FUJI, Japan -- It's monsoon season in Japan, and last night the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra roared into this small industrial city in the shadow of Mount Fuji like a tropical storm. This was the orchestra's first concert in Japan -- one of five run-outs from Tokyo before its first important concert in Suntory Hall, the country's premier venue for classical music, on Nov. 6.
It may have been only a run-out -- to a place that resembles a sanitized version of Bayonne, N.J. -- but BSO music director David Zinman and his musicians took this concert very seriously indeed, finishing with a knockout performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 that may have been their best so far.
There were screams of "bravo" as the Beethoven ended, which means more in such places as Fuji than one might think. In the United States, it tends to be the least sophisticated audiences that are most generous in awarding approbation. In Japan, it's the other way around. The Japanese have something of an international inferiority complex, and outside its two most cosmopolitan cities -- Tokyo and Osaka -- audiences rarely have enough self-confidence to cheer approval.
And it was a genuinely splendid performance. Zinman adopted his characteristically fast speeds in obedience to the composer's metronome markings, but, along with sharp dynamic contrasts and powerful thrusts, he also found time for details and careful phrasing. There was also a lightly sprung rhythm that gave the impression of power in reserve -- power that exploded in the coda, with particularly brilliant work by the horns and trumpets. The Beethoven was preceded by fine performances of the Dvorak "Carnival Overture" and the Barber Violin Concerto, which featured violinist Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist.
One of the reasons the BSO played well was the hall. Fuji, which is about two hours south of Tokyo, may be an unprepossessing place, but in the year-old Fuji-Shi Bunka Kaikan it has an excellent concert hall that seats about 1,600. The audience hears clear, somewhat hard, sound.
But what the musicians heard on stage they liked better than the sound of applause. The hall's acoustics enabled them to hear each other clearly. That, in turn, gave them the confidence to play freely and aggressively without fear of muddying their ensemble.
Then again, the musicians have been performing wonderfully throughout the tour -- except for their first concert in Seoul, in which the musicians were exhausted by jet lag, and an indifferent Stravinsky "Firebird" in Taipei. One sure index to their success is that they have been invited to return to all three cities where they have performed so far. In Seoul, the BSO was told that it was the best orchestra to have visited the National Arts Center; in Taipei, the orchestra was informed it had outplayed the more celebrated Los Angeles Philharmonic that had appeared there a few weeks earlier; and last night a delegation of Fuji's arts administrators told music director Zinman and BSO executive director John Gidwitz that they had been thrilled by the orchestra's performances.
Now that the BSO seems on track to triumph in the Far East, the orchestra should perhaps reconsider its touring plans for the future. Under normal circumstances the next logical place for the orchestra to visit on an international tour two or three years down the road would be Europe. But the BSO has not appeared in Europe since 1987 and would have to establish itself all over again. In three weeks, it seems likely the BSO will have made its name in the Far East. Since the future of Western music shines more brightly in East Asia than any place else, it would be a shame if the orchestra did not use its next tour as an opportunity to return here and maintain its momentum.