Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Mote's Art in God's Eye

The sixth Kashima Philharmonic regular (classics) concert was held last Saturday.

I've already talked quite a bit about it as far as content and preparation, so I won't go too much into that here. It was our first pure classical concert in that the regular repertoire consisted solely of Beethoven and Mozart. Specifically, we opened with Beethoven's "Egmont overture", followed with Mozart's piano concerto #23, and then wound it all up with Beethoven's 5th symphony. Even a professional orchestra would consider that a challenging selection. For a relatively new amateur orchestra like the Kashima Philharmonic it was an extremely ambitious undertaking. In fact, some might even call it crazy.


L. v. Beethoven liked to stroll while composing.

Our director, Mr. Ogawa, was beginning to worry we had bitten off more than we could chew.

It was clear from the beginning that we needed practice and lots of it. Our trombone section, which wound up with a bit of egg on its faces during last June's pops concert, wasn't so much of a worry as it would only be used during the fourth movement of Beethoven's 5th (but that part is brutal ). A far bigger worry was the trumpet section, which completely vanished during the summer and wound up being replaced by two new members, one of whom was rusty and the other of whom was just plain inexperienced. Even that seemed like your proverbial drop in the bucket. Mr. Ogawa made it painfully clear from day one that the strings, horns, and especially the woodwinds would have to tighten up like never before.

The clarinet section had a bit of a dilemma in that it has too many members. That's not a problem in pops, but it doesn't work in classics. Finally we decided to perform the pieces in turns. It wound up not being a very balanced rotation, but I'd like to think it was fair. Mrs. Ogawa and I, the two experienced players, each played 1st in one piece and 2nd in another, and we both played 1st in the encore. The other two regular clarinetists got one outing each plus the encore, which made them perfectly happy. The fifth member, who plays bass clarinet, came out on the latter only for the encore. For a number of reasons, we decided that Mrs. Ogawa should play 1st in Beethoven's 5th (me on 2nd) and I in the Mozart piano concerto (one of the others on 2nd). The fact was that I had experience performing Mozart at solo contests in high school, and I'd had considerable personal training in the Mozart style of playing. Guess what? It was almost totally inadequate.

During the first few rehearsals of the Mozart piece Mr. Ogawa was on me like a Taliban on a pop star. The 1st clarinet is extremely dominant in that piece, almost like a second soloist behind the piano, and Mssr. Maestro Ogawa (himself a seasoned pro clarinetist) wasn't about to accept anything second rate. My sound wasn't carrying. My tone color was too harsh. My tonguing and attacks were too violent. My expression was too "safe". I listened to recordings of the piece over and over again, emulated them to the best of my ability, and still got ripped apart. It seemed like nothing I could do could satisfy Mssr. Maestro (who went so far as to say a 10th grader in Ye Olde Academy's orchestra played it better than me), and my pride was taking a serious beating.

I wasn't about to give up, though. I probably put far more practice time into Pictures at an Exhibition last year, mainly to get all those finger-twisting, high-speed runs down right. However, I put far, far more heart, soul, and energy into the Mozart piece. I also went in for some individual training from Mr. Ogawa, and I got a lot of it. I practically had to relearn everything, and when I finally got my basic breath and tone control down enough that I could open up and put some heart into the thing, it brought no end of satisfaction to me when at last I got a few, scattered smiles of approval from both Mr. Ogawa and our brutally strict, professional Konzertmeisterin, Ms. Ishikawa. I have to admit, though, that when we finally got to the final rounds of rehearsal I was still a little worried.

Actually, I was a lot worried, but not necessarily for myself. It was clear we still needed lots of practice, and for that reason I was sure we'd wind up falling into the usual trap of rehearsing to death just before the concert, wiping ourselves out, and then playing badly during the performance simply because we're exhausted. (That's precisely what happened to the trombones last June.) Friday night's rehearsal was three hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Saturday morning's rehearsal was (fortunately) canceled for some reason, but that just left a rather hectic, three-hour "dress" rehearsal Saturday afternoon...and it was full of hiccups. We knocked off only about two hours before curtain time, and Mr. Ogawa was seriously wigging out.


The Reed: a clarinetist's/saxophonist's best friend and worst enemy.

