Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 31, 2005

R2, Plot a Course to the Nearest McDonalds...

Well, I finally did it.

I finally gave in to temptation and bought myself a Christmas/New Year/birthday present: a car navigation system.

Actually, when I bought my BLUE RAV4 a navigation system was available as an option for a bit of a discount. I opted out, and I often regretted it afterward. Now, however, I'm glad I did. The one I just bought and had installed is MUCH better.

It doesn't just use GPS to show your position on a map, plot courses to programmed desinations, and give you traffic updates. When it's in navigation mode it actually zooms in to a 3-D virtual reality view when you approach a place to make a turn. That way there's no mistake which way you need to go. I also like its search feature. I can punch in the name of a chain business, i.e. McDonalds, and it will give me a list of every one within a 50km radius in order of closeness. If I select one, the navigator will guide me right to it. I'm already using that feature to find stores I didn't know existed.

Perhaps even better is the fact that the system also includes DVD/CD and MD players as well as an SD card slot so I can upload my mp3 files into the system's own HDD and listen to them at my convenience. (Some newer models include USB interfaces for iPod and so on. This one doesn't, but oh, well.) I can also watch TV on it...if I can get adequate reception. Add to that the voice commands (in Japanese...natch) and the cool, retracting screen, and you have something right out of Star Wars!

Speaking of which...

One of my Christmas presents from my wife was the DVD of Revenge of the Sith (SWeIII). I never got a chance to see it in the theater, so I was very happy. My son also got DVDs of Clone Wars (an animated series, played on Cartoon Network and produced by the makers of "Samurai Jack" with Lucas' cooperation, that covers the time between Episode II and Episode III). My kids and I had a blast one day having a Star Wars marathon in which we watched both Clone Wars volumes followed by Sith. There have been a lot of reviews, but here is my own take on the End of the Star Wars Saga.

I was actually impressed with the Clone Wars. Sure, it was a cartoon that was clearly aimed mainly at kids, and it was (understandably) a lot like "Samurai Jack" in tone, flavor, and plot development, i.e. it was mostly drawn-out battle scenes. Still, it was fun to watch. They also did a very good job of tying the movies together. It literally begins right where Episode II ends and ends right where Episode III begins. The main characters are all there and are more or less what they should be (for better or worse).

As for Episode III, well, I think the very first part of it was an excellent example of Lucas at his worst. I mean, the visuals were impressive, it was all very dramatic, and it was significant to the overall story, but I couldn't help wondering:
-- Why do sci-fi TV/movie writers/directors have so much trouble figuring out that there is no gravity in space? Any gravity inside of a spacecraft would most likely come from either rotating sections, acceleration, or the deck plating. In other words, a ship rolling a little bit would NOT spill its contents!!!
-- The super combat droids from the Tech League of [unpronounceable electronic noise] were bad-ass and impressive in Episode II. They were just as nasty in Clone Wars. So now, in Episode III, they banter and talk trash in cute cartoon voices? They quibble and jump around nervously like Chip and Dale? They quickly fall to pieces when exposed to flaming oil? WHY, Lucas? WHY???
-- Come to think of it, ALL of the enemy droids in the first part are anxious, twitchy, cowardly, and prone to freak out at the least provocation. And this is supposed to be considered a reputable fighting force? If I were the separatists, I would be demanding my money back from the manufacturers (or threatening them with a morbid fate).
-- General Grievous was a really tough cookie in Clone Wars. After wiping out a whole clone platoon single-handedly, he took on a high-ranked Jedi and two padawan at the same time and gave them a sound thrashing. He was also an impressively sinister and menacing figure. In Episode III? He seemed more like a villain in a muppet movie or something, i.e. not so much sinister as ridiculous.

Needless to say, I was shaking my head and moaning throughout that first chapter. Once it was over, however, the good movie finally got underway, and I was duly blown away. It is dark. Man, oh man, is it DARK! Dark to the point of disbelief! But it tied up the saga very nicely. Impressive. Most impressive. When it was all over, all I could say was, "Wow." I couldn't wait to watch it again (and even sit through that first part again).

Sure, I've read and heard some pretty nasty reviews, mainly concerning the dialogue and acting. However, I think it was quite an improvement over Episode II in that respect. (Episode II was a better story than Episode I, but the screenplay was annoyingly bad at times.) The exchanges between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) may not impress drama critics (to put it lightly), but I have met real people that talk like they do. Anakin is supposed to be a powerful but moody and rather arrogant young man with a weak, angst-ridden character. Padme grew up a sheltered, precocious child who never really had a chance to grow up properly. In that respect, the two characters are believable as portrayed. Their dialogue seems immature (IS rather immature, actually), but, when you think about it, it probably would be. Yes, both parts could have been better cast...and much better directed (much better written?), but they're nowhere near as bad as a lot of critics have said. As I said, once I got past that annoying first chapter, I enjoyed this movie completely...though it left me feeling pretty gloomy at the end.

I also have to say that the irritatingly excessive comic relief of Episodes I & II (Jar-Jar in the first, C-3PO in the second) is thankfully absent. There are some humorous moments in Episode III, to be sure, but they are measured enough to fit into the whole framework without kicking mud all over it.

Time to celebrate. Maybe I'll hop in my BLUE car tomorrow and drive out to Subway sandwiches for lunch. I haven't been to Subway since my trip to Yokohama last spring. My new navigation system says there's one not so far from here that I never knew about. It's only 43km (27 miles) away. Shouldn't take too long. It's kind of like having my own R2 unit...except that it actually talks to me with a feminine voice speaking Japanese. It also thoughtfully reminds me not to watch TV or videos while I'm driving everytime I start my car. However, it doesn't fix my BLUE car or increase the power. It also doesn't spray battle droids with oil and then torch them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Minstrel's Home Cooking (Musically Speaking)

One of the things I like best about the Christmas/New Year season is the many cards and goodwill messages I get. I know a lot of people think Christmas cards or nengajo (New Year cards) are an annoying hassle, but I really appreciate them. The main reason is that they allow me to hear from people who otherwise tend to be out of touch. It's that one, special opportunity to reaffirm contact with friends, acquaintances, and relatives that are otherwise too busy, lazy, indifferent, or afflicted with "real" lives to send off a message. ;-)

Sometimes what I hear from these long-lost companions can be surprising. Maybe there will be totally unexpected news of a personal or family development that has taken place since the last message (i.e. last winter). Maybe there will be a confession or revelation of something that has been around for some time, but the person never bothered telling me till now.

Maybe they will ask me things about myself that I haven't really expected. That's actually the gist of this post. I'm surprised at the inquiries I've been getting about my music. I'm not talking about my performances; I've been spewing plenty about those on this site. I'm talking about my most significant hobby, which is composing and recording music. Someone pointed out that I've never mentioned that on this site. To be honest, I just never saw the point. It is, after all, just a personal interest of mine, and I didn't want to be so vain. However, since people are flattering me by asking, I guess it's only proper for me to answer. Also, since the number of visitors to this site has grown so much (thank you all very much!) I suppose I'd better provide a bit of background information.

Songwriting has been a passion of mine since at least my junior high school days, though I composed my first song at age 5 (and I still remember it). I had a number of occasions to perform my compositions live, particularly in college, but I never had much of an opportunity to record any (beyond the few songs that Pa've engineered...thanks, Pa've!). Not surprisingly, when I graduated from college, came to Japan, and got a real life back in 1990, one of the first things I did was start putting together a sort of home studio in earnest. I already had my Epiphone 12-string acoustic guitar, which I had brought with me from the U.S.. By the time Christmas of 1990 was over, I had acquired a cheap Casio keyboard, a Fender bass, a Yamaha Telecaster-style electric guitar (a discontinued model which I bought at a 70% discount!), a cheap microphone, a Yamaha wind synthesizer, and, most importantly, a Yamaha 4-track cassette recorder. I then started spending the majority of my weekends in my "studio" putting my ideas on tape. Sometimes I would literally spend all my time in that room, pausing only for bathroom breaks, instant ramen, or brief naps. Once I had accumulated enough material to fill a 90-minute tape, I would then announce the completion of my next "album" and start foisting copies on people.

(In retrospect, those early recordings were pretty bad...)

The material I was composing and recording was quite different from what I was performing. In those days, I was a member of a community band (which I finally quit in disgust in 1999...long story) which performed classical and pop music, and I also belonged to a semi-pro jazz big band (which I was forced to quit in 1996, though I'm still an occasional guest member). My home recording allowed me to experiment with other kinds of music, in particular progressive rock. My girlfriend/fiance/wife's love of British indie pop also had a very strong impact on my style. Soon my repertoire was a very varied (vary veried?) one.

Anyway, the trend continued, and it also evolved over the years. Old gear was sold (usually to Jeff) and replaced with new and better gear. Other items were picked up along the way. In 1997 I finally mothballed the 4-track tape recorder and bought an 8-track digital recorder. Soon afterward, under pressure from friends, I finally bought a CD burner and started putting all my albums on disk. Also, more significantly, after both Jeff and pro musician friends of his asked (sometimes even hired) me to do professional session work in Tokyo, I began to reevaluate my whole approach. For one thing, I actually started taking it all seriously enough to try to make it sound good. The only problem was that, being married with children, I could no longer afford to spend much time in my studio, and I therefore produced very little compared with my rough early days.

