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Five fascinating facts about Leonard Bernstein and Japan

On 25 August 2019, which would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 101st birthday, the busy centenary year filled with performances, exhibitions, publications, and events comes to a close. Much of Bernstein’s status as a world maestro tends to be discussed in terms of his relationship to Israel and Europe, but once we turn our attention eastward to Japan, there are still things that are relatively unknown about Bernstein.

1. In Japan, Bernstein was known more as a conductor of symphonies than as the composer of West Side Story.

Among lay audiences in the United States, Bernstein’s fame lies first and foremost in having composed West Side Story, which made him an American superstar and an international celebrity. The musical was big business, and the earnings from the work amounted to many times the total of earnings from all of Bernstein’s other compositions combined.

West Side Story became a huge hit in Japan as well: the 1961 film became the only work in Japanese film history to run for more than a year, and the stage production toured the country in 1964. However, when Deutsche Grammophon released a new recording of the musical in 1985, which became one of the best-selling releases in the company’s history, its sales in Japan were far more modest than elsewhere in the global market.

With Japan’s rapid economic growth and the development of a sophisticated classical music audience base in the 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein came to be known there primarily as the world’s premiere conductor alongside Herbert von Karajan.

2. Bernstein had a devoted fan in Japan fourteen years before he first set foot in the country.

In 1947, eighteen-year-old Kazuko Ueno encountered Bernstein’s essay in a magazine at the library run by the US occupation forces in Tokyo. Moved by Bernstein’s humanist thought and passion for music, she wrote a fan letter, and to her surprise, received a reply a year later. The two corresponded before Bernstein’s first Japan tour with the New York Philharmonic in 1961, during which Kazuko (now Amano), now a wife and mother of two infants, first met the maestro in person.

Amano and Bernstein developed a friendship that lasted until the maestro’s death. Amano’s love of Bernstein and his music occupied a central place in her heart and mind at different stages of her life, and the nature of her devotion evolved through the decades. Her love for and understanding of Bernstein are expressed eloquently in her many letters, written in beautiful penmanship on carefully chosen stationery.

3. A young Japanese man sent over 350 love letters to Bernstein.

Among the largest set of personal correspondence in the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress is from Kunihiko Hashimoto. He was a Japanese man—working for an insurance company—young enough to be Bernstein’s son. Hashimoto met Bernstein at the end of his Japan tour in 1979 and fell deeply in love. The countless love letters he sent to Bernstein reveal not only the romantic and sexual attraction he felt for Bernstein but awe and worship for a great spirit that he wished to serve.

The love was mutual, and on two occasions Bernstein arranged to bring Hashimoto to Europe to spend time with him. Just like Amano’s devotion to the maestro, the nature of Hashimoto’s love evolved as he moved through different stages of his life and career. Hashimoto later became Bernstein’s Japan representative and played a central role in the major projects in the last stage of Bernstein’s career.

4. Bernstein conducted the Hiroshima Peace Concert in 1985.

Bernstein was a tireless activist for many causes, especially nuclear disarmament. On 6 August 1985, he conducted the Hiroshima Peace Concert in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombing in the city.

The brainchild for the concert was Mitsunori Sano, a young Japanese man who believed that Bernstein’s stature as an artist, his long commitment to antinuclear activism, and his global influence made him an ideal conductor for the performance. Moved by Sano’s beliefs, Bernstein rearranged his schedule to fit the concert into his tour with the European Community Youth Orchestra. The main piece of the concert was Bernstein’s own Symphony No. 3 Kaddish, which expressed his arguments with God and the secular world as well as his faith in humanity and prayer for peace.

Hashimoto was a key figure in the organization and execution of the concert.

Leonard Bernstein in 1973. Allan Warren, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

5. The last major project in Bernstein’s career took place in Japan.

In the summer of 1990, Bernstein spent two weeks in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo as the music director of the Pacific Music Festival. Conceived as “Tanglewood in Asia,” the festival brought together 123 young musicians from around the world to study with Bernstein.

The project was originally designed to take place in China, which was opening its doors to the West and was hungry for classical music. Despite long, complex negotiations with the Chinese government officials, the Tiananmen Massacre in June 1989 forced the China portion of the project to be cancelled, and the entire festival was relocated to Sapporo.

At the festival, Bernstein worked with the young musicians with the same seriousness as when he worked with the New York Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The young musicians took in every word he uttered during rehearsals and downtimes. Their performance of Schumann Symphony No. 2 did not pale in comparison with the world’s top orchestras that Bernstein conducted.

Bernstein fell gravely ill in Tokyo while touring with the London Symphony Orchestra immediately after the festival. He cut the tour short and returned to New York. He died three months later.

Hashimoto served as Bernstein’s assistant throughout his time in Japan and saw him off at Narita Airport. The Pacific Music Festival became an annual event in Sapporo and has grown to be one of the most coveted venues for the training of young orchestral musicians from around the world.

Featured image credit: Leonard Bernstein practicing at the Holland Festival, 1985. Sjakkelien Vollebregt / Anefo , CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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