This past Valentine’s Day (February 14, 2023), the young Japanese pianist Tomoki Sakata presented Florent Schmitt’s complex, über-brilliant Symphonie concertante, Op. 82 with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under the direction of veteran French conductor Yan-Pascal Tortelier.
The concert marked the first time this music had been performed anywhere in the world since the release of Huseyin Sermet’s recording made in 1993; it was also the Symphonie concertante‘s Japanese concert premiere.
According to eyewitness reports from the concert, the Symphonie concertante was given a superlative presentation. Mario Ishiguro, a French music devotee and faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog, traveled 500 kms to attend the concert, after which he wrote about the Schmitt performance as follows:
“The piece was composed in a time when Ravel was still alive, and it is part avant-garde but with traces of romanticism in sight. In essence, it’s music that doesn’t fit well into any category. The piano ‘dwells’ in the orchestra’s sound, unlike what we typically encounter in concertante music.
When listening to the Symphonie concertante the tension keeps rising, with the orchestra and piano combining the musical elements in complex ways. There are many sparks, too! To put it another way, each movement has its own defining characteristics, but the elements and tension that underlie the music are consistent from top to bottom, beginning to end.
I vigorously applaud pianist Tomoki Sakata who lobbied to perform this piece, as well as the adventuresome spirit of the TMSO musicians and Maestro Tortelier. It must have taken much effort and hard work to make this fine performance a reality; clearly, the rehearsing paid off in a miraculous, multidimensional performance. Despite the work’s technical difficulties, the result was a solid monument comprised of the ‘trinity’ of the orchestra, the pianist and the conductor.
At the end of this fierce and fiery interpretation, I can say without shame that my cheeks were blushed and my chest was pounding – almost as if overwhelmed with fever. And I was not the only one convulsed with such feelings – both in the audience and on the stage. We saw the Maestro warmly embracing Tomoki Sakata and also giving heartfelt congratulations to the orchestra players.”
The complexity of Schmitt’s piece is mirrored in the words of Maestro Tortelier, who shared these comments with me in the days following the concert:
“That this performance happened is a happy coincidence between Tomoki Sakata’s strong desire to play the piece with the TMSO and my wish to conduct more of Florent Schmitt’s music in view of a future recording.
I must say that I prepared myself as never before, considering the challenge of the phenomenal Symphonie concertante, assimilating each note of this musical flurry slowly but surely over the past 18 months. By hearing gradually all the incredible material of the score in my head, eventually I found my way in shaping this demanding music. I am happy to say that the Schmitt performance yesterday evening met with huge success … “
Considering the technical and interpretive challenges of the Symphonie concertante, the choice of Tomoki Sakata to play the demanding solo part made complete sense. A remarkable talent, the 30-year-old pianist trained in Japan, Germany and Austria, including extended studies with the legendary Paul Badura-Skoda.
He holds prizes from a variety of prestigious piano competitions – among them the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (2013), Franz Liszt International Piano Competition (2016), and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (2021).
Moreover, Mr. Sakata has long had a special fondness for French music – particularly the piano works of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Schmitt. As an example of his affinity with the French idiom, this YouTube upload of a live performance of “Scarbo” from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, dates from when the pianist was just 22 years old:
… And from the 2021 Queen Elisabeth Competition, here he is playing French contemporary composer Bruno Montavani‘s D’un jardin féérique with the Belgian National Orchestra under the direction of Hugh Wolff:
Sakata’s deep interest in French music goes further, too — extending to piano transcriptions he has prepared of French vocal works including mélodies by Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn. Here are two examples:
With COVID-era concert restrictions now behind us, Tomoki Sakata has undertaken a busy schedule of concertizing in Asia and Europe, presenting solo recitals as well as performing with orchestras and chamber ensembles. He keeps nearly 50 concertante works in his active repertoire — including 20 that he is performing this season alone.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview the pianist about his musical journey with Florent Schmitt and the Symphonie concertante. Highlights of our discussion, which was conducted in English, are presented below.
PLN: How did you first become aware of Florent Schmitt and his music?
TS: My first exposure to Florent Schmitt’s music was hearing a recording of his chamber piece Hasards. I was fascinated by the exotic and delicate harmonies, along with the interesting mixture of complexity and a certain sense of power which, as it turns out, is quite unique to the music of Florent Schmitt.