A minstrel at work/play in Studio Moodio, circa 1999.

Then, during 2000-2001, I went through a period of extreme turmoil in my life (some of which I've described on this site...such as in my "Vindicated or Just Irritated" posting), and my studio became my outlet and my comfort. Over the complaints of my wife, my children, my in-laws, and my workplace, I threw myself into it and produced three albums in quick succession (the second of which, Diminished Arcana, was completed in a record-breaking two weeks!). This was the collection I now refer to as the "Purple Trilogy" (the sturm-und-drang-ridden Through the Valley, the soul-searching Diminished Arcana, and the assertive Islands). I was rather proud of (most of) what I had accomplished. My muse was also by now totally exhausted. I didn't think I would ever be able to compose again.

I did continue to dabble, however, and at the end of 2002 I suddenly realized I had enough to put together another album, the one entitled Spinning Flow. Although the album has received some very mixed reviews, it does contain a few gems which some people still call their favorites, such as my "hit" song "(Zen-Zen) Wakannai!". After that I took a much-needed break to concentrate on other things.

Finally, in 2004, a burst of creativity spurred on mainly by my sci-fi/fantasy writing led me to spend a few months completing View from the Tower. I was literally recording music I'd been hearing in my dreams. That was actually quite a project, and it left me feeling almost as drained as the entire "Purple Trilogy" had. I decided to take another break, but that was accidentally pre-empted.

You see, while I was recording View from the Tower, I bought myself a new Line 6 PODxt guitar amp simulator/effects processor. Once the album was complete, I just started having fun playing around with with my new "toy" like a little boy at Christmas. The trouble was that, in the process, I kept coming up with ideas that sounded good to me. I'd say, "Let's try recording that and jamming along with it and see what happens." Then, just for the heck of it, I'd add bass, drum, and other parts. Then I'd come up with lyrics more or less on the spur of the moment. I was just screwing around and having fun, but, before I knew it, I had a whole bunch of workable songs. The result was what has been perhaps my most successful (or at least best-received) album to date, Open Halls, which I "released" in early 2005. It is a much more "rocking" album than my previous work. Also, since it is very guitar-centered (obviously), it is more stylistically consistent. Interestingly, for the first time ever, it has earned me praise not only for my music, but for my lyrics as well. Considering I never really tried to make good lyrics (or good music, for that matter), that comes as a total surprise.

Well, now that the "background" has taken up so much space...

I've done very little since then. I've only completed a single song for myself since Open Halls. Right now my main project has been doing something I don't usually do: composing and recording music for someone else's lyrics. The lyricist/vocalist in this case is my wife's student...actually a problem student. She is a very talented writer and musician who had to transfer from her former school on account of bullying. Now she is definitely a rather troubled individual, as her lyrics show very clearly. My wife asked me to try coming up with music for her. First I refused, as I usually refuse such requests, because it has never worked in the past. Other people's "lyrics" (poems, at any rate) tend not to flow well enough to fit into song form easily...if they inspire me at all. Quite often they don't. However, on reading the girl's lyrics, I was immediately struck with a very strong inspiration, and I immediately went to work. I have completed a total of four songs, one of which she has recorded (in a real studio...not at home). The other three have been held up by her pickiness and inability to make up her mind. I'm quite proud of the original demo versions (me singing...the only bad point), but I've already had to redo one song twice in order to accommodate her (apparently ever-changing) vocal range and completely rewrite another to put it in a different genre (in this case pop ballad to orchestra classical!). Yes, it has been a damned chore, but I'm actually enjoying the challenge. It has also been rewarding to help someone else overcome difficulty to realize a dream. The smile alone was worth it.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Can One Be TOO Enlightened?

When I first began my adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun back in 1990, Christmas lights were still something of a novelty. Sure, one often saw them in the glitzier shopping and night life areas, but in the more local commercial and residential areas they were uncommon beyond the little Christmas trees that people (mainly children and young women) had in their homes.

In 1993 I ran a string of lights around the glass back door of my apartment and scored a major coup. It really attracted attention in the neighborhood, and I could often hear groups of people (mainly children and young women) saying, "Ah! Kiree! (beautiful)" out in the parking lot in the evening. (Of course, if I opened my curtains, let alone my door, they immediately fled.) I even remember people getting all excited when, at around the same time, one of the local shopping centers decorated one of its nearby trees with lights.

Ah...those were the days. Since I've said that, you might thing that perhaps the present day is quite different.


Now it seems that Christmas lighting is all the rage. There still aren't many to be seen in the residential neighborhoods, but there seems to be a sort of competition going on among public facilities and businesses. Actually, it has been in progress since about the turn of the century. At first it was very tasteful and enjoyable. Yes, I did say, "At first." Unfortunately, like so many things, it went overboard fast.

Last year the Aso Community Hall was the site of the Aso Illumination Festival. I saw it, and it was a rather nice Christmas event. Basically, it consisted of speeches, a dance performance by a local traditional dance troupe (of which my daughter is a member), more speeches, a nice, Christmasy performance by a local junior high concert band, more speeches, a bingo game for prizes contributed by local businesses, more speeches, and...FINALLY...the lighting of the enormous mass of Christmas lights they had set up all around the square. Except for the speeches, it was all very enjoyable in a sentimental, small town sort of way (just the way I like it). I thought they did a really good job with the lights, too, and I'm sorry I don't have a picture of it to show you.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, the neighboring town of Tamatsukuri immediately had a copy-cat event of its own, and people were saying it was more impressive. That left the noses of the people of Aso very much out of joint. Matters got even worse after the incorporation, because Tamatsukuri's downtown area beat out Aso's for the official administrative and primary commercial center of our newly-created Namegata City. Not willing to take all that defeat sitting down, the leaders of the local mom-and-pop businesses of (former) Aso got together and decided to beef up this year's Illumination Festival even more. My daughter danced again, but, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), I was unable to attend. I was, however, able to see what they did to the Community Hall's Christmas light display this year:

This is the result.

Now, I like blue as much as the next man. In fact, I really like blue. It's my favorite color. That's why I happily drive a BLUE car.

However, this is starting to make me feel blue. It's hard to get the full effect looking at these pictures instead of getting swamped by that blue overload, but it is definitely what I would call overkill.

I haven't seen the Tamatsukuri display. Frankly, I'm afraid to. Even a little ways down the street from the Aso Community Hall one starts finding very gaudily-decorated businesses such as this one:

Yes, I know it's blurry. It's hard to take a good picture with a small, handheld digital camera on a freezing-cold night with a hard wind blowing...especially when you're having to work hard to keep a straight face. How about that heart? It blinks in a sort of pattern, I guess so that it appears to be beating. Now, I realize that New Year is the main holiday event in Japan, as it is in most Asian countries, so Christmas isn't quite so significant here as it is in the Western world, but the fact that the Japanese seem to have turned it into a sort of December Valentine's Day (or, perhaps more accurately, a winter sex festival) is still something I have trouble with. Forgive me; I'm a traditionalist, particularly at this time of the year. The little Christmas tree, Santa Claus, presents, etc. could be kind of cool, but that heart seems hideously out of place (not to mention tacky).

Several of the businesses in the Aso downtown area are similarly decked all out in very brightly-colored lights. Some of them are very pretty. Others range from kind of silly to annoyingly absurd. I'm sorry I don't have more pictures to show you; the ones I even tried to photograph came out even blurrier than the ones I posted here. I know I should be fair. Obviously people put a lot of time, effort, and love into their work, and I'm sure they're all proud of their "babies". However, as a neutral observer and citizen of this town, I can't help thinking that this latest round of "keep up with the Suzukis" is going beyond wacky. I'm almost afraid to see what they come up with next year.

It's not necessarily limited to Aso, either. The signs and trees in front of Kashima Jingu Station are all decked out in a huge mass of Christmas lights, too. However, though rather ostentatious, it doesn't quite approach the tacky overkill on the other side of Lake Kitaura.

Today's Daily Yomiuri newspaper included an editorial bemoaning the recent changes for the worse in Japanese culture. They were mainly concerned with the fact that increasing obsession with short-term economic gain has led to a wide range of crimes and scandals during the past year, several of which were either deadly or potentially so. Until the 21st century, Japanese companies tended to emphasize both long-term goals and pride in their good image. That Japan seems to have faded if not disappeared. So has the Japan in which simplicity was considered a virtue. That's too bad, because I still tend to think simplicity can be a very good thing. That's why my contribution to my neighborhood's Christmas lights continues to be as follows:

Still just one glass door hung with a string of twinkling lights. It's hard to see from the street as you drive by, but I think it's worth it.

So is my family's very own, little Christmas tree on top of the TV (though it was more fun when it was piled high with presents)!


Friday, December 16, 2005

Vindicated or Just Irritated?

