This article is drawn from the fourth issue of Tafel: our magazine for the musically curious. Read the entire fourth issue here.

A Fine Balance: Conductor Masaaki Suzuki finds hope in the music of J.S. Bach

By Luisa Trisi

Masaaki Suzuki standing outdoors with an old church and a tree in the background. Photo by Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki, photo by Marco Borggreve

It’s a Monday night, 9pm Tokyo time, when Masaaki Suzuki joins our Zoom call. Gracious and quick to smile, he deflects apologies for the relatively late hour. Widely recognized as one of the world’s leading interpreters of the music of J.S. Bach, the Japanese conductor, organist, and harpsichordist is revered as a pioneer who helped established period performance practice in his home country. 

Our conversation quickly turns to the composer’s uncanny ability to connect deeply with listeners and lift them out of despair. “Bach’s music is offering us how to see inside ourselves. Once you concentrate, once you go deeper inside the music, you can forget everything else,” he says.

Despite his superstar status, Suzuki comes across as humble yet direct. On the concert stage, “he continues to expunge the extraneous in performances that have the quality of a refreshing purification rite” (Los Angeles Times).

Following his studies in Amsterdam with Ton Koopman and Piet Kee, Suzuki returned to Japan, and in 1990 founded the period ensemble Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ). Under Suzuki’s direction, the ensemble developed a formidable international reputation.

BCJ has recorded all of Bach’s 200-plus cantatas—something only a handful of ensembles worldwide have accomplished. The recordings are part of a massive discography on the BIS Records label, which includes most of Bach’s major choral and orchestral works. Suzuki’s “extraordinarily vital, human, and emotional” recording of St Matthew Passion won Gramophone magazine’s 2020 Choral Award.

In fact, it was St Matthew Passion that Suzuki directed at his 2019 Tafelmusik debut in Toronto. Over four nights in March of that year, more than 2,900 people packed into Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for performances that crystallized as a watershed moment for Tafelmusik audiences and performers alike. Members of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir spoke zealously about Suzuki’s laser focus on the importance of the sacred text, while music blogger Leslie Barcza observed that “his contrasts are razor sharp, the moments when the chorus erupts, totally volcanic in energy and precision but especially in the commitment of every singer and player.”

A photo looking up at Masaaki Suzuki while he is conducting in a bright auditorium. Photo by Marco Borggreve
Masaaki Suzuki, photo by Marco Borggreve

Fast-forward to March 2020, when Suzuki and his BCJ choir and orchestra embarked on a European tour to celebrate the ensemble’s thirtieth anniversary. They landed in Germany just as the world was shutting down due to the realities of the global pandemic. Although the remainder of BCJ’s tour was cancelled, the ensemble’s Cologne presenter announced that the March 15 performance of Bach’s St John Passion would be recorded in the empty concert hall and broadcast online, free of charge.

Suzuki later commented on social media, “Never had such a situation. No audience, but the music is there! We all felt so special, as if Bach spoke to us individually, but at the very end we were so sure that everyone watching was there with us. This is evidence that we are connected to each other through this music! Whatever happens, our hope is there.”

As the pandemic dragged on and BCJ’s home concerts were cancelled, Suzuki had time on his hands. He decided to open his personal music studio to the world with weekly YouTube performances of Bach chorales on the organ. “We had no chance at all to perform publicly, so I thought it was very important to keep the connection with the people, with the audience,” he says.

Bach’s music is offering us how to see inside ourselves. Once you concentrate, once you go deeper inside the music, you can forget everything else.

Masaaki Suzuki

In these videos, Suzuki is always impeccably dressed and speaks to viewers in Japanese before sitting down at a small pipe organ. While the first garnered a few thousand views, the final instalment, featuring Bach’s famous chorale Wachet auf (Sleepers Awake), has accumulated more than 14,500 views to date—unheard of for a four-minute organ recital. As he plays, the camera pans the room to reveal a harpsichord, a bookcase, and lace curtains on the windows. The viewer is invited into the intimacy of Suzuki’s inner sanctum to share a few moments of communion. For thousands of music lovers around the world, his unassuming home videos created a virtual comfort zone during a grim time.

Suzuki is fascinated by the dichotomy between the public and the private in Bach’s sacred music, in particular the B-Minor Mass. “The music itself was composed for an official, public purpose, but Bach always gives us the chance to examine the personal connection between the music and ourselves, between our public and personal sides,” he says.

“With the B-Minor Mass, Bach took elements of the cantatas he composed much earlier to create this huge work. That was quite an important process of reflection for him, to remember his youth and also to reuse the music for these official, sacred texts,” he says. “Each element of the music he composed earlier was a way to depict his own life. So these kinds of private, personal aspects are connected to each other, and I think that’s very interesting.”

For all of his rigour and gravitas on the podium, Suzuki is no stick-in-the-mud when it comes to social interaction. His eyes sparkle with humour and he laughs frequently. At the Toronto rehearsals in 2019, he gleefully wore a “Less Talk, More Bach” T-shirt gifted to him by Tafelmusik. And for such an esteemed maestro, Suzuki has an online persona that conveys a surprising lightness and agility. He frequently offers bite-sized commentary on Bach’s music with images from facsimile scores in the composer’s own hand, and is not above sharing photos of restaurant meals on Twitter, where he comments on everything from the latest movies to a Bach-themed spoof from The Onion.

Masaaki Suzuki at a 2019 Tafelmusik rehearsal, photo by Mark Blinch
Masaaki Suzuki at a 2019 Tafelmusik rehearsal, photo by Mark Blinch

Suzuki also gently sends up fellow music nerds with a photo compilation showing a page from a Beethoven score next to a slice of nodoguro (sea perch) sushi, tweeting, “This week, we plan to take a deeper look at the relationship between nodoguro and Beethoven in Kanazawa, the town with the largest number of sushi restaurants per capita.”

How does Suzuki feel about BCJ’s thirtieth anniversary milestone? “Well you know, one thing for sure is that we are all much older! We all have a lot of experiences and memories,” he says. “But still, I think it’s very important to keep the freshness we had at the very beginning.”

Suzuki’s son Masato was recently appointed principal conductor of BCJ, ensuring the ensemble’s artistic continuity while allowing for another perspective. Like a handful of other period orchestras, including Tafelmusik, BCJ and Masaaki Suzuki are eager to explore repertoire composed beyond 1750. “Now that we have completed our recordings of the Bach cantatas, we are going to perform more Mozart, more Beethoven, more Mendelssohn—a little later music, which is new for us. But rest assured, we will still play Bach! The value of his music never changes.”

Masaaki Suzuki directs Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir in Bach’s B-Minor Mass at Massey Hall on May 5, 2022 at 7:30pm, and a digital livestream on May 6, 2022, at 7:30pm ET.

Luisa Trisi is the founder of Big Picture Communications, a Toronto-based company specializing in strategic communications.