After that, I was naturally interested in exploring more of his music. First, two famous big orchestral works (La Tragédie de Salomé and Psaume 47), and later some less-performed orchestral, piano and chamber works (Ombres, Symphonie concertante, Saxophone Quartet, String Quartet, Piano Quintet, Sonate libre, Trois Rapsodies, Habeyssée and others).
PLN: Schmitt was a fine pianist himself, and he composed many pieces for piano. Which ones have you performed?
TS: Apart from the Symphonie concertante, the only piece I have performed several times in public is the first Valse Nocturne from Schmitt’s Opus 31. But I have collected plenty of sheet music by Schmitt and I would like to perform more pieces in the future. One great example is Mirages, which is a perfect composition for recitals.
PLN: How did the opportunity to perform the Symphonie concertante come about?
TS: I had gotten to know the piece some years ago — back in 2017, I think — and I was definitely hoping to perform this gigantic masterpiece someday. Of course, initially I had no opportunity to realize my dream to perform the work, but eventually I proposed it to the orchestra and to Maestro Tortelier. Thanks to him, I was lucky to realize this rare opportunity this year.
PLN: What kind of technical or interpretive challenges did the Symphonie concertante present to you when learning the piece?
TS: To perform this work, it is essential to have a refined technique and a good understanding of the structure. The piano part is full of notes continuously — as is always the case in Schmitt’s piano music – and the rhythmic patterns change constantly.
I started learning the piece about a year before the concert — slowly at first. It is indeed a very challenging composition from any point of view, but I must say that when I got to the ecstatic climax of performing the piece on stage, I nearly forgot about all the technical difficulties!
PLN: What was your experience working with Yan-Pascal Tortelier in rehearsing the music? How easy was it to blend your playing with that of the TMSO players during the rehearsals and in the concert?
TS: Maestro Tortelier understands the composition so well, and this made the music-making smoother when preparing for the concert. Unlike in the Symphonie concertante of Karol Szymanowski, the piano solo part is often treated as an orchestral instrument. (Schmitt himself titled the piece «pour orchestre et piano» and not «pour piano et orchestre» !) So in some ways it was like playing a huge chamber work.
Broadly speaking, I think this music is so very different from other concertante works.
At the very beginning of the rehearsals it was not so easy to play together with the orchestra, as all of the individual parts are technically and rhythmically demanding. But after intense rehearsing, on stage at the concert we were all able to concentrate solely on the music, and it became a very special performance. In the end, it was an enormous success and the audience went wild!
PLN: Your piano repertoire is quite varied, and within it you’ve focused in part on French music. What qualities do you appreciate in French piano music?
TS: What I like most about French music is the rich harmony. Fauré, Debussy, Ravel — all the great French composers have their own harmonic language. I am particularly fond of the music of Fauré. The transparent beauty and meaningful harmony of his music always fascinate me. I particularly love his Requiem, the Nocturne No. 6 from Op. 63, and the Piano Quintet No. 2 from late in his life.
PLN: Ever since winning in the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in 2021, you have been busy concertizing in Asia and Europe as a solo performer, with chamber musicians, and with orchestras. What are some of the biggest performing highlights for you?
TS: I am very busy — this year I will be performing twenty different pieces with orchestra! Together with Maestro Tortelier and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, I performed the Symphonie concertante in February, and in March I performed four pieces by Liszt (his first and second piano concerti, Totentanz and Hungarian Fantasy) – all in one concert.
In September this year, I will be performing five concertante pieces by Rachmaninoff (the four piano concerti plus the Paganini Rhapsody) in a single concert celebrating the composer’s 150th birthday anniversary. And those are just a few of the big highlights.
PLN: Returning to Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante, since the first commercial recording of this music made by Huseyïn Sermet more than 30 years ago, you are the only pianist in the world to put this piece into their repertoire. What are the chances of playing it in more places, or possibly making a recording of this music?
TS: I do not have any firm plans yet, but if there is ever a chance to play the piece in more concerts or to make a recording, I will be very happy to do so!
Considering the artistic success and audience reception of Tomoki Sakata’s performance of Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante in Tokyo, we hope that more opportunities will arise for him to present this consequential score to concert audiences around the world. Even better would be the chance for him to make a new recording of the piece – which would be only the second one ever.
For readers who can understand the Japanese language, here is a brief video of Tomoki Sakata speaking about Florent Schmitt’s music, when the pianist was interviewed by the TMSO several days before his February 14, 2023 performance of the Symphonie concertante in Tokyo: