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Japanese mystery guest visits US

I'm phoning from home, late-evening Boston time. When maestro Charles Dutoit picks up at his end, it's tomorrow morning, Tokyo time.

Tracking down Mr. Dutoit, music director of Japan's premier orchestra, the NHK Symphony, is always a matter of timing. He is a man of many time zones and many orchestras. Along with the NHK, he heads two others - the Montreal Symphony and the Orchestre National de France - and he has guest-conducted with just about every other major orchestra in the world since the 1960s.

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But the subject today is the NHK, where Dutoit was elevated from principal conductor to its first-ever music director last September. He's already toured the orchestra through Europe and China. The task now is to introduce the United States to the NHK. That begins shortly with a five-city tour (Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chicago; New York; Boston; and Washington) April 25 to May 2.

The NHK Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1926, is the oldest and most prestigious in Japan.

"It's a shame no one knows it [the NHK]," says Dutoit, which he says in his opinion ranks among the top orchestras in the world. He characterizes its sound as "powerful, theatrical, and deep."

NHK stands for Nippon Hosso Kyokai, Japan's national public television. All NHK Symphony concerts are televised in Japan (a claim no American orchestra can make!). But "NHK" doesn't create a clear identity for the orchestra. "They should change this name," the Swiss-born Dutoit says in warm, French-accented English.

A long line of German conductors preceded Dutoit. "The [NHK] players are basically educated in a German culture of playing," he says.

"They were playing 19th-century German music. One reason they asked me to come here is that I have a variety of styles."

Thus the tour will premire a new work commissioned by the NHK Symphony that blends Eastern and Western musical influences. "In the Shadow of the Tree," by Sofia Gubaidulina, employs Japanese instruments as soloists: the koto (a 13-stringed plucked zither about six feet long and a foot wide), the bass koto, and the cheng (a mouth organ played by suction as well as blowing).

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Many Westerners don't realize "Tokyo is one of the major music centers in the world," the maestro says. Tokyo supports nine symphony orchestras, and the NHK alone has an 11,000-member subscriber base.

Despite that strong support, Dutoit knows recruiting a new generation of classical-music lovers is a perpetual occupation. "Young people are difficult to count on as an audience. They have the Internet. They are busy. They don't want to book [a 12-performance orchestra subscription]. It takes different marketing....

"Our role is to show young people we are not stiff people in penguin suits."

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