Japanese audiences owed their first contact with the music of Witold Lutosławski to the Czech conductor Václav Smetáček, who included the Little Suite on the programme of a concert with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in March 1961. That event was commemorated by a courteous letter sent to the composer before the concert by the then secretary of the Polish embassy in Tokyo, with information about the planned performance.
Lutosławski was to be invited to Japan in 1972, but a journey to such a distant country for just two concerts was rather senseless, and it was cancelled. He did not conduct his music in Japan until November 1979. He related with amusement how the guide looking after him and his wife would arrange to meet them with a precision unimaginable in Europe – for instance at 3 minutes past 9. He had rather less happy memories of the long periods spent in Tokyo traffic jams on the way to rehearsals. However, his suggestion of replacing the interminable journeys by official car with a quicker journey by underground train met with a wall of incomprehension. ‘Maestro on the metro? In Japan, that’s impossible’.
He returned here fourteen years later, in October 1993, to receive a prize awarded him by the Inamori Foundation. Kazuo Inamori, who set up the foundation in 1984, was a chemist by trade, like Alfred Nobel, and he owed his fortune to industrial production. Lutosławski was the third composer to be distinguished with the Kyoto Prize; he was very well acquainted with both his predecessors: Olivier Messiaen and John Cage. In his acceptance speech, he referred to a problem that he had been addressing for years. He spoke about music that should be perceived above all as art, and so the work of Bach or Chopin, but which many people treated as acoustic pulp, with no concern for the fact that they were thereby destroying their natural sensitivity to sound. ‘Music in the primary meaning of the word needs defending and protecting’, he appealed to his audience.