Wow. Wow wow. wow WOW wow wow....?!!!

By the way, WOW!

Did I mention wow?

This week's English staff meeting at ye olde academy doesn't turn out to be the usual dry list of (mostly irrelevant to me) events, rambling (mostly irrelevant) soapbox monologues and (usually irrelevant) squabbles between Mr. O and one of the other more opinionated members of the faculty. Our school had a general English proficiency test not so long ago, and today we have a couple of representatives from the company that produces and manages the test in order to talk about the results.

We are all given copies of a very thick collection of documents spelling out the test results. (Most of it is a whole bunch of graphs and mathematical formulae that don't really mean a damned thing to me but sure look cool. These guys are definitely professionals!) The two representatives then give us a very (and probably needlessly) detailed rundown on just what it all means.

"This school's students are clearly strong in both English listening and reading comprehension," says the lead rep. Then his face and tone become more grave. "However, they are weak in writing. Their English composition proficiency catches up a bit in the upper grades, but in grades 9 and 10 it is well behind the national average."


There is dead silence for the better part of a minute, and then Mr. I splutters, "We do teach a specialized writing course in the 11th grade."

The reps nod, and the leader retorts, "That's what we figured, looking at the results. However, frankly speaking, 11th grade is much too little, too late to be effective."

"But that's the only place we can fit it into the schedule," stammers Mr. I, "and even then only with difficulty. How could we make room for writing without interfering with something else?"

One of the other teachers chimes in, "What do the schools with above-average writing scores do?"

With an "I'm glad you asked!" look on his face, the rep replies, "They don't really teach specialized writing courses at all. Instead, they stick composition exercises into their regular English reader classes. Basically, after they finish a reading passage, they have the students write a short composition in English summarizing the content and giving their opinions on it. It doesn't take long for the students to get used to the idea of writing in English."

Our English faculty erupts into a chorus of oohs and aahs. What a revolutionary idea! And so simple, too! Wow! Why hasn't anybody thought of that before?

Actually, one voice is missing from the Chorus of Eagerness, and the mouth attached to that voice is frowning. It's doing so because the person behind it did think of that before. In fact, he not only thought of it, he did it...and he was punished for it.

That person is me.

When I first started working full-time at the academy back in 1997, I was originally assigned to the senior high section, and my main post was teaching 10th grade English "reader" class. Since it's basically a college prep school, English classes there were always geared toward exams. However, I wasn't really familiar with Japan's entrance exam system, so I taught my classes the way I had been taught German, Japanese, and my own native English. Basically, my approach was "learn by doing". If we focused on a grammar pattern or learned new vocabulary, I told the students to "use them in a sentence". Whenever we read a passage, I told the students to give me a summary and a review in English. I also gave them extra points for doing supplementary composition work.

I saw a lot of progress, particularly in the students' essay writing. Their general proficiency with English grammar and vocabulary seemed better than the ordinary, test-oriented grades of the past. They had trouble adjusting to my style at first, but they seemed to appreciate it, and some of them really seemed to get into it. Because of that, when the students moved on from grade 10 to grade 11, I was sent along with them. I continued working with the same students in more or less the same manner.

Halfway through that second year the problems started. I was stubbornly refusing to use the traditional exam-prep teaching approach, and that started to rankle some people. First parents started complaining about me to the homeroom teachers, to the grade chief, to the principal, and to the PTA. Then other teachers started expressing "concerns" that I was "not giving the students what they need to succeed". Finally, I started hearing gripes from the students themselves that I was wasting their time and hurting their chances of entering college. One student even went so far as to flunk one of my exams on purpose so he would be demoted to a "more useful" lower-level class.

When that year drew to its close, I insisted vociferously that I not be moved along with them to grade 12. Senior year is exam hell year, after all, and it only stands to reason that they concentrate on exam prep. There was no way I could be qualified to teach at that level. No such luck. The grade chief insisted on moving me up. (I found out later that he did it mainly for the sake of politics, i.e. keeping other teachers out of the position, but that's another story.) I knew there would be trouble, and I was right. I stuck to my composition-oriented approach, but I boosted the level to help their exam prep. Many students stayed absolutely loyal, but a lot of others became openly defiant and insulting. I was accused of being incompetent. One student said I should "stick with music and quit teaching". One of our more promising boys handed in his last final exam for my class blank. Meanwhile, acting at parents' request, other members of the English faculty were offering special seminars after school to give my students "real" English education.

Most of the students managed to get into the colleges they'd hoped to, which was actually impressive. After all, up till then they'd always been a problem grade. However, the few students that didn't make it named me as the cause of their failure. The grade faculty more or less forgot I even existed when it came to graduation and I was essentially left out of everything. When it was all said and done, under orders from the principal, I was moved to the junior high school and told that, except for the grade 12 composition seminar I teach every year, I would never teach senior high level again. Ever since then, I have focused almost exclusively on junior high "oral English communication".

And now the other English teachers are acting like composition exercises and task-based reader lessons are a wonderful, revolutionary, new idea...the greatest thing since the online dictionary! But really those company reps are just telling me that I'd been right all along.

How should I be taking this?

Time to shut up and play my guitar.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Die Echte Weltsprache: The Aftermath

(Okay, by popular...or at least Snabular...demand, I give you "What Happened Next".)

Needless to say, we are all both high on life and totally exhausted after the applause finally ends and the hall lights come on at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall. Congratulating each other between pants (as in fast, hard breathing) and giggles of disbelief, we meander our way off the stage, occasionally tripping over music stands (or the contrabassoon) along the way. Quickly separating into our respective groups, we head for the dressing rooms to change and try not to faint. Tired but happy banter fills the "male regular members' dressing room".

Chuck is conspicuous by his absence.

I take my two clarinets apart slowly and give them a good cleaning and oiling. They deserve it, after all. Instruments have personalities, you know, and these two are particularly moody. I have to thank them when they're cooperative. Then I put on my "civvies" and head out into the hallway to find it strangely empty. After that, I go back to the stage to help with cleanup, but it's already almost finished. Apparently the group mobilized quickly with quite a lot of available hands, and I'm a latecomer. There's still a lot to do, though. After all the instruments are in the truck and the stage gear stowed, we get ready to head over to the school to put the instruments away.

When I head into the hallway leading toward my car, I find Janka's manager/interpreter/driver/piano tuner standing all alone looking rather morose. I ask him if he's going to the party, and he replies by asking me darkly how to get there. I give him some easy directions, and then I head on my way. It's then that Chuck suddenly comes running in, still in his "fake tux" and bow tie, panting and wearing a big smile.

"Where've you been?" I ask.

"Oh, I got dragged out to the lobby to play interpreter for Yanka," he replies cheerfully between pants. "I mean, literally dragged out by the arm! You wouldn't believe the crowd of people that wanted her autograph! Most of the Seishin students...and about half the audience... Too bad I can't speak German, right?"

Apparently not, Art. Time to go.


We arrive at ye olde academy to find that the night watchman (hired from a private security agency) has parked his car right where the truck needs to back in. I and Ms. Mu, Kashima Phil's only regular percussionist, go inside and split up to search for him in the sprawling, darkened corridors. Luckily, he turns up almost immediately. After he moves his car, the truck backs in, and soon we have a veritable caravan of people lugging up items ranging from double basses to assorted bits of the xylophone. As usual, the tympanis, harp, and celeste are loads of fun to pack up all those stairs (NOT!). It is fortunate that we have a lot of man(andwoman)power on hand, because we get everything put away with amazing speed.


Chuck is still in his tux when we load up in our cars and drive the very short distance to Forte, the cozy, little "coffee & wine tea room" that has always served both Seishin's music club and the Kashima Philharmonic so well over the years. The couple that live/work there have always been among our most loyal and devoted supporters. We always have our after-concert parties there. As usual for this time of year, it is all decked out with Christmas (no, NOT "HOLIDAY") lights and ornaments. Inside, it is warm and homey, with a generous supply of food laid out buffet style. There is also an ample supply of wine, which I have to try to avoid since I have a long drive home.

Ms. St, who was the "second-chair 1st clarinet" through the whole program (While Mrs. Ogawa and I traded off between "first-chair 1st and first-chair 2nd"), is at the door with the moneybox. It's a good thing Chuck has the exact amount, because, as usual, I wipe out her change supply.

Most of the regular members (that didn't help with cleanup) are already here together with most of the professional extras. Mr. and Mrs. Ogawa are here, as are the Simowitsch sisters and their manager.

As usual, seating is at a premium. I chat cordially with the Simowitsches for a little while, but there is nowhere to sit nearby, so I head for the nearest open seat, which is way over in the corner out in the hinterlands between some middle-aged ladies from the Lupinus Choir (DON'T...!). After I've seated myself, Janka quickly scoots over and invites Chuck to join them.

Hmmph. I know when I'm not wanted.

