Kazushi Ono, who conducts the CBSO in music by Strauss and Prokofieve tonight, talks to Christopher Morley about the Japanese perspective on European music.
Kazushi Ono, who appears with the CBSO at Symphony Hall tonight, is a conductor of huge operatic experience. Yet he has never conducted Puccini's Madame Butterfly outside his native Japan.
Speaking from Paris, immediately after having conducted a concert for children, he explains why.
"Though Puccini made efforts to learn about Japanese culture at that period, the information that he obtained was not always accurate. And somehow, in the libretto by Giacosa and Illica it's not always understandable to us, so it's not always comfortable to listen to the text. But the music is marvellous!"
Setting his difficulties with this most famous of "Japanese" operas on one side, Kazushi has held sway in several important European opera-houses. From 1996 to 2002 he was music director at Karlsruhe, where he conducted a complete Ring cycle (he has conducted almost all of Wagner's operas), and he is currently in his final season as music director of La Monnaie in Brussels, the Royal Opera House of Belgium.
This autumn he takes over as principal conductor of the Opera de Lyon (one of Birmingham's twin cities), but before then he is looking forward to summer in Glyndebourne, where he will conduct Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel.
"Yes, I'm very, very glad to go there. And I'm very good friends with Glyndebourne's music director Vladimir Jurowski. We have had good talks about the repertoire and conducting and so forth, so I'm looking forward to seeing him, and working there too."
It seems that Kazushi was destined to be not only a conductor, but also a bridge between western and eastern cultures.
"From a very early age I wanted to be a conductor - there's a photo of me aged three or four conducting with a chopstick!
"My mother is a teacher of the Japanese tea ceremony, and at home the special room for the ceremony was right next to the music room with the piano.
"They were completely different spaces, but the tea ceremony room always evoked a deep, meditative mood in me, and I think that feeling helps me still."
During his period (1992-96) as music director of the renowned Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kazushi Ono gave many first performances in Japan of unknown operas (in concert performance) and unknown works.
"We had the good fortune to commission Mark-Anthony Turnage, who wrote a concert-piece for the TPO," he adds.
Western classical music is very big in Japan, I observe, and his response is detailed and thoughtful.
"Yes, I think so. The standard of the orchestras is very high, and technically they're all in focus - amazing! There are eight in Tokyo alone. But Japanese orchestras have to learn a lot about the background of European culture, and that's why it takes time to learn the atmosphere of the period in which the compositions were made, and that means it's easier for me to stay longer here in Europe.
"I grew up until I was 20 years old in Japan, and my roots are absolutely in Japan. But for me now to be Japanese it's an advantage, because German music, and Italian music, and British music, and French music are the sure ground. I feel sometimes that for German people the French music is rather far, you know, and on the contrary, you can say that for French people German music is not always very close to them.
"But this is my advantage, that I have been able to learn them all.
"Until over a hundred years ago Japan was closed to foreign cultures, and afterwards when Japan opened that door, especially to European countries first, the cultural influence was so enormous. People in that period were so eager to learn about Goethe, Alexandre Dumas, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and so on.
"And then orchestras were founded, and after the Second World War, and Japan's capitulation, when the country really had to reconstruct, so many influential and great musicians, like Prokofiev and the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, came to Japan.
"And now for my generation... When I was a child, the first music I heard was European, and I became a little bit ashamed not to know about the Japanese tradition of music, but all the music I heard from TV and radio was European.
"And since the two world wars, the wave of European culture which was coming in is now very, very naturally based in Japan.
"And now Japanese music is coming the other way In Paris, a taxi-driver told me that he likes very much to listen to Japanese pop-music which has been exported to Europe. Even though obviously they can't understand Japanese.
"These are times of enormous change." Kazushi Ono's programme tonight with the CBSO is one constructed around the theme of the outsider in confict with conventional society. Two well-known tone-poems by Richard Strauss (Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote, with Eduardo Vassallo's cello depicting the idealistic knight and Chris Yates' viola his long-suffering servant Sancho Panza) frame a much rarer work, the Third Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev.
Written in 1928, this symphony in C minor makes use of material originally intended for an unfinished string quartet of 1909, later taken up into the score of Prokofiev's opera The Fiery Angel of 1919-23, revised 1926-27, but receiving no complete staged performances in the composer's lifetime.
Set in the German Reformation, the opera is the grim tale of Renata, a neurotic obsessed with the idea of her guardian angel, and seeking him through both sexuality and witchcraft. She enters a convent, corrupts the nuns, and, when exorcism fails, is condemned to torture and death.
And so in this jolly story we have the third "outsider" in the CBSO's evening.
"It's a really, really interesting programme on the theme of the Outsider," says Kazushi Ono, "and I'm really, really proud that the orchestra accepted it."
* Kazushi Ono conducts the CBSO in Strauss and Prokofiev at Symphony Hall tonight at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 780 3333).