tokyo gakuso and its leader, tadaaki ohno

Tokyo Gakuso is a relatively young group, founded in 1978 in response for the need for a group of expert gagaku musicians able to deal not only with the traditional repertoire, but also with the challenges of contemporary pieces for the gagaku ensemble. Its forerunner, the Shigenkai, was formed in the late 1950s by musicians of the Music Department (Gakubu) of the Imperial Household Agency (Kunaicho), Tokyo, as a means to promote the public’s appreciation of their ancient art through activities outside their official duties at the Imperial Palace. This group in effect split into two in the late 1970s, Tokyo Gakuso and the Junion-kai, both composed of a core of comparatively young members of the palace orchestra but also including outstanding players from other, largely amateur, groups. Tokyo Gakuso was named by Toshiro Kido, at that time producer at the National Theatre in Tokyo, and its founding music director was the sho specialist and Imperial Palace musician Tadamaro Ohno. Since its formation, Tokyo Gakuso has been very active in the performance of new compositions (such as the premiere of the full version of Takemitsu Toru’s Shuteiga, otherwise known as In an Autumn Garden), as well as long and rarely heard pieces from the classical repertoire, and has produced a substantial number of CD recordings. It has also traveled to Europe and to music festivals throughout Japan. After the death of Tadamaro Ohno in 1994, his place was taken by his nephew Tadaaki Ohno, the present music director.

Like other members of the Imperial Palace group, Tadaaki Ohno has spent a good deal of his life studying and performing on several of the instruments, the dance, and the vocal music of gagaku. Born in Tokyo in 1959 into the Ohno family, one that traces its genealogy back to the late ninth century and that has been involved in the hereditary transmission of the art since at least the late tenth century, Tadaaki may have been fated to carry on the tradition. Although his father Tadamoto (at this stage it should be clear that, in addition to its music, the family also passes on the Chinese character read ‘tada’ as the first element in its given names) left the Imperial group when he was only fifteen for a different life, Tadaaki came to know of the family’s heritage with his father’s guidance from childhood. When he was nine years of age, it was decided at a family meeting of the Ohno clan that Tadaaki was to inherit the tradition, despite the fact that at that stage he was far more interested in becoming a professional baseball player. Lessons on the mouth-organ sho with his uncle and mentor Tadamaro began, and he also started learning Western classical music, which the Imperial Palace musicians are also required to perform as part of their official duties (Tadaaki is also a violin player). At the age of 12 he entered the high school for future gagaku players at the Imperial Household Agency, at which time his training began in earnest.

He admits to having come up against many difficulties in his early studies, but never once considered giving up. It was not until he was 17 that he actually touched the sho; during his first eight years of lessons, he was only instructed in shoga, the oral mnemonic system by which professional gagaku players memorize the complete classical repertoire of their main instrument (one of the three winds). He also began to learn the lute biwa at this time. At the age of 19, while still a student, he appeared on the Palace stage as a dancer in Engiraku, a komagaku dance (Dance of the Right); such an early debut is rare. His official appointment as a Palace musician came when he was 21, and as well as working there he also began to perform as a member of Tokyo Gakuso. From his late 20s he began to take the solo part in Palace performances of vocal genres, and the role of ondo (leader) of the sho part in kangen performances and accompaniment for togaku dances (Dance of the Left). He rose to the rank of instructor at the age of 31. His uncle, Tadamaro, died when he was about 35, at which time he assumed the role of music director of Tokyo Gakuso.