I allow myself my one beer of the night for the opening toast, and then I dig into the food. As usual, it's like a feeding frenzy at the buffet, and I'm too mild-mannered (like Clark Kent) to plow my way through like some people, so I just sort of wait for openings to exploit. Then I sit down in my corner with my heaped plate, whereupon the Lupinus ladies immediately tear into me with a barrage of the usual questions about my life, my wife, my children, my lifestyle, how old I am, whether or not I can actually use chopsticks, blah blah blah. I'm used to the routine by now, as it's par for the course for being a foreigner in the Land of the Rising Sun. Besides, I'd much rather be asked annoying cliche questions in a warm, friendly manner than be ignored or ostracized.

A few meters to my left, just audible over Janka's giggling, I hear my name mentioned more than once, but I have no idea what they're talking about. That rankles. Unfortunately, after having lived in a non-English-speaking country for fifteen years, any English within earshot sticks out like a sore thumb and immediately grabs my attention. It's also impossible to ignore even if I try. I'm feeling too tired and moody to put up with this gracefully, so I just try to keep myself distracted with my dinner. Then, in a rather loud voice, Chuck says something like, "How could I be anything but overjoyed to be in the presence of two such lovely ladies from Germany?"

Ach, Gott. (Cue sound of someone shoveling manure.)

My appetite immediately comes to a dead halt, and it's all I can do to keep what I've already eaten down. I go to grab a glass of tea, and when I do I throw a quick glance at Janka's manager, who is sitting quietly in his own corner and staring gloomily into space. I know he speaks a fair amount of English, but I really hope he isn't understanding any of this. As for me, I return to my corner and amuse (distract, more like) myself reading the pile of questionnaires from the two concerts. Unlike previous concerts, every comment I read is good. I guess that's enough to ease my indigestion.

As I sit and read, it comes to be the customary speech time. Mr. Ogawa starts, and for once he has only good things to say. (In the past he has often launched into a blistering tirade about people's sloppy rehearsal habits and consequent poor performance. This time he doesn't.) He is clearly very happy about the concert we pulled off tonight...and also relieved. After that, the spotlight is turned over to the professional extras, four of them, actually. The content of their speeches drifts into a slow haze as I get more and more wrapped up in the questionnaires I'm reading. Eventually I'm tuning the whole proceedings out altogether.

I...hai-hai...have become...comfortably numb...

Actually, no I haven't. Almost everyone else is drinking copious amounts of wine or beer, and the levity (and decibel level) is increasing. Unfortunately, I'm being tragically sensible. Being sober among drunk people rather spoils the fun (even without Steve ;-) ), so I'll just keep reading these questionnaires.

Then, all at once, everyone starts shouting my name, and someone yanks the papers out of my hands. What, do they want me to give a speech? Actually, no. They want me to interpret Yanka's speech. I try to decline, saying (with total honesty) that I'm probably too tired to translate German to Japanese. No such luck. The crowd is adamant (in an intoxicated sort of way). There's no escape for this worn-out minstrel.

Actually, the interpreting goes quite well for a while at least. I understand everything that she says, and it's pretty simple to put into Japanese. Then she says two different expressions that translate the same way in Japanese, so I wind up saying the same thing twice. That sets off a chorus of guffaws. After that, she says a long, fast sentence. I understand the first half, but not the second, so I ask her to repeat it. The second time I follow, but I'm not sure how to put it into Japanese, so I ask her to repeat and let me translate just the first half first. As I pause to think about the second half, Jana, sensing trouble, jumps up and reiterates what Janka has just said in English. I assure her that I'm alright, and then I continue. It all comes to a comfortable conclusion, and I sigh deeply as everyone applauds.

Actually, there are two others here who speak German quite well...possibly even better than me. One is our lead cellist, Mr. Ohe, who lived and studied in Germany. The other is Mr. (or should I say prof.?) Sugiyama, one of the extras, who is a horn player and teacher at the reknowned Musashino College of Music. Mr. Ohe is rather shy, so he is slinking around in the shadows, but Mr. Sugiyama comes over at this point, and he, I, and Janka chat for a while auf deutsch. She surprises us by telling us that the Kashima Philharmonic actually played the Tchaikovsky Concerto significantly better than many if not most of the European orchestras she'd played it with before, and she has played it with quite a few (including the Berlin Philharmonic). She also says that European and American orchestras tend to be nowhere near so friendly. She and Jana have never experienced a party like this one, and it's a bit of a surprise for them.

Janka is also rather (overly) concerned about her performance in the second concert. As I mentioned in an earlier post, she had been put on edge by the problem-wracked rehearsal, so her confidence was shaky. I assured her that most of the trouble stemmed from the fact that we had just gotten a little too accustomed to our rehearsal pianist, who had played the notes well but not the music. Janka still doesn't seem convinced.

"Well, if you want a critical comment," I say to one of the world's most famous up-and-coming pianists, "I did notice that you were putting less feeling into your playing in Kashima than you did in Kamisu. You were playing it safe. But it's not that big a deal. Even when you're not really at your best, it's still wonderful, because you play that Concerto the way it should be played."

That seems to be exactly what she wanted to hear, because her mood changes immediately for the better. She does, however, get her revenge. She apparently listened to both concerts backstage, she knows exactly where I f****d up in "Pictures at an Exhibition" during the Kamisu performance, and she tells me so. But apparently my Kashima performance passed the test.

Suddenly Ms. Miyazawa, Seishin's vocal music instructor and director of the Lupinus Choir, comes up with a present for Janka. This is followed by presents from Mr. and Mrs. Ogawa. As it turns out, the Simowitsch sisters also have presents of their own to give people. After giving her present to Mr. Ogawa, Janka comes over to Chuck and me wearing a big smile and holding two boxes, both tied up with a red-and-green ribbon. One is noticeably bigger than the other.

"These are for you," she says playfully. "I'll let you choose."

Chuck and I stare at each other for a while, and then I say, "I'll tell you what: since you're younger, friendlier, and more handsome than I am..." Art G. takes both the hint and the larger box. Paul S. is content with the smaller one. (It turns out to be a hand-carved wooden Christmas tree ornament. Quite beautiful, actually. It will definitely see use this year.)

While all this has been going on, the video of the Kamisu performance has been playing in the background. We're right in the middle of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. I go over to the buffet to grab some dessert, and Stone (the sax player) comes over feeling very insecure. He's not accustomed to playing with an orchestra, and both his tone and his style (not to mention his staying in tempo and on rhythm) were a matter of concern from the beginning. I reassure him that, despite whatever imperfections there may have been, he did a good job. He replies that he still intends to go outside for a smoke when "Il Vecchio Castello" (his solo) comes up.

Was this Hartmann painting the inspiration for "Il Vecchio Castello"? Experts aren't certain.

Speaking of going outside, it's past 11:30 p.m., and tomorrow is Monday. If I need anything right now (other than a few drinks) it's a good night's sleep. It's time to hit the road. I say a round of goodbyes, and then Janka asks me if I could translate some of the more relevant questionnaire comments and send them to her. I say of course.

When I ask her how I should send them to her, Chuck smiles and says very deliberately, "Don't worry. I have both her mailing address and her e-mail address. You'll be in touch, right?" I answer in the affirmative, sighing inwardly. Then, when I start to leave, Chuck leans over and asks me quietly in a "hey, dummy" tone if I've asked her for her autograph yet. I haven't, so I tell them I'm going to run to my car and get my copy of the Concerto music for her to sign. Janka follows me outside, but she stands and waits patiently by the cafe door (in short sleeves in the near-freezing night) as I sprint to the BLUE RAV4, which is parked over in the weeds, and bring back my music. She's not accustomed to signing autographs, and it has all been a bit bewildering for her, but she has some fun with it.

For good measure, I ask Jana to sign it, too. I've been wondering what it has been like for her, traveling around in her kid sister's shadow, but she seems perfectly content and having a good time. She still seems to appreciate the gesture of acknowledgement, though.

(In retrospect, I probably should have had their manager sign it, too. He looked rather alone and unwanted.)

I give a final round of goodbyes, and then the BLUE RAV4 is purring in the still, frosty night as it heads toward Namegata City again. Not knowing exactly why, I pop on "Open Halls", the latest of my homemade CDs, and crank it up loud. Yes, it's clearly a very amateur effort, but it's mine, and I'm rather proud of it. The same goes for the Kashima Philharmonic. Now I have my loving wife and a couple of cold Yebisus to look forward to. :)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Die Echte Weltsprache, Day Four

The Kashima Philharmonic after our first regular concert, 2001.

Concert poster for the current two-day event.

Sunday. The last day of this music marathon. I’m not sure whether I really want to get up or not. I guess I have to. After all, regardless of our condition (or mine, for that matter), today the Kashima Philharmonic (rather tired-sounding fanfare) is playing at its home turf, the Kashima Workers’ Culture Hall. The Kashima crowd has always been a very loyal one, so…well… I guess what I’m trying to say is…

Whatever. Time to get up.

When I go to gather my “fake tux” together, I notice to my dismay that my loyal, loving wife has taken all my dress shirts to the cleaners. The white shirt I wore yesterday smelled bad, so I popped it in the washer last night. It’s now hanging on the clothes pole outside. I don’t have any other white shirts. However, before I panic, I notice that, for some reason, a white shirt I’ve never seen before is hanging on the rack. Perhaps it is one of my father-in-law’s that got brought here by mistake. Whatever. It’s clean, it’s pressed, it’s starched, it’s white, and it fits, so it has just been pressed into service!

