Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Kashima Philharmonic: The Third Pops Concert

It is unspeakably calm today. The air is warm, torpid, and eerily thick. The humidity hangs there with an almost tangible inertia, as if it is trying to outlaw all movement. It is typical post-typhoon weather. Strangely, the typhoon was supposed to hit us today, but, luckily, it gave us a good, clean miss. We didn’t need that storm, anyway. There’s enough heavy blowing scheduled for today.

It is the day of the Third Pops Concert of the increasingly international Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra (motto: “How can anyone say we still suck when people are paying to see us?”)

It’s not just the weather that is torpid. I was actually able to sleep in…for the first time in days and days, and my reticular activating system is telling me it still wants more. Usually, on concert days, they insist on practicing themselves to death from early in the morning. Well, since today’s show is on a Saturday evening, and all those really helpful kids from Seishin’s orchestra have morning classes, they decided to wait and practice themselves to death in the afternoon. As the orchestra’s intrepid (“ ”) librarian, I decide to pop by the school to copy off a few extra sheets. I show up a little before noon, dressed casually and looking (and feeling) like a zombie.

The kids are eyeing me warily. They’re not sure whether I’m suffering from pre-concert jitters, zonked on some weird, alien drug, or possessed by a nameless Lovecraftian horror.

No, I just want another hour or two of shuteye, but I know I’m not going to get it. I have too many important parts in this concert, and I want to break one of my own long-standing rules by actually practicing on a concert day. The fact is that, somehow or another, I have ended up with more than my share of spotlight this time. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Yes, I admit I can be a bit of a ham onstage. Well, maybe even quite a bit of a ham. Oh, all right…I’m a total ham, and I know it. The problem is that few if any others in the group are getting any spotlight time, and I seriously wonder how they’re feeling about that, especially since I’ve wound up stealing two other members’ solos. Do they endear me as a sort of off-kilter hero, or do they see me as a vain, stuck-up, overindulged, and overrated wad of misplaced gaijin ego? Either way, it doesn’t feel very good.

Oh, well. I should be thankful for the experience…and the exposure.

I arrive at the Kashima Workers’ Culture Hall at the scheduled “optional practice time” to find almost no one there but the stage crew. I’m suddenly hit with an inexplicable bout of self-consciousness. I shut myself in the (unoccupied) conductor’s changing room, put together my trusty Bb clarinet, and noodle around a bit.

When people start showing up, and more and more of them start shoving their noses into my practice room, I put the “licorice stick” away and head off for lunch. Hamburgers and French fries are on my official list of dietary no-nos, but today definitely qualifies as a McGrand day. I definitely need the energy.

The afternoon dress rehearsal (without the dress) begins, and the group that we’ve amassed is truly amazing. All the (surviving) regular members of the Kashima Philharmonic are there. In addition, as usual, our string and percussion sections are well padded with faithful volunteers from the Seishin Gakuen (my school) music club. There are also a number of extras scattered about here and there, many if not most of them professional orchestral musicians and/or music instructors from performing arts colleges. I’d feel intimidated if I didn’t already know all of them so well.

The rehearsal goes brilliantly, and I’m amazed at how far this group has come, even without the extras. I still remember our first regular concert four years ago. As proud as I was of our achievement back then (i.e. that we had managed to pull it off at all), we still sounded pretty lame. The first piece we performed back then was William Tell Overture, and, although it didn’t feel like it at the time, it was, quite frankly, a complete disaster. I listen to that recording now and feel embarrassed. We’re doing so much better now. It’s hard to believe that we’re the same amateur orchestra whose first chairman resigned and left in a huff after only three months.

Speaking of huffing, we’re committing the usual, grievous sin that just about every music group in Japan is routinely guilty of. We blow ourselves out in the rehearsal. During the two-hour break before the performance begins, many if not most if not all the members look like they’ve gone off and left a vital organ somewhere. We do this every, bloody time, and I keep hoping against all odds we’ll eventually figure it out. Oh, well. It’s too late. It’s almost H-hour.

And, for better of worse, the house is packed.

Our program this time is a movie tribute. Every piece we are to perform is taken from a soundtrack somewhere. It’s an interesting repertoire, and it starts out in a very interesting manner.

The stage remains dark. Instead of making a grand entrance, Mr. Ogawa sneaks in with the violins, creeps up to the platform, and gives a signal.

Over in the percussion section, Ms. Oshima, the talented, young flautist/pianist who tickles the ivories for my Seishin Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble, plays a low, sustained pedal tone on my Roland synth. She is joined by a low bass drum rumble and a deep, quiet growl from the double basses.

