Though Japan’s love affair with Western classical music began more than a century ago, its orchestras still suffer from the snobbery of critics. Eurocentrism afflicts even Japan’s classical establishment, and many Japanese symphonies have consigned themselves to the shadow of Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic with their devotion to the Germanic styles epitomized by that legendary group. To make matters worse, they tour too infrequently to earn the trust of classical audiences in the West. Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra is taking steps to solve that problem with its first U.S. tour in decades and a brand-new CD on the British Decca imprint. Japan’s first professional orchestra, the NHK was established in 1926, and the country’s national broadcasting corporation, Nippon Hoso Kyokai, has aired its concerts since 1936. Recordings from as recently as five years ago weren’t disciplined or compelling enough to earn the NHK first-tier status, but on the new disc, abetted by improved wind and brass sections, the orchestra turns in vigorous, tightly organized, and flawlessly expressive performances of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Symphony no. 6. Some of the credit no doubt belongs to Charles Dutoit, a Swiss maestro who formally joined the group in the fall of 1996 as its principal conductor. Dutoit can be overliteral, but lately he’s been coming up with sharp, inspired interpretations, and the youthful NHK has responded well to his preference for lightness and color–and his non-Germanic repertoire. The orchestra’s Symphony Center program includes Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, starring teen phenom Sarah Chang; Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5; and In the Shadow of the Tree, a recent piece for koto, bass koto, zheng, and orchestra by Russian avant-gardist Sofia Gubaidulina. Written especially for the NHK, it pairs the kotos with one half of the orchestra and the zheng with the other to create a discourse between light and darkness. Renowned virtuoso Kazue Sawai plays all three solo instruments. Tuesday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christian Steiner.