After I finally hit the road, one of the first things I do is take the John Lennon/George Harrison CD out of the car stereo. I put that disk together to help me prepare for last night’s gig in Hokota. Now that that’s out of the way, the best thing I can do is scoop kitty litter over the memory of that gig and get on with life (and I am winking with my tongue in my cheek while I say that, you realize). I content myself with the meditative sound of the 1.9-liter engine purring along as my BLUE RAV4 makes the journey across the Lake Kitaura Bridge into Kashima.

I arrive at the KWCH to find instruments lying all over the lobby but few souls to be seen anywhere. Apparently it’s lunchtime, and almost everyone has gone out (if they’ve come at all). Chuck is there, looking chipper as ever, and we wind up heading to the KFC across the street for lunch. I figure a bit of white meat will do me some good.

Alas, that was probably a big mistake. Soon after returning to the KWCH, I am afflicted with two problems. My “primo filet sandwich” seems to have fossilized within my stomach, which now sports a large rock. There is also an occasional tendency for oily food to make me feel both agitated and spaced out (since I usually avoid oily food), and my system decides to make this moment one of those occasions. When the afternoon’s rehearsal starts, though my head and fingers aren’t in bad condition, I’m feeling short of breath and having trouble focusing. Not good.

Frankly, I can’t figure out why we’re even bothering to have yet another long rehearsal today. Almost all our problems yesterday could be attributed to being exhausted. More practicing isn’t going to solve that. It’s only going to make it worse. Apparently Mr. Ogawa understands that, because he orders us to play only what’s necessary and save the chops. It doesn’t seem to compute. Everyone plays at more or less full potential, repeating the same old error yet again.

I’m still having trouble focusing. The fast runs are going by without too much trouble, but I keep losing count of the measures. A couple of times I accidentally come in on a rest (oops…). The good news is that, though I’m using the same reeds as yesterday, they seem to like the air in the KWCH better. Control is definitely not a problem, at least for now.

There are bigger problems elsewhere. Stone is still dragging the sax solo in “Il Vecchio Castello” (The Old Castle, second movement of “Pictures at an Exhibition”), and Mr. Ogawa is getting irritated. We go over the same passage again and again, and Stone just can’t seem to figure out that he’s drifting behind the cello rhythm. He and Maestro Ogawa are glaring ice bolts at each other. Later, Janka is having inexplicable trouble with the Concerto. She and the orchestra keep winding up off from each other in the same place, [cue Robin Leach voice] and we don’t know why. We go over it again and again, the same thing happens every time, and the bright, young, German pianist starts getting upset. She’s trying very hard to communicate with Mr. Ogawa (at high speed), but he is lost and she is getting tongue-tangled. Chuck does his best to interpret, but they’re having trouble following each other. Finally Mr. Ogawa tells her just to follow her instincts and runs through it one more time. This time we’re almost on, so Mr. Ogawa says, “Good enough,” and moves on.

My assistance isn’t requested, so I stay where I am and keep my mouth shut.

Once again, the rehearsal takes a full (and totally unnecessary) three hours. I figure there’s little prayer of us actually pulling off a good performance now, so I decide not to worry about it. I’ll do my part as best I can. I hope the others do the same. I can't ask for much more than that.

After that, we have a bit of time to unwind before changing into our concert dress. Janka and Jana come into the rehearsal room (also the men’s changing room, wouldn’t you know it?) to practice a bit more. I manage to chat with them for a bit (before Chuck comes and quickly monopolizes the conversation), and they tell me they’re planning to come to the after-concert party, a tradition which amazes and even confuses them a little since there’s no such thing in Germany. I ask Janka about her condition, and she replies that she’s happy as can be…but very eager to get the whole thing over with. She and Jana both look tired. Considering their schedule, they probably haven’t gotten over jet lag yet. I’m sure they will be happy to get back home to the land of candle-lit Tannenbäumer.

Eventually the doors open, and the hall fills up quickly. Ever since our first “pops” concert two years ago, we’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of turnout at our now-twice-annual performances at KWCH. This is even despite the fact that we now charge admission. Our home crowd has been good to us, and they’ve come to give their support yet again. I only pray we don’t let them down.

Modest P. Mussorgsky

Curtain time. This time there is no Lupinus Choir (Den…*sigh*), so we start right out in Concerto formation, but we open with Mussorgsky’s “A Night on a Bald Mountain”. It goes pretty well, and it feels pretty good. Next, Janka takes the stage, and we play the Concerto. As always, her performance is wonderful, but I can’t help feeling that she’s holding back a little compared with what she did last night in Kamisu. She’s playing it a bit safe, which is a pity, but it still sounds great. (Actually, she later tells me that she really was playing it safe because the problems during the rehearsal had shattered her confidence. Strange, that, coming from a world-class performer! Still…it was probably better for both parties.) I’m even more impressed with the orchestra. I can tell by the tone quality of some of the notes I’m hearing that people are holding on for dear life, but they are pulling it off, and they are sticking it together. I don’t hear any of the glitches, splats, or flame-outs that happened in Kamisu.

I don’t believe it! Are we actually doing this?

During the intermission, I spot Janka in the hall and congratulate her on her fine performance. She replies by giving me a very dark look. She’s not happy.

Next, we go on in the “Pictures at an Exhibition” formation (i.e. me in the solo-chair position and the saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, harp, celeste, and full percussion section stuck in). I take a deep breath and hold it just before Sanshiro Ogawa (Mr. Ogawa’s son, a 9th grader who also happens to be in my home room) starts the opening trumpet solo fanfare. Last night, in Kamisu, he started out fine and then collapsed halfway through. Tonight I bet he doesn’t last two measures…

...and I lose. He starts out beautifully and STAYS that way!

Way to go, Sanshiro! I guess I owe myself a beer.

The rest of the brass, apparently encouraged by their most junior member’s success, are coming in solid around him, too. “Promenade” is sounding the way it should. So far, so good, against all expectations!

“Gnomus” is about as solid as it has ever been. The “Promenade” interlude that follows, which is mainly a woodwind ensemble ending with a duet between me and Mrs. Ogawa, comes off beautifully. That’s when I realize that the reed in my Bb clarinet is not being sluggish like it was last night. I’m feeling and sounding good. Next is “Il Vecchio Castello”. Stone drags a bit again, but only a little bit, and we hold it together. I come to my solo, and I nurse it a bit through the crescendo (since I do NOT want to squawk again!), but then I realize that my A clarinet is responding to my commands without complaint, too. (Must be the air.) I take a risk by testing it, throwing in another crescendo off the hip in the next phrase (hey…it says “espressivo”, right? MY PREROGATIVE!!!!) and leaning into it hard. Smooth as silk. Better than usual. Bingo. We’re in the game!

I owe myself another beer. I'll make it a Yebisu.

After another “Promenade” reprise comes “Tuileries”, which feels a bit rushed, but I’m feeling just good enough with my A clarinet to play around a bit more during the solo and have some fun with it. My fingers come dangerously close to slipping on the sweaty keys, but I somehow manage to keep it under control. Next is “Bydlo”, and the tuba solo sounds great. That thrumming bass woodwind and low strings rhythm is also tight as a drum. The egg ballet is about as close to being tight as we’re probably ever going to get it, and it feels pretty damned good. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” (I know I spelled it wrong in the last post. Sue me.) also sounds and feels great. So does that notorious “Limoges-March”, with my Bb clarinet staying with me as I navigate through all those tricky register-crossing sixteenth-note runs. I am feeling pumped right now, and I am REALLY enjoying this, but now we’re coming up to perhaps the most dangerous piece of all.

Hartman's "Catacombes", which inspired the movement.

I pop off the altissimo A and then grit my teeth just before the brass pound the first power chord of “Catacombes”. That has always killed us in rehearsal, and it wasn’t very pleasant to be sitting right in front of it in Kamisu last night. Tonight it wobbles a bit on the punch, but not bad, and the members quickly pull it into tune. Not bad...not bad at all! For the most part, the trombones and horns are nailing it on the mark!

I’m on the verge of tears. I can’t believe this! Are we really doing this? Do I owe myself three beers now? Or was it four counting “Limoges”? Should I make them all imports? I guess there’s something to be said for the homecourt advantage! Or are they just putting everything they’ve got into it since it’s the very last time? I guess it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that we are doing it, and doing it well!

I can feel a surge of energy going through the whole orchestra as we launch into “Baba Yaga’s Hut”. I think everyone is feeling the same rush I do, and it is an adrenaline flow to rival any heavy metal concert. We’re riding the wave far higher than we did last night, I can tell you. My Bb clarinet’s reed is showing signs of giving out again, but I don’t give it a chance. I blast it at maximum power through the fast and furious parts, ease it gently through that tricky, descending trill run in the middle, and then blast it again when it rages at the end. My instrument responds without squawking or even drifting out of tune even though I am pressing it past my safe limits. My mouth muscles are probably going to be killing me tomorrow, but this is about as close to flying as anyone can get. Even so, the real test will be coming immediately after the last sixteenth-note run.

