Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bella Voce

Just when we thought it was safe to go back to bed... it's the Seishin Gakuen Ongaku Kanshoukai. (That literally translates as "Seishin Academy Music Appreciation Event".) It basically amounts to getting all the students together (usually the junior and senior high sections separately) to see some kind of high-class musical performance, ideally with some educational value.

These things happen about twice every three years, with the third being an Engeki Kanshoukai ("Drama Appreciation Event"). They are usually a lot of fun, especially since my role as co-director of the music program and general staff for Mr. Ogawa puts me in a position to be directly and even intimately involved. In the nearly ten years I've been at Seishin, I have had the pleasure to help with performances by:

- "Rhythm & Brass", a jazz-influenced brass ensemble w/ drummer from New York (who came two years in a row, but I only saw and worked with them once),
- a Balinese gamelan band (whose members included one Seishin teacher and her half-Balinese husband!) performing together with a Balinese dance troupe,
- The Salzburg Mozart Ensemble, the only "officially sanctioned" group to perform Mozart's music under the authority of the Salzburg Mozart Museum,
- A choir from Sachsen-Anhalt in former East Germany whose members were an interesting mix of Germans, Czech, Poles, and Russians,
- A string ensemble from Florence whose director is a big name in classical music throughout Europe.

All of those events gave me the opportunity to see and hear some excellent performances by first-rate artists. They also allowed me to get acquainted with some really good people as all of them, without exception, were really cool even despite their levels of prestige. I was also allowed some other fringe benefits. Rhythm & Brass had toured all over the world, and they had a lot of anecdotes that were as informative as they were entertaining. The Salzburg Mozart Ensemble and the Sachsen-Anhalt choir gave me opportunities to dust off my German, which they appreciated even more than I did (and I was also able to challenge myself with exposure to Austrian and Saxon dialects. Nnnnope). (I might also add that the Sachsen-Anhalt choir, which was staffed entirely by people from countries that I was brought up to regard as "the enemy", showed me a human face from that part of the world for which I was very grateful.) The ensemble from Florence led me to get busy and learn a (very tiny) bit of Italian, and I always love learning a new language, even if I wind up forgetting it within a month. (Then there was that one bella violinista that wore tight, black...AHEM...)

Anyway, this year's event is to feature a performance by:

The Seishin Gakuen orchestra? Conducted by Mr. Ogawa?

Yes, there have been naysayers. Lots of them. The complaints have ranged from, "Couldn't you find anything better this year?" to "Why do we have to take our students out of class and herd them over to the Workers' Culture Hall for nothing but a music club exhibition?" Mr. Ogawa compromised by allowing each grade faculty the option of withdrawing. The senior class (and only the senior class) took him up on that and opted out.

Even so, dismissing the event as "nothing but a music club exhibition" would be kind of like dismissing Mr. M's social studies classes as "nothing but Mr. M yammering on and on". The first part of the performance is most definitely educational in content. As for the second part, it actually features a performance by two professional (read "world class" as both have very international dossiers) opera singers from Tokyo. The Seishin orchestra is providing their accompaniment, and therein lies the real rub.

We didn't really have a whole lot of time to rehearse, and even if we did, Mr. Ogawa clearly had no idea what he was getting himself into. Now, on the eve of the performance, he is visibly worried and mumbling to himself that he may very well have bitten off more than he can chew. The first part of the program is no problem. Moussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" is already on the Kashima Philharmonic set list, so the kids have been working on it for months. The same is true of Britten's "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" (with me narrating). The kids have been practicing it since the summer training camp, and it's mostly down. The clip from Beethoven's 5th, used as a demonstrator for conducting, is no problem. However, when the opera singers showed up last night for their one and only rehearsal, it was a near-total disaster.

