My Life in the Tokyo String Quartet

June 6, 2019

1978 was a distinct year of growth and transition for me. I was 22 years old and I felt I was reaching a point of potential stagnation in my playing and education as a violinist. I transferred to a different school to study with a new teacher, which brought me to come to know a different part of New York City, away from the bubble to which I had grown so accustomed. I had also begun playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an experience that ultimately altered the course of my life completely, and paved the way for my career as a chamber musician.

Orpheus was still more or less in its infancy at the time, but was beginning to tour quite extensively. Since I was also beginning to give frequent solo performances, I would often have to practice my own repertoire while on the road. It turned out that one of the other violinists, Setsuko Nagata, was the wife of Kikuei Ikeda, the second violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet. Unbeknownst to me, she had been conveying positive reports to her husband about my playing, both as a section player and as a soloist. This soon led to an invitation to a beautiful evening of chamber music at their home.

A few months later, I received a call from Kikuei, anxiously inquiring of my interest to become the new first violinist of the Tokyo Quartet. This shocked me just as much as it shocked most of the classical music world a few weeks later when it was publicly announced — the group bringing in a non-Japanese first violinist didn’t seem within the realm of possibility until then. That day is marked in my memory for all the excitement it carried, not the least of which was that we played in Carnegie Hall that very same time night with Jean-Pierre Rampal to a completely sold-out house. I had graduated with my Master’s degree just days earlier.

Within a few days, we arrived in Norfolk, Connecticut to teach and play at the Yale Summer School. Apart from my new opportunity to play about 135 concerts per year across the world, I was also now suddenly a professor of chamber music at the Yale School of Music, since we were the quartet-in-residence at the time. At Norfolk, I was coaching string quartets comprised of extremely talented and advanced students from Yale and other top music schools. For the couple of years, some of my students were older than me. It still feels like a relief to admit how terrifying that was at the time.

My first summer at Norfolk in particular was quite an uphill climb, but it gave me confidence that I was capable of being an educator at a high level, and it spearheaded my long-lasting relationship with Yale. I have remained there in numerous capacities for almost 40 years. My primary role nowadays is conducting the Yale Philharmonia in four performances each year, and I absolutely love it.

Becoming a member of a great team was a privilege I have not once stopped appreciating.

The opportunity for collaboration on that level was an immense thrill to me. As a student, I had often thought that I had performed chamber music with a pretty decent sense of ensemble; this was a different universe entirely.

Another thing I have always appreciated was the group dynamic we fostered together. While getting to know each other we laughed almost as much as we played. Playing in a string quartet can be endlessly intense; it was the height of mental and interpersonal pressure during my music career. Breaking the tension with humor was crucial, and it made it easier to be honest with each other and not take creative differences personally. This has become invaluable to me as a conductor. I have found that it’s often preferable to keep things light while on the podium in rehearsal because it can help to foster an environment of enjoyment and ease in communication. These things are crucial when making music as an ensemble.

There was something really extraordinary about being a part of a Japanese chamber group that I have never forgotten: the fact that all of our fathers had been active servicemen in the Second World War, which had ended only 36 years earlier. My father was a sargeant in the British Army, and their fathers fought for the Imperial Japanese Army. Yet there we were, on the same team, experiencing unity and brotherhood. They supported and protected me ardently.

On their end, choosing a non-Japanese person opened the door to frequent disparagement. Luckily, some of it was pretty entertaining — one colleague of mine mused that the Tokyo Quartet had had an “occident”. During my first concert in Avery Fisher Hall, a gentleman in the front row whispered very audibly: “Look honey, the first violinist isn’t Chinese.”

For our first couple of European tours, we drove around together in a rented Mercedes with a big sunroof. In nice weather we would stand the cello up, sticking the top of the case out of roof of the car. I don’t think that ever stopped being funny to us. Much like how my colleagues didn’t like using chop sticks when eating Chinese food, since the rice isn’t sticky like it is in Japanese cuisine. We fielded a lot of weird looks when we ate at Chinese restaurants: three Asian guys using forks and knives and the caucasian guy using chop sticks. It amused us enormously.

That was my life for 14 long, formative years: playing hundreds of concerts in every corner of the world alongside three musicians I deeply respected and admired (in spite of their questionable cutlery choices), and continuing to grow as a player, as an ensemble musician, as an educator, and as a person.

But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. My career as a chamber musician took a difficult turn in 1989. A mere two days after I was married to my wife Nadine, I flew to London to play the opening concert of the Aldeburgh Festival with Murray Periahia, which was being broadcast live on the BBC. This was one of those concerts I’d circled on my calendar. Having been preoccupied with wedding festivities, I hadn’t been playing much at all over the previous few days, and my middle finger quickly developed a cut under the nail during the dress rehearsal. It was extremely painful to play, but the show must go on — especially when you’re a Brit on the BBC.

I have often wondered if playing in pain quite often during this time ultimately led to the movement disorder that would end my violin career a few years later. This disorder is called focal dystonia, and it’s all too common among classical musicians, and string players in particular. We strive to play at the highest possible level, and we spend tens of thousands of hours practicing and performing and pushing our hands to the very brink of their limits. In my final two years with the Tokyo String Quartet, I had increasingly more trouble controlling the middle two fingers on my left hand independently of one another. My brain had somehow rewired itself to believe that they were meant to move at the same time.

While this condition was worsening, I was also grappling with the balance of keeping a job that sent me all over the world, and starting a family at home in Connecticut. Within three years of our marriage, Nadine and I had two children under two years of age. Leaving home became much more difficult and complicated. Each trip to the airport over these last few years was harder than the last. It was a conflict between needing to provide for the people I loved most, and having to flee the nest to do so. I’m sure this is something that’s familiar in some way to many of you reading this.

With the worsening condition of my hand and the logistics of leaving home becoming increasingly tougher, I was beginning to see the writing on the wall. It was shortly after this that I decided to try to transition to a career in conducting.

In the end, it was the experience of playing magnificent quartet repertoire in most of the world’s great concert halls that remains with me. Despite my personal difficulties, my final two seasons were unforgettable. We played about a dozen different Beethoven cycles in halls ranging from La Scala Opera House, to the Chatelet in Paris, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, and of course, Carnegie Hall, where it had all begun in a flash over a decade prior.

By the time I decided to step down from the post to which I owed my entire livelihood, I had played over 1800 concerts with three men who had become brothers to me. (My pre-school aged kids even referred to them as their “Japanese dads.”) It was such a special and fulfilling part of my life, and it was the launching pad of a music career I have been fortunate to sustain for over 40 years. What a wonderful honour it was.