Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Cake Man Strikes (Out) Again!

I don't know I came to be the official birthday-cake maker in our family, but I am. Ever since getting married, I have always taken it upon myself to make some kind of suitable confection whenever a birthday has rolled around for anyone but myself. Of course, there have been occasions when time problems have forced me to buy one instead (and I almost always wind up with a store-bought cake on my own birthday), but that never seems right. I've always believed that hand-made items, particularly crafted by someone you know, are far more meaningful than something coming off a store shelf.

One problem that plagued me for a while was lack of materials. It's obviously far quicker and easier to use a packaged cake mix than to make a cake from scratch, but packaged mixes are not easy to find in Japan. Shortcake and sponge cake are about the only kinds that exist in the the minds of most Japanese, and most people here would rather buy their cakes ready-made anyway. The few mixes one can find in the supermarket offer little to the imagination. For a while the import food stores had Betty Crocker mixes, and I used to keep a stock of those, but they stopped selling all but brownie and muffin mixes a few years ago. That limited my possibilities. There was only so much I could do with a plain, vanilla sponge cake.

Needless to say, I was really happy when one of my favorite import food stores in Narita suddenly started offering Betty Crocker German chocolate cake mixes again last month. I immediately bought a couple of them. When my wife's birthday took place at the beginning of April, I used one of those mixes to make her birthday cake. Naturally, I decided to experiment again, so I made two small cakes, one sporting each digit of her age. I also got funky with the frosting, and I thought it turned out especially well.

Yes, I was fairly pleased with my wife's birthday cake, but I still wasn't satisfied. Therefore, when my daughter's birthday rolled around a few weeks later, I decided to have even more fun. Instead of just having two cakes bearing each digit of her age, I wanted to make cakes that were shaped like the numbers. I also wanted to get even funkier with the frosting. I figured that, since it was my daughter's last birthday before becoming a (*shudder*) teen, I might as well make it one to remember.

I came home from work early...but not nearly as early as I'd hoped...and immediately started squabbling with my wife over kitchen space and shopping plans. Once those were settled, I tore into my cake-making endeavor in earnest. The expression, "I might as well make it one to remember," turned out to have been an understatement. Actually, "comedy of errors" if not "total disaster" would probably be even more fitting. You see, I'd bought a couple of small, square cake pans, and my plan was to cut the cakes into strips and triangular sections which I could then assemble like a LEGO set to form the numbers. The problem was that the Betty Crocker mix was one of those extra-moist types that include pudding. I had also added a generous portion of Hershey's semi-sweet chocolate chips, which had melted completely. The fact that the cakes wound up overflowing the pans while baking turned out to be the least of my problems. You see, once I took them out of the pans and tried cutting them into sections, the pieces immediately melted into shapeless blobs. It was really quite a mess. Undaunted, I decided to switch to "Operation Play-Doh" and mold the blobs together like modeling clay. It worked; I managed to get two cakes, one shaped like a "1" and the other like a "2". The fact that they were lumpy monstrosities rather than clean-cut shapes was, as the Japanese say, "Shoganai". ("It can't be helped.")

The frosting was an even bigger disaster. When I'd made it for my wife's cake earlier in the month, I had started with the traditional powdered sugar and hot water and added heavy cream, vanilla, and orange juice (topped with coconut and other things). It had turned out beautifully. However, at that time I had managed to get a large package of powdered sugar in Narita. Now I didn't have time to do that, and unfortunately the local supermarkets only had powdered sugar available in teeny-tiny, half-cup portion packs that were hideously overpriced. I didn't want to deal with that, so I went into the sugar aisle to find they only had the granulated type. However, I noticed they had one type that was different; it looked like powdered brown sugar. The package said it could be used in cooking just like ordinary powdered sugar, and it came in larger (and more economical) bags than the powdered sugar in the cooking section, so I decided to try it. Guess what? When I added the hot water the sugar immediately melted into syrup and wouldn't set up no matter how hard I beat it. I dumped almost the entire bag into the bowl, and it just sank into the swamp. I added cream, and it sank into the swamp. I tried melting some butter and putting that in, but it just sank into the swamp. Furious, I ran back to the supermarket and grabbed several of those tiny packs of regular powdered sugar and mixed those in, but it still wasn't setting up properly. In the end what I wound up with was more of a glaze than a frosting, and I had so much of it that I practically drowned the cakes in it. (When my son saw it he said, "Papa, is that cake or soup?")