Kashima Workers' Culture Hall

The kids have spent the past three weeks (minus the school trip for the 9th graders) working on the opera tunes, which didn't really seem so difficult. When the singers were present, however, we almost had to start over from scratch. You see, it's one thing for an orchestra to back up someone singing a popular song. The music starts, and the vocalist sings along with it. Opera is a completely different ball game. They sing how they want, and the orchestra has to adjust to match. In an actual opera performance, with the orchestra down in the pit, the conductor is out in front, so he and the performers onstage can see each other and judge each other's body language. When all parties are on the stage for a concert performance, however, it is much more difficult. The instrumentalists have to watch the conductor like a hawk, and he has to keep a close eye on the singers. It's tricky to say the least, and it requires a high level of musical maturity on the part of all performers.

KWCH, "Howaie" Lounge

Needless to say, most school bands or orchestras wouldn't even attempt something like this. I think we were all feeling a bit humbled after last night's rehearsal, which ended long before it was finished. Now, in the teachers' ready room at the Workers' Culture Hall, Mr. Ogawa, Mr. Karatsu, and I are all staring blankly into space, chins in hand leaning on the low table, wondering just how insane we really are. The doors open all too soon for the morning's junior high performance. Soon it's curtain time, and there's nothing to do but go for it.

Facing the stage, KWCH

"Night on Bald Mountain" sounds a bit loose and tentative. The kids are nervous, particularly the junior high ones on stage before their peers. I have a feeling that last night's rehearsal may have left them a bit demoralized, too. The strings are mostly on target, but the woodwinds are out of tune, the brass are sagging, and the percussion section is struggling to stay on the mark. Even so, "Bald Mountain" is an entertaining piece even if it squeaks a bit. Besides, the quiet sequence at the end does feature some beautiful playing by a couple of our best players. The winds manage not to muff that deadly last, pianissississimo fermata (known in some circles as "flautist's deathleap").

After that, I'm on, mike in hand, yammering away in Japanese about how wonderful everything is. Then I begin my explanation of the orchestra with the guy standing in front, the conductor. The 7th and 8th graders are actually studying conducting in their music classes, so it's totally appropriate. Mr. Ogawa then talks a bit about how to conduct Beethoven's 5th, followed by a quick demonstration. Next I invite students to come up and give it a try. We asked for two representatives from each of the three junior high grades, but we get a good-sized crowd. There's a lot of enthusiasm, sometimes even some outright comedy, and it's a lot of fun.

One thing I notice, much to my delight, is that the kids in the orchestra are responding to all those guest conductors. I'm not just talking about starting and stopping, either. They actually adjust their tempo...and stay together (providing the conductor doesn't brick it completely, as some do). Even better, I can clearly hear them adjusting their dynamics and style to fit the body language of the person in the saddle. When a couple of kids forget to cut off the last note, the orchestra goes right on holding it out until I desperately remind the current conductor to get back on the platform and stop them. In other words, the members of the orchestra are watching the conductor, and they are following him/her perfectly. That shows a level of maturity I wouldn't have expected.

The comic relief finally comes to an end, and it's time for Britten. The orchestra performed this piece, with my narration, seven years ago for the All-Japan Selective Youth Orchestra Festival (and there were lots of complaints about "that gaijin" speaking the original English!). I hadn't done it until last summer's training camp, where I found I still remembered my lines. I still do, though I rarely perform them verbatim, and I don't this time, either. I ad-lib, making it easier so the junior high kids have a chance of understanding at least some of it. "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" is a very challenging work with lots of solos and small ensembles, obviously, but it is a lot of fun. The kids clearly enjoy doing it, too, though they still appear to be struggling a bit. Last night's rehearsal was much better. Still, they are playing at a much higher level overall than the orchestra of seven years ago, and it's enough to wow a crowd not made up of classical snobs.

The first half is over, and the crowd, amazingly, is appreciative. None of the kids are chatting among themselves, and I spot only a few sleepers. It's a good sign.

