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Tōru Takemitsu: 'Cultural Ambassador to the World'

On March 21, André Previn conducts the NHK Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Tōru Takemitsu's Green.

On this day, the 15th anniversary of the Japanese composer's death, his longtime friend Peter Grilli explains why Takemitsu was much more than "just" a composer; how his music has found a secure place in the concert hall; and why his music is a vital element of JapanNYC.

No festival devoted to the music and contemporary culture of Japan would be complete without a special spotlight shone on the role of Tōru Takemitsu (1930–1996) as one of Japan's pre-eminent cultural leaders during the latter decades of the 20th century. As a composer, Takemitsu's position in modern music is secure. But alongside his many celebrated musical achievements, his role as Japan's informal "Cultural Ambassador to the World" was equally impressive. During the last half of the 20th century, as Japan emerged from the traumas of World War II and regained its standing as a major player on the stage of world culture, Takemitsu served as an outstanding bridge of communication between his native country and the rest of the world.

Writers, painters, architects, composers, and many other intellectuals and creative artists from Europe and America seemed to gravitate toward Takemitsu when they traveled to Japan, and they relied on his expert insights as he guided them through the traditional and modern culture of his country.

In the decade-and-a-half since Takemitsu's death, his music has found a secure place in the concert halls of the world. Major orchestras have kept works like Dreamtime, Green, November Steps, and A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden in their repertories, and whenever a "modern concerto" is requested of certain well-known international instrumentalists, they have continued to perform pieces like Riverrun (for piano and orchestra), I Hear the Water Dreaming (flute concerto), A String Around Autumn (viola concerto), Fantasma/Cantos (clarinet concerto), and From Me Flows What You Call Time (for percussion ensemble and orchestra). Audiences may be attracted at first by the evocative titles of such works, but they return to listen happily to the gentle sonorities of these major compositions of the late–20th century. They know they will find comfort in the emotion and enduring meanings of Takemitsu's music without having to endure the harsh dissonances of so many otherworks of the period.

—Peter Grilli is President of the Japan Society of Boston.

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