During the dress rehearsal the bad nerve in my left hand (due to a mild carpal tunnel syndrome) started acting up again, and my fingers became weak and shaky. Fortunately, that cleared up afterward, and I felt surprisingly good. However, I was faced with two ironic problems. Mr. Ogawa had personally selected and shaped two reeds for me to use (known affectionately as "#1" and "#2"), but both of them had given out during rehearsal and couldn't be trusted. That meant my only real option was to select the most usable reed from my own, aging stock. I noodled around a bit, grit my teeth, and settled on "#3". The other problem was the woman who was playing 2nd clarinet in Mozart, Ms. OB. About two weeks before the concert she developed a strange swelling and twitching in her lower lip, and she could barely play. Since she had put so much effort into the thing, we couldn't bear to take her off the part. Fortunately, the 2nd clarinet part is only really important in a few places...but then it's VITALLY important. That gave us plenty of cause to worry on top of everything else...and I really felt sorry for her.

Curtain time came, and the house was packed. (For the first time ever, my wife and kids were in the audience...in the front row...) The first number was "Egmont", which I didn't play, so I listened from backstage. One of the trumpets bricked the very first note (arrrrgh...), but that was followed by the string section pounding out that beautiful power chord that really kicks the tune off. (No matter what cool sounds I may succeed in getting from my guitars or synths, nothing, I repeat, NOTHING can beat the sound of a full string section belting out a power chord!) From there the tune went reasonably well, but there were some rough edges here and there. It was probably a mixture of nerves and the usual fatigue from overrehearsing, but it was still pretty good all things considered.

Next was Mozart, which called for a break while they downsized the orchestra. Our guest pianist was none other than Haruka Ogawa, Mr. Ogawa's daughter, back home from France. She trained with prestigious instructors in Japan from an early age, went to Paris (two years ago) to study piano at the age of 16, and is currently enrolled in the (oh so elite) Paris Conservatoire. Last August she placed 5th in a prestigious international piano competition in Ettlingen, Germany, and not a month ago she placed second in another contest in Belgium. Yes, that girl has a future. Still, her playing during the rehearsals seemed a bit tentative, and she hit more than a few clinkers. Now...make sure you emphasize the during the rehearsals bit.

The actual performance was a different story altogether. Apparently she pulled out all the stops, and all I can say is WOW. I still remember her as a spunky, little grade school student (*sniff*). Now she is a full-fledged world-class performer who really puts herself into her playing. Mr. and Mrs. Ogawa have every reason to be proud of her, not to mention the whole f****** city of Kashima...

As for me, I just felt great. Virtually no nervousness at all, just eagerness to play, no pain, no fatigue, no lameness in the left hand, no slips, and I felt totally in control. Haruka opened herself up and put herself totally into her playing, so, as the second soloist of the tune, I did the same. My A clarinet with reed #3 did its job very well, and it just felt good. (Actually, I listened back to the professionally-quality recording of the concert afterward, and I was seriously amazed. My tone was rich and resonant, cutting through the orchestra just enough to dance around it without kicking it around, proudly serving as Haruka's squire in the field, and...well...at the risk of sounding vain, arrogant, and/or stupid, I'm just not used to sounding like that! Especially not on that A clarinet! I couldn't believe it was me! Afterward Mr. Ogawa and Ms. Ishikawa both congratulated me, and Mrs. Ogawa commented that I had finally matured. That in itself should keep my ego inflated for a little while at least.) Unfortunately, poor Ms. OB on 2nd clarinet just couldn't keep her numb lip in place. She came through pretty well on the one passage when she was needed most, bless her heart, but the rest of the time she could barely play if at all. (Again, listening to the recording, it was probably fortunate she could only be heard during that one key passage. All those times she struggled and delivered only a thin warble if any tone at all was buried in the ensemble. She smiled stoically before and afterward, but she left immediately without saying goodbye...odd behavior for her. I really feel bad for her.)

Okay, in a nutshell, Mozart's piano concerto #23 sounded awesome!

Haruka got so much applause from her ecstatic home crowd that she came out for three curtain calls. Then she played an encore...

It was Mozart's "Turkish March", but it was a modern arrangement that was just bizarre...and unbe[expletive]LIEVABLE. She was all over that keyboard, often at breakneck speed, and at times it sounded like she had three separate hands playing totally different parts at the same time. My mouth was hanging open the whole time. I don't think I was alone, either. Number two in the world last month. Born and raised right here in quiet, little, dream-filled Kashima, home of several hidden, ancient temples, a famous shrine, a lot of rice fields, Ye Olde Academy, the Kashima Antlers pro soccer team...and the Kashima Philharmonic!

(Alright, down, boy...)