As the lights come up, the trumpets intone the opening tonic-dominant-octave of Also Sprach Zarathustra. It’s a heckuva way to start a show, and I love it! (Now, if only we’d been able to tune up properly beforehand…) After that last, blazing chord is done, we immediately segue (“continue”, for those of you that aren’t up on musical lingo) into The Blue Danube. That’s right; we’re doing a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This sci-fi buff is most definitely pleased. Next, we come back to Earth (aw…) and play a nice, sentimental arrangement of Moon River. Now that everyone’s all nice and relaxed, we kick out all the stops and play a cool suite from Jurassic Park. It includes some really nice work from the brass section in addition to a lovely piano interlude from Ms. Oshima accompanied by glockenspiel and xylophone. The tune is followed by more John Williams, a barn-burning medley from E.T. (*+$$#%&!!!* Williams is a SADIST!!!!) We’re still sounding great, but the creaks are starting to pop up.

I should point out here that our emcee for today’s show is a popular TV/radio personality. Mr. Ogawa brought in media figures to host our previous two Pops Concerts, but the guy who’s here this time seems to have the most profound effect on the audience. He’s a bit more current, so he’s better known to the younger set than the last two Pops hosts. He’s also funny as heck…though his monologues do tend to go on and on. The reason I’m pointing this out now is that, after E.T., Mr. Ogawa leaves the stage and I go to the front to take the first of my spotlights this evening. I end up standing there in front of the orchestra looking like a total drip (ha ha ha…I left myself wide open for that, didn’t I?) until the emcee acknowledges my existence and asks me a few questions in English.

Finally, he asks me (in Japanese), “Do you speak Japanese?”

I reply, “Depending on the condition my head is in, I can.”

He has a bit of fun with that, and then he leaves me in the spotlight.

The sax section (more kids from Seishin) and guest drummer Mr. Hasegawa (who brought down the house when we performed Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance at last year’s Pops Concert) emerge from the shadows, and we play Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade. It goes beautifully. (Actually, I hit one clinker, but I ad-lib out of it so it sounds like a clever turn. Heh heh…I love jazz!) After that, we launch into Sing, Sing, Sing. Of course, Mr. Hasegawa’s drumming is brilliant. The piece swings along nicely. Then it’s time for my open, extended ad-lib solo.

At first I’m definitely feeling locked in the groove, and I’m having a wonderful time riding the wave of the audience’s energy as they clap along with Mr. Hasegawa’s beat. First I play around in the upper octave, and then, on a whim, I drop it down low and quiet and try being mysterious…sultry. For a while I'm having a whole lot of fun, but then something bizarre happens. I actually feel dizzy, and I swoon for an instant, losing both the beat and my groove. There follows a couple of seconds of panic as I desperately try to figure out what to do, and then I flop around a bit with my fingers suddenly feeling numb. I’m still prowling around in the low octave, so I can afford to take it a bit slow, but I know I have to get out of it sooner or later. Listening carefully to Mr. Hasegawa’s beat, I think a silent “1..2..3” and then jump back into it, climbing back up on a swinging phrase to the higher octave and then suddenly flying into a burst of high-speed triplet arpeggios (based on a sort of practice etude I came up with recently…sort of a Benny Goodman meets Eddie Van Halen), twisting it into a diminished 7th climb, and then going immediately to Benny Goodman’s famous ending.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that kind of audience response from a jazz solo. I guess I’ve done it.

(Author’s note - Actually, when I listened to the recording of that solo afterward, the part where I spaced out and lost it actually sounded kind of cool. It added a bit of depth…or at least some eccentricity. It was, well, musical! I guess nobody knew I was flopping around in the dark on the verge of panic except me. Hey, as long as it made the audience happy, everything was fine. I love jazz!)

The whole orchestra comes in for the last phrase of the song, and then I cue the last fermata, crank out a cadenza that ends on a high altissimo C, and end it. The crowd gives a hearty cheer. The first set is over.

Lordy, lordy…I am totally burnt out. I hope the others are faring better, but judging from the complaints and moans I’m hearing, I doubt it.

The second set starts out quietly, with Over the Rainbow. After that, we play a kind of simple but very fun and action-packed medley from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Yep, we are definitely starting to sound creaky now. That’s not good, because next is the evening’s penultimate piece, a medley from Titanic.