Hartman's design for a Gate of Kiev, which inspired the movement.

“The Gates of Kiev”. The brass have to have chops of steel for this. Last night they didn’t. As I roll off the last sixteenth notes, I shut my eyes and whisper a monosyllabic prayer.

The first chord is solid and gorgeous. So is the second. Then a half and two quarters. Then Sanshiro spots the interval up to a high Bb. Then he does it a second time. Then the section repeats the chords. Solid as a rock. Unbelievable.


Screw it. I’m buying myself a case next chance I get. It’s a good thing that I have twelve bars of rest right now, because I’m feeling seriously choked up. That spot of moisture I feel on my face could be sweat, and it could be a tear. This is truly amazing. A few years ago some of these people could barely play a major scale. Listen to that!!!

“Kiev” rolls off probably as well as any time we’ve ever played it, and probably even better. That glorious last note leaves us all feeling like we’ve just won a marathon. I guess, for all practical purposes, we have. It’s a shame the Kamisu performance wasn’t this good, but at least we gave the home crowd…and ourselves…something to remember.

Mr. Ogawa has to come out and take a bow three times. The applause just keeps on going. We’ve never gotten that much applause before.

The encore is Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”, a nice, relaxing favorite that I’m now much too spent to play well. My clarinet is still responding fine, and the reed is serving me well, but my fingers just don’t want to move anymore. The fast notes come off clunky. Oh, well. I’m well covered, I can play strong when I need to, and it’s only the encore.

And now, meine Damen und Herrn, it’s party time.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Die Echte Weltsprache, Day Three

And so we arrive at D-Day Number One.

Unlike night before last, I actually got some sleep. I also made sure that I slept in late (and gave the wife some much-needed attention). The migraine is gone, and I'm feeling pretty good. Antsy, a bit worried, but physically good. I take my time getting ready, and I make my way to the Kamisu Culture Center at a nice, leisurely pace, ignoring the message on my cell phone from Mrs. Ogawa informing me that we're having a woodwind section rehearsal. I still manage to arrive with enough time to join them for most of it, anyway.

Kamisu Culture Center

The members of the orchestra don't seem very enthusiastic. Some members seem a bit disheartened. I keep overhearing a lot of whines along the lines of, "I can't do this. It's hopeless."

I'm afraid we may be done before we've even started.

While I'm chatting with Chuck, Mr. N, our regular oboe player and orchestra chairman, comes up and says very loudly and cheerfully, "Hey, Chuck, a bunch of us are going out for karaoke after the concert. Join us?"

"Sounds like fun," replies Chuck pleasantly.

Am I invited? Hell, no. It doesn't really matter, though, since I already have plans for the evening, but that's kind of the way it is these days. Chuck has become a sort of Garfunkel to my Simon. I'm the one who gets stuck with heavy parts, plays solos, arranges music, and prepares everyone's music sheets, but Chuck is the popular one who gets all the attention. Mr. Ogawa is also totally infatuated with the guy, a fact he sometimes seems to rub in my face for reasons unknown...maybe a sort of "Why can't you be more like him" kind of thing. It's a good thing Chuck and I are friends, because sometimes that gets rather obnoxious.

The rehearsal lasts three hours, and it's a back-breaker. We're all in a bit better shape than we were last night, but I can already sense danger signs. I see an awful lot of people puckering and massaging their lips, which are red ringed. Once again, we are committing suicide. We do need to rehearse, but not to this extent. Not today.

As for me, I'm in much better condition than I was last night, but now I seem to be having a new problem: my reeds. Day before yesterday I spent time trying out every reed I could find (somewhere around three dozen) and selecting the best ones for both my Bb and A clarinets, which are quite different. The A one in particular is very unforgiving, and, unfortunately, the best reed I had for it wound up getting smashed by a music stand last week. Still, I managed to find good primary and backup reeds for each instrument...or so I thought. Reeds are very sensitive to temperature and humidity. They can also give out under pressure. Now, for whatever reason, they're a bit sluggish on the attack and a bit thin in the tone. The back-ups aren't any better, so I just stick with the mains.

Now we have only to change into our concert dress and wait.

Mr. Ogawa has snatched up Chuck and is towing him around to use as an interpreter while he socializes with the two women from Rostock. Apparently my services are no longer needed. Neither are those of their manager/interpreter/piano tuner. Poor guy. After he tunes the piano yet again, he sits forlornly in the corner of the auditorium. I go and chat with him for a while. Then I nod off for a spell, waking up just about in time for the warning that the doors are about to be opened.

Finally, the program starts with the Lupinus Choir (Dennis M...arrgghh!). Tonight is the only night for them, so they are putting everything into it. They turn out a fine performance, and the string orchestra accompaniment (mainly Seishin kids) is spot on. Finally, I and a few other woodwind players come on for the encore, a version of the Russian folk song "Katyusha" arranged by me. While onstage, I notice that the hall is packed, and people are standing in the aisles. None of us expected that. We were afraid the place would be half empty. No such unluck.

Peter I. Tchaikovsky

Next comes the full orchestra to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto featuring Janka Simowitsch on piano. She is positively brilliant. Unfortunately, we are not.

Actually, I am being extremely harsh in my appraisal. Not long ago, I watched a video of our 2002 concert, and I was amazed at just how sad it really was. We really did suck back then. Ever since Mr. Ogawa took over as conductor, he has really brought us up to a much higher standard, which is why I can afford to judge us according to a much higher standard. I know we can do better, and should do better, because I've heard us do better. Now I'm hearing sloppy entrances, embarrassing broken notes in the brass, people coming in on rests, ensemble parts that aren't sticking it together, and so on. Poor Mrs. Ogawa, who is playing solo-chair clarinet in this piece (I play solo-chair in "Pictures at an Exhibition"), completely flames out in a solo part, eliciting a sneer from her husband holding the baton.

"Pictures at an Exhibition" isn't much better. From the opening "Promenade", the brass are showing signs that they are already blown, and this is not a good piece for the brass to be blown. "Gnomus" goes okay, but in "Il Vecchio Castello" (the Old Castle) my old friend Stone on the alto sax drags his solo. (I actually rehearsed that solo...and would have killed to play it...but swapping off with clarinet was too much trouble.) When my own clarinet solo in that piece comes up, I'm already struggling to control my buckling reed on the A clarinet. I lean a bit too hard into a crescendo and am rewarded with a squawk for my troubles. (shit...shit...shit...) My little, dancing solo in "Tuileries" goes much better, but I am nursing the A clarinet along and can't really get into it. The tuba solo in "Bydlo", played by a professional extra (a Tokyo music teacher who is actually performing that bear of a solo for the first time) sounds good, but the egg ballet is sloppy. "Samuel Goldsmith and Schmuyl" isn't bad, but "Limoges-March" is shaking apart at the seams. After that, the brass hit the first power chord of "Catacombes" off-key, and it doesn't get any better from there. "Baba Yaga" rocks, as always, but we're sounding very tentative. I don't think I'll bother commenting on "The Gates of Kiev". Suffice to say that half the brass section was wiped out before they even began.

Still, as I said before, we sounded a lot better than we have in the past. Moreover, the rousing applause we got from the packed house showed that the audience didn't really care that we weren't perfect. I guess I should probably give us a break.

I don't have much time to ponder the issue. After hurriedly changing my clothes and saying a few quick goodbyes to Janka, Jana, Chuck, and the other guys in the orchestra, I hop in my BLUE RAV4 and head toward Hokota, where my next performance is scheduled.

It's John Lennon/George Harrison night at Arome, a wine bar in Hokota. Paul was invited to play a set, and he asked Jeff and me to join him. It was quite an ambitious undertaking. We knew we wouldn't have a chance to rehearse, so we decided on a set list, decided who was singing lead in each tune, and then had the lead singer record his own version and e-mail the mp3 file to the others so we could practice individually. I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to make it or not, so I didn't sing lead on any of the tunes, contenting myself with backing vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, and sax.

I head for Hokota as fast as I could go, which isn't much considering I hit almost every light in Kashima red and get stuck behind someone cruising right at the speed limit. When Paul calls me en route and asked where I was, he just about panicks when I tell him. The venue wants him to go on early, and I'm not going to be there early. Fortunately, Paul and Jeff are able to hold off by swapping slots with another group (thanks, guys!) so I somehow make it in time.

I lug my gear into the "waiting room" next door to the bar, where I find Steve, the bassist for Cranky Old Bastards / Accidentally on Purpose and therefore an occasional fellow partner in crime. He's clearly had more than a few already. (Actually, Steve's not really the sort ever only to have "a few", so no surprises there.) Steve is generally a good guy and a good friend. Perhaps his most endearing trait is his happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care attitude. Unfortunately, when he's tanked, it goes into reckless overdrive. That can be a very good thing (if you're drunk as well), but it's generally a good idea to stay out of his way.