Dressing Room #1, which is always the "teachers' room"

The opera singers come out for part two, which I watch on the monitor in the teachers' room while sprawled out on a pile of cushions. My heart is in my mouth, but I'm soon relieved...for the most part. Mr. Ogawa has a much better idea what's going on, and the kids are with him. The first two tunes suffer from intonation problems, but the kids apparently hear it and fix it themselves. The oh-so-dangerous "Queen of the Night" from Mozart's "Magic Flute" goes brilliantly. This is followed by "Santa Lucia" (an Italian folk song but sung in German...apparently from an opera) and then a gorgeous medley from "The Sound of Music" (I know...that's not an opera. Whatever). The encore is a recent tune, originally in Italian and sung in that language but with the title "Time to Say Goodbye". It was also a hideous mess in rehearsal, but now it sounds great...and that tune has a wonderful melody.

The morning show is done. The junior high audience seems happy as it oozes out the exits. As for the kids in the orchestra and Mr. Ogawa, they are shaking their heads with both relief and disbelief. However, they are only halfway there. The senior high performance will happen in the afternoon, and that promises to be an even tougher audience.

Lunch break is long, but not nearly long enough. Round two drops like an overweight cliff-diver.

Actually, though, "Bald Mountain" sounds much better this time. It's tighter, better in tune, and better balanced. When I go out for the Beethoven's 5th conducting session, there are only two brave souls that jump up on the stage to give it a try. Working the audience as best I can, I manage to coax up one more student (the new student body president, who does the best of anybody today!) and two teachers. Not as many as in the morning, but it's still fun. It's also more relaxed and restful for the kids in the orchestra, which helps the "Guide to the Orchestra" to go over much, much, much better than in the morning. No one is saving his chops this time, so there's a lot more energy. It all goes really well, and all those problem punks currently in the audience (I only saw ONE SLEEPER!!!!) actually give us a rousing applause!

And if I thought that was good...

KWCH, facing the wing where I stood behind a curtain and watched

The performance with the opera singers, which I watch from the wings this time, goes superbly. All the sloppiness and poor intonation of the junior high set is gone. The orchestra is sounding tight. And, of course, the opera singers are excellent. That encore, "Time to Say Goodbye", could have moved almost anyone to tears (though I manage to keep mine in my head by sheer effort). Again, the audience response, which I feared would be totally lacking, is very warm.

Ah, it's over. The kids are wiped out. Mr. Ogawa is walking in circles making funny, high-pitched whines. The opera singers are telling me that I have a "bella voce" (lovely voice) and saying I should come and announce another show for them sometime, and I am replying in a raspy, husky hiss between coughs. Breakdown and cleanup goes quickly and efficiently (because it's a well-practiced routine), but the faces around me look awfully vacant. Even so, through it all, I still see smiles. I also hear lots of muffled cries of "Yatta!" ("We did it!") The kids are proud of what they've just done, and they damn well should be. I would have been proud even if they'd sounded like total crap simply because no school band in its right mind would have even tried to do this. They did it, and, when they got it together, they did the job well.

Now, why the heck can't we take this outfit to Sydney?????!?


  • ...more about what the "bella violinsta" was wearing, when you get the time...

    By Anonymous Jeff Nicholson, at 7:22 AM  

  • This book of yours is coming along nicely as well. Think about it, all you have to do is cut and paste, and voila!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:18 AM  

  • You're a bunch of wild and crrrrazzzy guys!

    We did some ambitious performances when I was in high school, but nothing like that!

    hyibcy - ocillating high note played by a clarinetist whose chops are shot.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:09 PM  

  • I've seen Siamese twins, but I don't even want to think about what a "half-Balinese" would look like. At least until I've had another drink.

    By Anonymous WC Fields, at 8:03 PM  

  • Gamelan! it is a kind of traditional music in Malaysia too! (well, after all Indonesia and Malaysia are next door neighbours)

    By Blogger YD, at 8:11 AM  

  • Explody. Veeeerrrry explody.


    By Blogger DewKid, at 9:35 AM  

  • I enjoyed the gamelan performance, mainly because it was a totally new musical experience for me, and I always enjoy those. I've also always loved hearing traditional music from different places. It helps give you a window into the soul of another culture.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:31 PM  

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