We took another break to rebuild the orchestra to symphony capacity, and then we did Beethoven's 5th. And we were in excellent form. I especially have to applaud the cello section. Five years ago many if not most of them seemed tone deaf, to put it kindly. Now they were cutting through that brutal section in the middle of the 3rd movement (yes, there are four movements, not just one) and making it sound easy. Yes, our intonation wasn't always perfect, and there were a few splats in the trumpet and horn sections, but we were playing at perhaps our highest level ever (a sentiment expressed many times over in the audience polls...the first EVAR without a single negative comment, I might add!).

We were feeling great, and we were ready for the encore. We brought in all those members that had had to sit out the Beethoven and Mozart pieces, and we played Leroy Anderson's "Christmas Festival". That was fun...especially since two of the doublebass players put on Santa & Rudolph costumes, and the clarinet and bassoon sections all had antlers on our heads! I might even forgive the trombone section for horribly butchering the very first note of the piece! ;-)

Then it was all over, leaving us with an enormous sense of satisfaction but also a sense of melancholy. We had all worked and trained especially hard for this concert, and we had pulled off a performance to be proud of. It was almost hard to believe that we'd be waking up the next morning not having to worry about it at all anymore. After-concert blues have always been a common affliction for me, and it hit me especially hard this time. It was probably a good thing my wife and kids were there. I also really appreciated the post-concert party...

Okay, that's it. The last major undertaking of the year is done. All that's left now is Christmas...

12 Comments:

  • Congratulations!!! Another K.P.(classics) concert had finished.

    (For the first time ever, my wife and kids were in the audience...in the front row...)
    Nothing is better than the greatest support from the family members in this world. Eh?

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 1:49 PM  

  • Oooh, Beethoven and Mozart, my two favourite fellas!
    I would have loved to hear that concert!!! Specially to hear Haruka play.

    P.S. The music and arts picture library I interned at last year owned loads of postcards of musicians, including one of these with Beethoven strolling. In fact, I wrote the captions for loads of them.

    I like to think of him doing this ramble while composing the Pastoral symphony in his head.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:58 AM  

  • Kudos. Glad you had a great concert. What did your kids think about it?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 1:17 PM  

  • The best of times, the worst of times. The trepidation, the anxiety, the mistakes in rehearsal, then it all went well! What a super experience. Making music together can be awesome, but the possibilities of it all going wrong is there as well.
    Wendy
    PS I ain't that wrapped up in some of Beethoven and Mozart though, except that the Mozart 21st Piano has a beautiful adagio bit, very simple but lovely.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 4:17 AM  

  • Well, it sounds like you all pulled it off in the end. So, what exactly causes a reed to give out like that?

    Are you still taking lessons from Mr. Ogawa

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:34 AM  

  • wow!! sounds like an absolutely fabulous evening! i would have loved to hear it. i've always wanted to be able to play the piano... i can only imagine how great she sounded. i know this may sound stupid, but what is it about asian kids and their abilities w/ music. it has always wowwwed me.

    are you guys doing anything special - music pieces or concerts - for Christmas?

    By Blogger tooners, at 5:52 PM  

  • u know what? it would be very cool to have a dad that plays music and do orchestra, i bet your kids are beaming proudly to have a dad like u!

    yes, like tooners, I'm awaiting for any xmas special. ;-)

    By Blogger YD, at 10:35 PM  

  • Hello, everybody! It was a wonderful concert...better than I'd feared, and definitely an achievement. Still, I'm relieved it's over.

    No, there aren't any special Xmas events on the agenda, unfortunately. Nothing worth mentioning, anyway.

    In fact, my job suddenly seems to be trying to wipe my Christmas out!

    BTW: is anyone else suddenly having trouble commenting on Beta blogs besides me? I never had trouble before, but suddenly I was unable to comment on ANY Beta blogs, even if I tried "anonymous". Both Firefox and IE reported all kinds of javascript errors.

    But then when I quickly created a Google account all my troubles ceased. Go figure. Hmm...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:59 PM  

  • Now we'll try this one...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:00 AM  

  • I've had about a 66% success ratio commenting on Beta blogs. Don't have a google account.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 12:35 PM  

  • Well, how about that...now Google is telling me that the account I created last night doesn't exist. Bloody hell..

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:46 PM  

  • I have never succeeded on placing a comment on beta blogs. I guessed that's why it is called beta. sigh.

    In the end I have to resort to commenting under the identity of "Other" .

    I m not going to get a Google account until those people sort out how to make Blogger and Google account. Bah! ;-P

    By Blogger YD, at 9:29 PM  

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