Takashi Asahina

SUNDAY, December 8, 2019

On Sundays I have the most time to listen…

I have no teaching, enough sleep and a clearer mind at the end of the weekend, and that’s when I try to explore.

I have not listened to the Brahms 1st Symphony in some time, and because there are so many excellent and famous recordings of it, I did a search of recommended recordings and stumbled upon this man:

Takashi Asahina, still conducting at age 93…

A name is nothing more than a name to me until I know something about the man or woman who goes with that name, so when I listen to a new conductor I start off with no expectations and no idea of what I am about to hear.

Reading about this man was an adventure…

There is so much mindless hype connected with music making that my hopes are not great when listening to something new, but when you hear strong praise from around the world from diverse musicians who also seem to be thinking out of the box it can sometimes lead to very interesting experiences and surprising discoveries.

It turns out that Asahina is generally not well-known outside Japan…

But his life-story sounds utterly fascinating. He taught himself to play violin in law school and then went on to fail his law exams. He worked as a sales clerk in a department store and and for a railroad company and did not conduct publicly until around the age of 35.

This is all so improbable that it sounds like fantasy…

It’s like a made-up story that could not possibly happen in real life. How a man with his initial background ends up a conductor, much less a world-renowned conductor, in Japan, conducting German music and specializing in the music of – get this – Bruckner – is one of the strangest and most unlikely stories I’ve read. Surely the connection between Germany and Japan must have had something to do with this, but even so it is one usual circumstance after another. Then imagine that he was born at the end of 1901 yet was still conducting until almost 2001.

He was the world’s oldest famous conductor…

He had a Stokowski-length career and apparently enjoyed amazing health until very shortly before he died. As is true of so many other conductors from earlier times, his conducting technique was elegant and simple, and he is very easy to follow visually. He appears to have stayed in excellent shape and moved very well right to the end of his life.

Now, the concept, the interpretation:

The first movement is as slow as any version I’ve heard, and nothing is rushed. The brass attacks are like knives, incredibly accurate and incisive, the strings are amazing, and in general the woodwinds are equally fine, and somehow the tympani motive that appears at the start of the first movement and reappears in the last are handled with more shape and contrast than what I’ve heard before. The recording itself is amazingly spacious and clear – again the placement of mikes is superb – and for me every detail is well presented.

If you have never heard this symphony before, try to start with the last movement...

I’m trying to set up this video so that it starts there. But if you like this, please set it back to the beginning and hear the whole thing. Many people have called this the “Beethoven 9th”. The reason? Brahms was so afraid of being compared to Beethoven that he worked on this symphony for 21 years and finally presented it to the world at the age of 43. Remember, many other famous traditional composers were dead before the age of 40.

How he conducted…

Below you can see his conducting technique in this live video. The sound is not nearly as good, but you can get a feel for his stage presence and the reverence he received in Japan.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Takashi Asahina

  1. I really like both pieces. They both remind me of life in a way. They do this with all of the ups and downs of the pieces and the grand celebratory moments as well as the low calm moments. His life story is also fascinating, showing how no matter the age its never too late to find your passion in life, and the way he must love conducting is amazing if he is still conducting at his age.

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  2. I enjoyed both performances. Besides listening, in the second one I also watched for his conducting because of what you wrote. Yes, it looks easy to follow. I was in a choir where that wasn’t the case, especially if you’re not a trained musician. His life story is fascinating.

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