Titanic opens with me sitting in a spotlight playing an unaccompanied solo on an Irish tinwhistle (C). After that, Nao Ikeda, a former opera and TV singer who now lives in Kashima and performed with us at our first Pops Concert, comes onstage and sings that hauntingly beautiful (though many would say hackneyed) main theme accompanied by the harp. Halfway through, I double her on my D-tinwhistle. As the piece progresses, there is a lot of lush brass harmony (a characteristic of James Horner’s music…remember Star Trek II & III?), but, unfortunately, our brass section is starting to buckle under the pressure.

It’s a shame, too. Our horn section used to be our worst Achilles’ heel and tended to earn a lot of wrath in the audience surveys. They’ve come a long way, and they’re sounding so much better now. The first horn player, Mr. Osuga, has a couple of solos in Titanic that are beautiful, high, soft, melodic, expressive, and hideously brutal. They are the French horn equivalent of walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. He never thought he’d be able to play them at all. Neither did Mr. Ogawa. Well, he was, and he did. In fact, he did it well. During the dress rehearsal he sounded perfect. Unfortunately, the dress rehearsal was then, and this is now. He still does a good job on a tough solo with a tough instrument, but you can tell he is fighting hard all the way, and he struggles to get the high notes on the right pitch. I feel sad, because the audience can’t really see just how much he has improved. I just know he’s probably going to get slashed in the surveys again, and he doesn’t deserve it at all.

Oh, well. I keep saying, “Save the chops.” Maybe someday someone will listen.

Titanic gradually fades down into an ending that is unique, mysterious, and beautifully sad. For effect, the light crew dims the lights along with it. Unfortunately, the audience misunderstands, and several of its members start applauding heartily just before that last, gorgeous, low chord played by the violas, cellos, and double basses.


After that comes the “final” number, a medley from West Side Story. This piece has probably gotten the most practice, so it should sound the best. Unfortunately, we’re pretty much spent by this time. Our performance is a little too reminiscent of the way we used to sound. We still put plenty of heart in it, to be sure, but there are a lot of splats, mismatched phrases, and out-of-tune notes. A couple of woodwind solos frap out. Mr. Ogawa’s 14-year-old son, who is playing lead trumpet (and is actually a pretty strong player), has finally lost his chops completely; toward the end he is still playing loudly, but almost a quarter step flat. The audience still sounds appreciative, but we are clearly blown and need to get the heck off the stage.

Fat chance. Do you really think we’re going to go without doing an encore or two, especially with the audience (spurred on by the emcee) chanting for one?

We play "Cha-Cha" and "Mambo" from the (MUCH more difficult) Symphonic Dances version of West Side Story. "Cha-Cha" sounds great (largely thanks to the bass clarinetist finally nailing her solo right on the money). "Mambo" sounds like it’s spinning out of control at very high speed on an icy track.

And after that?

What else? Our traditional encore for the last four years! THAT tune!

Pomp and Circumstance !

(That tune is kind of like herpes…it just KEEPS COMING BACK!!!!!)

As before, Mr. Ogawa has put plants in the audience. When we come to the final Grandioso, they not only stand up and clap along as before, but they start tossing streamers and launching balloons from the balconies. It’s a spectacular sight. It takes the audience a bit to catch on, but once they do the level of energy in there is amazing. Seven hundred people can still make a big sound if properly motivated.

It’s all done. It was wonderful, but I'm relieved it's over. Time to go find a convenient corner to melt into for a while…

In December, we’ll be playing Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. It should be fun.


  • I had forgotten how much wind and brass instruments can take the breath away, PANT PANT PANT.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:13 AM  

  • As one who was there I can attest that the Moody Minstrel was awesome. I don't know from where he drew his strength, and his performance was superb. What he thought was getting dizzy just seemed like creativity to the audience and orchestra.

    Having a rehearsal of the entire program in the afternoon followed by a very long and demanding concert made for a brutally long day. My trombone chops were so wasted by the end of the concert that I was sure that if I dared to look in the mirror I would see a characture with Mick Jagger lips staring back at me.

    We could drop the Pomp and Circumstance thing at the end. (please?) It was kind of like sprinting the last hundred yards after a ten mile hike. Maybe we'll be lucky and the librarian will "misplace" it between now and December. hmmm?

    For all the grumbling, I would not have missed it for anything, and have the Moody Minstrel to thank for my oportunity to participate.

    Good show.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:51 PM  

  • I doubt "Pomp" will pomp up (eck...) under any circumstances (double eck...) in December. However, I'm willing to bet it'll rear its ugly, pompous (triple eck...) head at the end of next year's Pops Concert.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:08 PM  

  • You were awesome leading the jazz band and
    I also liked your whistle solo in Titanic.

    One of your fans

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:56 PM  

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