Unfortunately, while I'm kneeling down in a cramped space, putting my sax together, staying out of his way is not an option. Next thing I know, I have a chair in my face. After all I've put up with today, I'm not really in the mood to have a chair in my face. I manage to keep from snapping, but I don't manage to keep from shooting my mouth off. That only serves to set Steve off, which in turn sets me off even higher. It's probably a very good thing that Jeff quickly hustles me outside. Things cool off pretty fast after that...mainly because it's bloody freezing outside.

Finally, it's our turn to go on. We're squeezed into a tiny, little space surrounded by the crowd (and the place is seriously crowded!). Setting up would have been easier if I'd been a contortionist or a yoga master. Paul's amp doesn't work, and when he picks it up a tube drops out and shatters on the floor. We are NOT getting off to a good start. As it turns out, the start is only the beginning of our troubles.

In retrospect, it would have been nice to have had a chance to play through the tunes to make sure we all agreed on how they went. We didn't. The only song that went without a hitch was John Lennon's "Jealous Guy", with Jeff singing and me noodling around on the sax. The other songs went from rough to disastrous. As a performance, it was an utter, bloody catastrophe, but the three of us had an utter, bloody blast doing it. It was a lot of fun, and the crowd was surprisingly appreciative. We all had a good time.

Natch...going from stewing over an imperfect orchestra performance to feeling happy about a horrible mess of an acoustic/rock performance. What would a psychologist have to say about that? Something like, "You need to yank that broom out of your aft shaft more often," perhaps?

I finally get to bed at around 2:30 a.m.. Today is the day of the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall performance.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Die Echte Weltsprache, Day Two

It’s Friday, but I’m not sure I want to thank God or not. This evening is going to be the Kashima Philharmonic’s final practice before our outrageously ambitious, two-day concert series. It’s also going to be our first opportunity to practice together with our guest solo pianist, Janka Simowitsch. It’s a good thing that my morning classes are all more or less just going over exam results, because my mind is on anything but my classroom work right now. In fact, my mind is too spaced out to be on much of anything. After yesterday’s linguistic workout, my brain was far too worked up. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep last night.

I do my best to avoid my computer in order to keep my fingers loose. I do, however, put in some time on both my guitar and my saxophone in order to prepare for the third performance of the weekend, a John Lennon/George Harrison tribute gig which I was invited to play along with Paul and Jeff. The afternoon comes all too quickly. As the kids in the orchestra load up the truck and buses, I get called away to a nap session (i.e. meeting), but I sneak away from it as quickly as possible and promptly go AWOL. Loading up in my BLUE RAV4, I’m soon on my way to the Kamisu Culture Center.

This is the first time ever for the Kashima Philharmonic to play here, and it’s a very different animal from the Kashima Workers’ Hall. Both the stage and the hall itself are bigger, for one thing. For another, the lighting and acoustics are different, which gives it a whole different (or was that “whole nuther”?) feel. It just doesn’t feel right for some reason.

Another problem is the air. I’ve actually been to the Kamisu Culture Center many, many times for various events. Every time I’ve come here in the past my allergies have gone nuts. The air inside isn’t good, apparently because the old air conditioner hasn’t been cleaned and maintained for ages. This time my sinuses stay clear, but I am in the building scarcely half an hour when my skull suddenly gets gripped by a nasty migraine that makes concentration impossible. I remain in this condition throughout the three-hour rehearsal. I can’t think, can’t keep my mind on what I’m doing, can’t stay in control. The sixteenth note runs flash by before I can get mentally prepared. I stumble in places I’ve never stumbled before. Needless to say, I’m really sucking tonight.

Speaking of sucking, as expected, the Piano Concerto is a mess. We just can’t seem to hang certain parts together, partly because of Janka’s being very different from Ms. O, but mainly because people simply aren’t watching. Even worse, after rehearsing hard for a while, I can hear some people starting to buckle. I call out to some individuals to save their chops and not play anything unnecessary, but you might as well tell a dog not to salute a fire hydrant. In Japan, the rule is always “practice till you drop (and then crash and burn from being too tired during the performance)”, and no amount of protesting or complaining on my part is going to change that.

Since I sit in the back row with the woodwinds, I can’t be of much assistance to Janka, but the other gaijin in the band, my good friend Chuck, is up front in the violin section. He doesn’t speak German, but they are able to do enough in English to figure out what’s what. Still, Janka is looking a bit tense, and I see a lot of worried faces among the orchestra members. I won’t even bother saying how Mr. Ogawa looks. I figure it’s probably all he can do to keep his pants dry right now.

Tomorrow will be showtime.

I think we’re in trouble.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Die Echte Weltsprache, Day One

Things just keep getting more and more curious. It seems that the more Seishin’s music program and the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra progress in ability, and the more ambitious Mr. Ogawa becomes as a direct result, the broader and more unexpected my own experiences become.

First a little background. For the Kashima Philharmonic’s fifth annual regular (classical) concert, Mr. Ogawa had decided to do a sort of tribute to Russian composers. The repertoire included both “A Night on a Bald Mountain” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky as well as Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. It was also decided that, for the first time ever, we would make it a double event, i.e. we would hold two different concerts over the weekend, each at a different venue. The Sunday performance, regarded as the “main” one, would be held at our usual haunt, the Kashima Workers’ Culture Hall. The Saturday event, however, would be our first ever outing at the much-larger performance hall in neighboring Kamisu. To help facilitate the latter (since the administration of Kamisu has a certain chip on its shoulder), the Saturday performance would be a joint event including the Lupinus Choir (Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore…*ahem*), a community choir based in that city. That meant learning (and arranging) even more tunes for an orchestral accompaniment.

Needless to say, not few of us were firmly convinced that Mr. Ogawa had gone completely and utterly daft. We’d been lucky in that we’d managed to fill the Kashima Worker’s Hall at our two classical and three pops concerts over the past two and a half years. Trying to bring people into the Kamisu hall (including a lot of people that had come to the Kashima performances in the past) definitely seemed like a stretch. Then there was the performance load. It was bad enough to have to deal with all those tunes for the Choir, easy or not. “A Night on a Bald Mountain” would have been a dangerous challenge for the “Kashima Phil” a few short years ago. “Pictures at an Exhibition” would have been well nigh impossible.

And then there’s that Tchaikovsky number…

For the solo piano spot, Mr. Ogawa had (not surprisingly) lined up a Russian pianist. As it turned out, however, after we had already spent a month or two flopping around with the Concerto, our intended guest soloist suddenly bowed out citing health concerns (though the way in which his manager insulted Mr. Ogawa while giving that announcement suggested other reasons might have been afoot). With little more than a couple of months left to go before the performance, a panicking Mr. Ogawa got in touch with his network. Word got passed around, strings pulled, things seen, people done, and finally we were given a name:

Janka Simowitsch.

She wasn’t Russian, but she was from former East Germany, which was enough to satisfy Mr. Ogawa’s “Eastern European” requirement. We were told she was only eighteen years old, apparently a wunderkind who had already won prizes in several international piano competitions and had performed with a number of different orchestras. From the age of sixteen she had been studying under well-known instructors at the Rostock (her home city) College of Music and Theater and giving professional recitals.

The Tchaikovsky Concerto, apparently, was one of her main numbers.


Fast forward to today.

When we got the phone call yesterday informing us that she had arrived together with her older sister and had booked into Kashima Central Hotel, our collective hearts jumped straight into our mouths. We had spent quite a bit of time rehearsing the Concerto…tough enough played in a flat tempo…with Seishin student (and Flying Egghead pianist) Ms. O playing the piano. That was no mean feat on her part; we were all greatly impressed with her effort in playing such a monstrously hard piece, especially on such short notice! Even so, she understandably played it safe, meaning we rehearsed it “safe”. We all knew (or should have, at least,) that Janka was NOT going to do the same. That put us in extreme danger, which was why Mr. Ogawa decided to have her come and play a test rehearsal with Seishin’s orchestra first so he could get an idea what her approach was going to be like.

That day is today. And here she is now with her older sister, Jana, and their Japanese manager/driver/piano tuner who also speaks a bit of German.

I’ve been practicing a bit over the past couple of days, trying to warm up the dusty and dilapidated German circuits in my brain in preparation for this moment. Now that I’m confronted with our two guests from Rostock (though Jana now lives and works in a merchant bank in Hamburg), I launch into an indulgent greeting and self-introduction auf deutsch. They relax, and Janka says she hopes I’ll stay nearby, especially during the rehearsal.

Mr. Ogawa rolls out the red carpet treatment, but, true to form, Janka says she’d like to start practicing immediately. We lead her up to the auditorium (nice and warm even though the hallways are all only a few degrees above freezing), and soon she is making that Yamaha grand sing like nothing I have ever heard before. Yamahas are notorious for not resonating so much, at least nothing like a Steinway, Baldwin, or Kawai, but her sound carries quite a ways through the school, bringing a host of curious onlookers when the next class period ends.


