In Conversation: Shunske Sato

In Conversation: Shunske Sato

On family, performance and the value of being obsessed.

Shunske Sato
Tokyo, Japan

In Conversation: Shunske Sato

On family, performance and the value of being obsessed.

When did you first become interested in historical performance practice and what sparked your interest?

In hindsight, I see that the seeds were sown quite early on. My mother being a pianist and my father a music-lover, we had quite a collection of recordings at home, some of them on period instruments. I remember picking up on distinct and unusual sounds of these recordings, especially since my immediate surroundings at the time - living in Philadelphia and studying at Juilliard in New York - was pretty much completely absent of historically informed performers and performances. That all changed when I moved to Paris at age 19: concerts of first-class baroque musicians were suddenly within reach, luthiers selling baroque instruments a dime a dozen. I went for it full-throttle, and before long I was happily neck-deep in everything baroque. On the other hand, my interest for historical performance practices of later periods (19th century in particular) has its roots, once again, in childhood.  Historical, pre-war recordings were part of my listening repertoire from an early age - for instance, for my 12th birthday, my parents gifted me a set of of Jascha Heifetz’s complete recordings, and I remember very well obsessing over his early recordings in particular. My following birthday was met with a similar CD set, but this time of Fritz Kreisler. Rachmaninoff’s recordings of his own concertos were very familiar to me, thanks to my mother. Never too early to start!

The Netherlands Bach Society – of which you are concertmaster – is currently undertaking the formidable project of recording all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1080 works. Can you tell us more about the project and what the experience has been like for you so far?

The project was launched in 2013 with the premise that all the video recordings would be done as live concerts, and that these recordings would be made available online, for everyone for absolutely free. Every Friday a new BWV number (an opus number of sorts for Bach) is released on the project’s website - sometimes a cantata, other times an short invention for harpsichord. For us at the Bach Society it’s been an incredible privilege to do this, to have the sponsors behind us, the audiences around the world, and to dedicate our lives to Johann Sebastian. It is simply beyond me how every single work by him is so different from the next, yet unmistakably his, and always of the highest quality - and that, under extraordinary, constant professional and familial pressure! On a personal level, since these recordings are done live, it has toughened my skin considerably - it has trained my concentration levels to stay high during performances, but also it has taught me to let loose and let go, even under the threatening gaze of microphones and cameras. And listening to one’s own playing so often is the best kick in the pants one can get - it’s embarrassing and painful and informative and motivational like nothing else.

You have a young family. How do you balance your family life with your professional life, and what advice can you give our readers, many of whom are starting their professional careers, on achieving a healthy work/life balance?

In all honesty I am not sure if I have found that balance myself! Family is irreplaceable, work is enriching, and of course I want both; enter the art of prioritising. I try, wherever possible, to only accept work which I truly want to do, whatever the reasons might be. Perhaps it’s  because it offers an opportunity to do something I’ve never done before, or the people involved, or even the location of the concert. Whatever it is, It has to fire me up - anything else is not worth it. Time is limited, and financial or career gain is not reason enough to deprive myself of family, a good book, time for self-improvement, or even some leisurely practicing. I see too many colleagues who fill their calendars beyond capacity, who come from and go to projects, uninspired and ghost-like. By removing the less-than-ideal obligations, one creates room for better things. And these better things will come - always.

What advice would you give to young musicians who are interested in historical performance practice but don’t know where to start?

Be obsessed! An obsession for early Italian baroque, or Schumann...whatever it is, it has to haunt you a bit, so that you will listen, read and furiously seek out till you’re satisfied. And one thing will lead to another: a keen interest in Bach will inevitably lead to the music of Buxtehude or Couperin, or what kind of political or aesthetical climate it was written in, even the technology used to make the instruments themselves… It blooms into something that goes far beyond the music itself, and that’s what I find makes it so wonderful and worthwhile. Also very important: keep doubting. Don’t just copy your teachers or role models, but keep revisiting the primary sources and forming your own ideas. Certainly where HIP is concerned, we must not forget that we are working with very good guesses, at best. It should keep us investigating and reinventing. John Cage put it beautifully: “consider everything an experiment.” Inertia in art is fatal.

You recently toured with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra playing Paganini’s fourth violin concerto, a piece that many people have not heard played on gut strings before! Do you think perceptions of historical performance practice are changing to become more inclusive of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century music? What do you see as the future of historical performance practice?

The perceptions of 19th- and 20th-century performance practice has been a slightly slower one, and I think the reasons are both “cultural” and, alas, financial and logistical. Cultural, because for whatever reason the 19th century repertoire is still a touch too familiar, too “close” for many of us to completely revise and revamp, and dare to perform in a drastically different way. Quite paradoxically, there is more direct information available in regards 19th-century performance practice, but less willingness to experiment; the reverse, it appears to me, is true for earlier repertoire. Perhaps there’s a more comfortable time-distance when it comes to pre-Classical era music. The other issue, the financial and logistical one, is much more mundane: 19th-century repertoire often demands larger forces, larger pianos that are costly to transport, instruments that need to be specially built, and understandably many musicians or concert organisers are unable to invest so much. I do feel however in a very palpable way that attitudes, even within the past 5 years or so, have become much more open, and that we are daring to do challenge long-established ways of going about a Schubert or a Brahms. And keeping things in perspective: in 50 years, we too will have become a piece of history in historical performance practice, “in the first quarter of the 21st-century they used to do X, Y and Z…"

Shunske Sato & Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's The Romantics is available now. Stream or buy online here. Photo by Mark Daams.