Tokyo presents the casual traveler with many opportunities to experience both traditional and modern Japanese culture. Possibly because much less energy and promotion money is spent on the subject, it is perhaps less well recognized as one of the world’s leading cities for classical performing arts that extend beyond those considered to be traditionally Japanese in origin. As with so many other things in this huge and diverse city, discovering truly exciting and memorable experiences can elude a surface examination of cultural offerings. With a little effort, however, classical music/performance lovers can have easy access to one of the world’s most intimate and refined venues in which to enjoy their favorite performers and pieces
Perhaps the most prestigious venue for classical artists in Tokyo, if not all of Japan, is Suntory Hall in the Akasaka (赤坂) district of Tokyo.
Suntory Hall’s foyer
From its innovative design to its unwavering focus on delivering to its patrons the ultimate in classical performance, Suntory Hall surely should be considered alongside other great, although perhaps better known venues such as Carnegie Hall. For classical performers, whether Japanese or touring from outside Japan, Suntory Hall is “the” place to be seen performing at in Japan. It is a well known cliché amongst classical artists to speak of one’s “Suntory Hall Debut” carrying with it the same cache as a concert debut in other major world classical music capitols. Over the years, this concert hall has been host to all manner of world famous performers and as the launching pad for Japanese classical artists aspiring to global recognition.
From its inception, Suntory Hall has represented a break from the past for Japanese concert participants in its design and aspiration to be recognized as not only Japan’s, but one of the world’s top centers of classical music performance.
鶴野紘之 on Flickr
Opened in 1986, Suntory Hall is, in 2016, celebrating its 30th year of operation. It was conceived of originally as a massive feat of what is called today, Corporate Social Responsibility by the beverage company, Suntory. According to its website, the hall hosts an average of 550 concerts a year and more than 600,000 people enjoy concerts held nightly with the occasional matinee performance at one of its two halls “Main” and “Small”. Any classical music aficionado is bound to be able to find something that suits their tastes at least once on the hall’s ample concert calendar.
Suntory Hall’s innovations range from the transformational to the practical. A first for Japan, Suntory Hall employed so-called “vineyard design” in its construction. “Vineyard” design refers to the placement of the stage in relation to the seats in the hall. The stage in the Main Hall is surrounded by seating which rises up in a layered manner from the floor. It also provides refreshment cocktail and café concessions for the enjoyment of audiences before and during intermissions of performances. On the occasional day when a performance is not scheduled, the hall has been used for lectures and other educational opportunities with the aim of furthering the understanding of an appreciation for classical arts of all kinds.
Enjoying concert intermission
The effect of this attention to acoustical detail, as this correspondent can attest to, is a completely immersive musical experience, regardless of genre. Whether piano concerto, full orchestra, operatic performance, or traditional instrument such as Koto (琴), sound emanates from the stage purely and without obstruction. As you listen to the music, you can feel the waves of sound as they wash over you. You can sense the vibrations of the ensembles as their harmony envelops the hall. You become immersed in sound. Close your eyes, and allow yourself to be transported, if only for a time, to an oasis of music cocooned within the hall, protected from the noise and urban intensity that lay just beyond the concert hall’s walls.
The Main Hall is actually very intimate, holding a maximum of 2006 persons. Floor seating is ample, and layered seating wraps around the perimeter for the hall. A unique experience for concertgoers can be to sit facing the main body of the audience in one of the seats behind the main stage. Due to the exceptional acoustics, the musical experience is said to be just as enjoyable as a more traditional seat, only with the added benefit of being able to see the conductors as they guide performers and various ensembles through the evening’s performance, almost as if you were part of the production itself.
The Small Hall presents a completely different sensory experience. This hall is more of a “multi-purpose” space, capable of hosting lectures as well as a wide variety of performances and activities.
The “Small” Hall hosting a ballroom dance event
Access to Suntory Hall is very visitor friendly. It is located adjacent to the Tokyo Intercontinental ANA Hotel within the Ark Hills retail and office complex and is accessible by car, taxi, bus, or subway, the closest stations being either Tamaike Sanno (溜池山王) or Roppongi Ichome (六本木一丁目).
The hall’s website is available in Japanese and English and contains a seating guide, full concert schedule, pricing information, and other information to enhance the concert going experience. You can purchase tickets from the hall box office directly, by phone, or online.
All seats in Suntory Hall, regardless of location, provide an exceptional listening experience. With spring in the air, there’s no better time to enjoy classical sights and sounds. Allow yourself the opportunity to celebrate Suntory Hall’s 30th anniversary year in person!