to people in Japan?

TAKEZAWA Japan suffered a huge setback in 2011 and now faces the challenge of rebuilding. I think it’s important to pool together the strength of everyone involved in music, the arts, and every field of activity, both in Japan and in countries around the world.

In the past, people overseas might have looked at the situation in Japan and thought that the country could pull through on its own because of its economic affluence. But these days people around the world are interconnected. I hope Japan can pick up on something essential from this fact and move in a generally positive direction; and I hope that I can help out in this respect in some way.

(Originally written in Japanese by Wada Shizuka. Photographs by Somese Naoto.)

France violin musical instrument Takezawa Takeshi Devy Erlih Orchestre National de Lorraine concertmaster recital study abroad Stradivarius Muntz Gitlis Thais opera