Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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.


  • K and I attended the concert (and by the way, had a great time).

    As a one-concert, temporary member of the orchestra, it was interesting to watch and wonder about what had gone on behind the scenes. I will write a post about the concert on my blog, but I am spellbound by Moody's account of its development.

    I had participated in the first rehearsals for this concert before deciding I could not commit the time, so thought that the pianist was Russian. I was surprised to read that she was German. Now I understand the change.

    Anyway, I am waiting with bated breath for the next installment. (And believe me, breath that smells like bait or even sounds like it isn't at all pleasant, so I hope it comes soon).

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:02 PM  

  • Wow. Wow. Tongue tied. Freak out. Sounds like your are having a hell of a time.

    And the way you describe it...such talent! Really wish to hear it to believe it!

    Anyway, English is fine with me. I know who to look for, when i'm in your area :p

    By Blogger @ロウ 。LOW@, at 12:09 AM  

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