Foreigners in Business: Conducting Japan

January 31st, 2011By Category: Culture, Starting a Business, Work Tips

Many people often forget that orchestras are a business like any other, and are just as subject to the rules of the marketplace. When the Lehman Shock hit Japan in late 2008, many orchestras lost a lot of sponsors. Others, however, have weathered the hard times because they are cost effective, mobile, and high in quality.

One of those is Tokyo Sinfonia, a unique 19-member string orchestra founded by and conducted by maestro Robert Ryker. Each year, Tokyo Sinfonia plays Symphonies for Strings champagne concerts, featuring the works of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Beethoven and Stravinsky; as well as evenings of concert & cuisine at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, featuring national programs such as French, German, Italian and so on. Besides concert performances, the Tokyo Sinfonia presents educational presentations in schools, particularly in Minato Ward, and performs special events.

Born in Indianapolis, Ryker – who also has a Canadian passport – has been in Japan for 30 years. He became a full-time conductor in 1973 at 35, after 13 years with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. During his career he has appeared in Baltimore, Bombay, Boston, Bucharest, Calcutta, Cleveland, Helsinki, Jacksonville, Kiev, Lima, Montreal, Nagoya, Pittsburgh, Prague, St Louis, Saint Petersburg, Shanghai, Singapore, Vilnius, Windsor, Washington, and has founded orchestras on three continents – the National Philharmonic of India, the North Bay Symphony in Canada, and the Tokyo Sinfonia.

GaijinPot, together with our sister site Japan Today, sat down with the maestro to hear more about the Tokyo Sinfonia.

What is your musical background?

At 11, I joined the school band as a tuba player, and was in bands from then on. At one stage in my teens, I played in six bands. In college, as a music student, I took courses to play all the strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion.

What brought you to Tokyo?

I had a series of grants to form orchestras in Canada and other places. In 1981, I came to Japan on a grant for a year.

How did Tokyo Sinfonia come about?

In the mid-1980s I started the Japan Sinfonia and presented a number of concerts in Suntory Hall. Basically we ran out of money, and the orchestra was dormant for a while. In 2005 I revived it, and renamed it the Tokyo Sinfonia.

Do you have a company to oversee it?

I do have Mini-concerts International which was formed to present educational concerts in the schools. Ryker Associates is a division of that, as is the Tokyo Sinfonia. We are considering making the Tokyo Sinfonia an NPO and are now gathering all the relevant information.

What about the business side of running an orchestra?

I have learned a lot operating the Tokyo Sinfonia with my senior advisers. They brought a business sense to it that we in the music world don’t always have…and I have been in the music business for more than 50 years. As with all orchestras, sponsorships are very important to us. After the Lehman Shock, we lost a couple of sponsors, but since then, new sponsors have come forward. One of the things I am very aware of is that companies with a history of sponsoring symphony concerts as part of their image can’t afford the big orchestras that are labor-intensive anymore. So I decided to form a string orchestra, the Tokyo Sinfonia, that would be cost effective, mobile and high in quality.

As music director, the business side of things must be a distraction for you.

It can be, because I am so busy writing arrangements and preparing performances. For that reason, we are now looking for a salesperson. It is a critical need, because we have so many leads and no staff to follow up. We’re looking for a bilingual Japanese, male or female, with strong personal contacts.

How are things going for you now?

My objective for the Tokyo Sinfonia is to be performing 100 concerts a year, even though we’re not even half way there yet. This pre-supposes repeat performances, some in the same venue, others in venues outside of the city. That would give us greater artistic stability, wider public exposure, and increased economies of operation. And that, in turn, would make us even more attractive to potential sponsors who could benefit from linking their corporate image with the Tokyo Sinfonia.

But I think that this is a good time for us to be where we are—that is, cost effective and portable. We are able to serve different sponsors in different ways. For example, we did a recent event for Chanel, and another for Apagard, one of our long-term sponsors. A resort developer has asked us to play at a resort in Nagano in the summer season as well as in the ski season. That would be great, because I’d love to get the orchestra out of Tokyo more often. Then we have also been asked to fly to Vietnam this year to perform in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Tell us more about your regular concerts.

Since we began in 2005, we have been doing regular series of champagne concerts and dinner concerts. The champagne concerts attract Tokyo’s musical aficionados, and we are getting constant praise. Our dinner concerts tend to attract the 80% of the public who aren’t music lovers as such—people who don’t regularly go to concerts, but might go for a special event and enjoy it. Many attending our dinner concerts tell us they have never before heard an orchestra in live performance, and greatly enjoy the evening, the ambience, the food and the music. I try to make the bridge between the audience and orchestra much more personable so that people identify with us. And they do.

Why is Tokyo Sinfonia only strings?

Many chamber orchestras include two horns and two oboes. Those were the wind instruments that were most common for the classical repertoire. I don’t include them, because if I did, I’d be induced to use them all the time and our repertoire would shrink. I arrange everything for the Tokyo Sinfonia’s 19 strings, and assign separate parts for each player. They are essentially treated as soloists, and the music is therefore extremely textured. This also raises the level of the players. As it gives them individual exposure, they even have their own personal fans.

What is the orchestra scene like in Tokyo now?

Enormous. There are eight full-time professional orchestras in Tokyo alone. No other city in the world has so many, not Vienna, London or New York. Every year, there are 1,000 concerts by these orchestras alone. Then there are university and school orchestras: 1,600 for all of Japan, 700 of them in the Tokyo area. Tokyo has nine music schools producing 2,000 graduates every year. Many of them teach, some play in amateur orchestras; very few get into the big orchestras.

Do you have much turnover?

Very little. Our loyalty rate is quite high. The average age of the Tokyo Sinfonia players is about 30.

Do you listen to music for relaxation?

When I hear music, I am very aware of what it is, so I cannot listen to music and simply relax. Somebody will sit next to me in the subway, and if I hear their music leaking through their headphones, I sometimes move away. So, to relax, I read a book. I used to go occasionally to a movie, but I am so busy we haven’t done that for a very long time. At home, we don’t even have a television.

Is passion the biggest factor that keeps you going?

There is a measure of passion that drives what we are doing. But that has to be balanced with an understanding of what we are doing. I work with musicians who know very well how to play. Every player in my orchestra knows how to play their instrument better than I do. They also know the music. Of course, each one of them has a different approach. It is my job to mold them into one great instrument. I have to energize the whole orchestra. I have seen the Tokyo Sinfonia develop prodigiously in a surprisingly short time. I think one of my strengths is that I am an orchestra builder.

The Sinfonia came along at a great time in my life. I want to make sure that it survives me and is part of my legacy to the world, to play for a century after I am gone.

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GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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