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October 6, 2010
Tokyo Symphony Orchestra's Swedish principal cellist adapts to Japan to achieve his goals
Faith leads musician to find lifework
By CHIHO IUCHI
Berndt Bohman, the principal cellist of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (TSO) since 1980, has come a long way to be at the position he holds today.
"I came to Japan in 1979. It was not for music," said Bohman, a 59-year-old Swede.
|Finding harmony: Berndt Bohman has performed at the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra as principal
cellist since 1980.
Born in Falun, 250 km north of Stockholm, Bohman started playing the cello at age 12, mainly performing at local church services. His musical talent led him to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm when he was just 16. He then studied abroad in the former West Germany — where he met his future wife, Ruriko, who was studying the piano — and further in Finland.
"Those days, I really practiced hard. It is impossible to become a cellist only with one's talent. I think 90 percent is supported by one's efforts," Bohman said. "As I really love playing the cello, I just wanted to learn more."
Meanwhile, he also studied theology, which deepened his religious faith and made him determine to go to Japan, his wife's home country, to support church activities there.
"We had no life plan but just thought if we went to Japan, things would be all right," Bohman recounted with a smile.
"I came to Japan with a tourist visa, but I needed a working visa to stay further. Before long, our first child was born. I definitely had to do something about the issue," Bohman said.
Around that time, his wife found an announcement in a music magazine about auditions to play in the TSO, one of the oldest and leading orchestras in Japan.
After Bohman auditioned, performing a Franz Joseph Haydn cello concerto in front of TSO members, the managing director asked him to join them not just as a member of the cello section but as a principal cellist.
"Of course, I agreed. At that moment, the most important was to get a working visa," Bohman said with a laugh. Ever since, he has led the TSO's cello section.
"I was not the first TSO member to come from abroad, but I was the only one when I joined," Bohman said.
Naturally, he had some linguistic difficulties when he started, but he says his colleagues have always been supportive.
|The TSO's managing director Junji Ono
"As I did not understand what the conductor was saying, my colleague sitting next to me would indicate with his bow where in the score we were starting from during rehearsals," said Bohman, who now speaks native-level Japanese.
"Another colleague in the cello section lived in my neighborhood, and always came to pick me up in his car to go to rehearsal spaces and concert halls," Bohman said. "I would record our conversations in the car, and listen to the tape again and again. The tight and irregular schedule of an orchestra did not allow me to take Japanese-language courses, but in this way, I learned the language relatively quickly."
These days, he sometimes holds recitals in churches with his wife and teaches at schools of theology, achieving his initial goal for coming to Japan.
"Both (music and religion) are equally important for me," Bohman said.
Junji Ono, the TSO's managing director, was a viola player at the orchestra until 2007. He recalled his impression of Bohman when he joined in 1985.
"Bohman was already famous among orchestra players," Ono said. "The TSO had a reputation for having an excellent cellist from abroad and I wanted to play with such a musician."
According to Ono, nobody in the TSO used "Mr." or "-san" when addressing Bohman but called him in a friendly manner with the nickname "Be-chan."
Today, there are six members from abroad at the TSO while many orchestras in Japan are comprised entirely of Japanese musicians.
"In the world of music, your nationality does not matter at all. It is your performance that counts," Bohman said. "But how you can communicate with other Japanese members depends on your mind and character. There are people who can quickly blend in with Japanese people. Those who stick to their own culture have communication problems with Japanese people and become uncomfortable."
Bohman adds: "And in the case of music, I think it is better to blend cultures."
In July, the TSO conducted its third tour of China, after their 1985 visit to Beijing and Shanghai, and 2006 performance in Beijing. This year, they went to Dalian for the first time, which was also the first visit by a professional Japanese orchestra to the northeastern city. Under the baton of conductor Hubert Soudant, the TSO's Dutch music director, they performed Franz Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, receiving a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.
"Conductors, soloists, orchestra members and audiences, the music and composers, could all be international today," Bohman said. "Orchestra is an international business."
|Intercultural: Bohman performs in Dalian during the TSO's visit to China on July 27.
For more information, visit www.tokyosymphony.com
This monthly feature, appearing on the first or second Mondays of each month (Tuesdays in some areas), aims to provide readers with career advice for the international job market via interviews with professionals in relevant fields.