As it turns out, other members of the faculty are being both very generous and very understanding. I don’t make any such requests, but teachers right and left are offering to look after my classes so I can stay in the interpreter/guide role. They all know it’s what I want to and should be doing. I take a few up on the offer, and I keep busy.

Mr. Ogawa asks our guests what they want for lunch, and they say they want to try “Japanese food”. Monsieur Ogawa complies by taking us all to his favorite, little restaurant, the one where he usually takes our visiting VIPs. It’s a cozy, little place specializing in sushi but offering a variety of traditional Japanese wares. We run into trouble almost immediately.

The problem isn’t necessarily the food. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the place is busy and the hostess/waitress looks like she’s about to blow a gasket. We arrive in our reserved room to find spilled water on a couple of the seat cushions and the soy sauce pots (mandatory for sushi) either empty or plugged. These problems get dealt with in a rather haphazard manner in passing as the harried waitress runs about. As for the food, it is wonderful as always, but for our first-time visitors to the Land of the Rising Sun, it is definitely a new experience…or an ordeal. The sushi is no problem, since that can be eaten with the fingers, but chopsticks prove to be a bit too much of a hassle. In the end, the two girls end up not eating a whole lot.

Meanwhile, I get a nice workout in translating between German and Japanese. German to English? No problem. Japanese to English? Even less of a problem. English to either of those languages? Sure. German to Japanese or vice versa? Ow! Ow! My brain gets totally confused. At one point, I turn to Mr. Ogawa and translate Janka's German into...paraphrased German. Everyone has a good laugh about that. They're also amused at the few seconds I then spend stammering before I'm able to speak coherently in any language.

Mental gear shifts don't always work properly.

After lunch, Janka practices for another hour while I take one class, and then I take our guests on a tour, first of the school and then of nearby Kashima Shrine. For the shrine tour I’m forced to switch to English, since there is no way my spoken German is going to be up to the task, but it’s not a problem. Jana apparently uses English quite a bit in her work, so she has no problem translating when her younger sister doesn’t follow what I say. This is the third group of foreigners I’ve taken on a tour of the shrine since last July. The manager/piano tuner remarks that I should start a profession as an English-speaking tour guide in Kashima. I tell him that I just might consider that someday.

I have to say that the Simowitsch sisters are sure different! With her blond hair, strong features, and full, toothy smile, Janka definitely looks like a northern German or a Dane. (In fact, she reminds me a lot of a Danish girl I knew in my college days.) Jana, on the other hand, clearly looks more of a Slavic cast. That turns out to be no coincidence. Their family, as Jana informs us, originally hails from Serbia. Apparently a lot of Serbians moved to eastern Germany when it was East Germany, and they more or less integrated into the local culture.

This is actually only the second time in my life that I have met people from former East Germany, a land that I was more or less taught (though not directly) in my childhood to regard as “the enemy”. Thus far, everyone I have met from said land has been absolutely wonderful. Despite her status as an up-and-coming international star, Janka is a very pleasant and friendly individual. So is Jana. Still, the unfortunate facts of history are not lost on the elder Simowitsch. Janka is young enough never really to have known a divided Germany (since she was more or less a baby when the walls came down), but Jana spent her childhood on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and she has a ball telling me some stories about what life was like before the Wiedervereinigung (reunification), which she refers to as “the freedom”. It’s amazing that we can even have such a conversation in such a candid manner. It just goes to underscore the fact that that unnecessary chapter of history has been relegated to the past tense.

We go back to the school, and Janka sets to practicing on the (out of tune…arrgh) upright in the music department office. Meanwhile, the orchestra is setting up in the auditorium for the test rehearsal. Pulses are quickening. Except for the strings, who are participating in the Kashima Philharmonic, the kids haven’t really practiced the Concerto all that much, and they are clearly (and understandably) intimidated, especially when Janka displays her obvious world-class talent from the opening power chords of the first movement.

They say that, although an electronic keyboard or synthesizer will produce the same sounds no matter who touches it, a piano sounds different depending on who is tickling the ivory. We get proof of that in no uncertain terms. Ms. O, as I said before, has made an impressive effort in learning and playing that monstrous piece, but the sound she produces is nothing like Janka’s. The girl from Rostock is making that Yamaha hum along delicately as a summer breeze and then, in another breath, making it snarl and snap like an angry rottweiler. There’s passion there, pleasure and pain, and she makes it all look just as simple as it most definitely is not.


I think we’re in trouble.

I ask her if she has any questions, comments, or any part of the piece she wants to go over again, and she immediately launches into a barrage of high-speed German that I'm amazingly able to follow...but my brain gets kicked into such a spin that I have a hard time trying to put what she says into Japanese.

Mr. Ogawa knows we’re in trouble.

The strings are more or less spot on, but the winds are pretty rough. However, much to their credit, the kids as a whole know they have to watch the conductor very closely. They learned that very clearly backing those opera singers a few weeks back, and it really makes a difference, especially in a concerto like this one. It allows them to stay together, even despite the fumbles and bad notes, while Mr. Ogawa does his best to adapt to Janka’s manner of playing, which is very different from what Ms. O has been doing. We both know the Kashima Philharmonic is going to be another story. Some members make it a point never to watch the conductor.

After the rehearsal ends, we have a quick discussion in the office, and then our guests say goodbye till tomorrow night’s Kashima Philharmonic rehearsal in Kamisu.

As soon as they’re gone, Mr. Ogawa freaks out.

I think we’re in trouble.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What Is Happening In These "Safe" Islands???!?

When I first came to Japan back in 1990, there were many things that I came to love immediately. There were other things that drove me nuts. One of the things that irritated me the most was the firmly-ingrained notion the Japanese had in their heads that their country was so totally free of crime. Never mind the fact that two people were shot and killed at a pub near Kashima Central Hotel within two weeks of my arrival. It was just an established fact, known to everyone, that Japan was "safe", whereas the U.S. was a dangerous hell-hole in which even children were running around with guns. When a Japanese exchange student wound up getting shot in Baton Rouge in 1991, I wound up almost drowning in a flood of self-righteousness and patronizing nationalism.

I have to admit that the comparative safety here was one of this area's charms. I always thought it nice that I could leave my doors unlocked or, if I went off and left my wallet, I could find it again with its contents intact. It was definitely a place where, even if their morals seemed a bit iffy in certain areas, people had a reasonable sense of right and wrong.

Notice that I used past tense.

Here in the Land of the Rising Crime Rate we've had two more primary-school girls turn up dead after having been abducted and molested. Both of them turned up within the same week. (The perpetrator in one of those cases has been apprehended. Wouldn't you know it; he's a foreigner.) And now yet another child has disappeared while walking home from school.

On the home front, the wave of students being mugged seems to have ebbed, thank goodness. The rash of wallets being pilfered has also petered out. However, now girl students are being sexually harassed, physically as well as verbally, while walking home from school on a regular basis. We have also had a number of incidences of scary-looking guys accosting girls inside our school during class hours.

And then, about a week ago, we were contacted by the police and told to end our afterschool activities early and send the kids home during daylight hours because an armed robbery had occurred not far away. It happened twice in as many days.

We're at the point now where we have to keep the school buildings locked up during the day to keep the perverts out. (Most of the public schools in our area are shutting and locking their front gates so you can't even enter the campus without an appointment.) The teachers have to take turns patrolling the streets around the school while the students are heading home. Valuables are collected from the students in the morning and returned when they leave. Night lock-up duty now takes a special kind of courage as it requires walking around in all those darkened corridors with all those convenient hiding places.

People are getting scared, and it's easy to see why. Things like these are not supposed to happen, especially around here. Kashima has never seen the like at any time in its history. Politicians, the media, and right-wing groups are quick to blame "westernization" for the country's ills, saying young Japanese have lost their morals, their scruples, and their sense of right and wrong because they've become "too American". Such thinking is much too simplistic (no surprise there...) and it really misses the point by sidestepping it, perhaps intentionally. No, it is definitely a Japanese problem. This country's society is growing ill, no doubt about it, but looking beyond the borders instead of within them is a sad case of rose-colored glasses.

I have a feeling the real culprit is, ironically, the fact that this country is so materially wealthy and convenient. Life is too easy. Everything is readily available. Children grow up getting whatever they want whenever they want. Got an ache for something? No problem! There is a service not far away that will cater to your every whim! No one need suffer frustration! Unfortunately, the result is that young people in Japan now more or less consider it a given that their desires will be fulfilled at their convenience. In other words, they are spoiled rotten. Spoiled people rarely have much of a sense of right and wrong because, as far as they're concerned, the greatest "right" is their own satisfaction. There's not much chance of changing that, either. Somewhere along the line, parents got "love" confused with "indulgence", and now it is considered a matter of course (with increasing legal backing) that children are to be pampered.

Yes, people are getting scared here. So am I. I'm afraid for my children, I'm afraid for my wife, I'm afraid for myself, I'm afraid for my students, I'm afraid for my friends and colleagues, and, most of all, I'm afraid for this country's future.

After all, I know a lot more crime victims in this "safe" country than I have ever known in the "dangerous" U.S..