daughter b-day cake 2008

This is the result. After all those wonderful food pics on Olivia's, Selba's, and especially Nikkipolani's sites, it's kind of embarrassing. It looks more like someone was playing a prank at a sewage treatment plant than trying to make a nice birthday confection. However, as it turned out, it tasted really good. Everybody wanted second helpings, and it wasn't just because of the Reese's Pieces I stuck on top just for fun (something I'd grabbed at Costco not long before).

daughter 12th birthday

And here's the birthday girl shortly before trying (and failing) to blow out her candles. I'd say she doesn't seem to mind if her cake looks like toxic waste. The smile alone is worth it.

Next year she'll be a teenager....

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

OK, It's DONE!!!!!

I now have production copies of my newest homegrown album, Blog Blunder, ready to start foisting on people! As I mentioned before, now that the CD is done I've taken down all the posted links to the songs on this and my Minstrel's Muse site and have set up a regular promotional post for the album (including links to a few sample tracks).

As always, I've really appreciated the various comments I've gotten. If anyone would (seriously) like a copy of the CD (for better or for worse), let me know! Of course, my regular circle of visitors have most likely heard all the songs already...if not downloaded them...but whatever.


I saw something today that I still find very hard to believe.

The phone rang over at the Grade 9 section of the junior high staff room.  One of the teachers over there answered it and then announced that there was a call for one of three named science teachers.  The nearest one took the call.

Less than a minute later, the teacher (politely) blew his stack and started (politely) chewing out whoever it was on the phone.

It turned out that it had been a call from a recently-graduated student . . . who had then proceeded to give the teacher a telemarketing sales pitch for retirement condominiums!

I really hate telemarketers.  (grating diminished 7th chord)  While I understand that a job is a job, the fact that they earn their money by barging uninvited into people's lives and harassing them puts them right down there in the abyss with cockroaches, ticks, and paparazzi as far as I'm concerned.  It's bad enough that they get their hands on public school staff directories and proceed to bully the teachers.  My wife, a public school teacher, frequently gets calls from very stubborn and persistent telefarkheads, usually from the same two companies, both of which deal in (coincidentally) retirement condominiums.  They take advantage of her politeness by badgering her.  She says, "I'm sorry, but I'm not really interested," and they just keep calling back again and again . . . sometimes even late at night or early in the morning.  I finally grab the phone from her and frothily practice my rudest and most obscene Japanese on the arsehoal on the other end, and a few months later yet another salesprick from the same company starts calling asking for her again.  Over the past four years I think I've already told more than half a dozen youngish-sounding drips from one company to yank their heads out of their aft-shafts and get a life, and just a few weeks ago we got ANOTHER one from the SAME OUTFIT . . . followed a few days later by someone from RCCfH(Retirement Condo Company from Hell)#2!!! This is yet another example of a Saga That Just Won't End Even Though It Ought To.

As far as I'm concerned this qualifies as harassment, disruption of livelihood, disturbing the peace, and mental anguish, all of which are grounds for a lawsuit.  However, the always-company-sided Tokyo High Court has already set a legal precedent saying telemarketers are exercising a "legitimate business right".  That's one of the main reasons why Ye Olde Academy, a private school, decided some years ago not to make the staff directory available anymore.  It's bloody inconvenient, but it has saved us from most of what my poor wife and her colleagues have had to suffer.

. . . only now they're calling us at work . . . during class hours to boot . . . using our own alumni to harass us.  


Friday, April 18, 2008

The Proof Is In The

I remember some years back I heard a report released by a scientist suggesting that the electromagnetic radiation from devices such as cell phones and wireless connections could cause organic damage to the brain, leading to a decrease in concentration and an increase in aggressiveness. In short, it causes people to act less like human beings and more like animals. The report didn't get a whole lot of public acknowledgment (which doesn't really surprise me), though I remember it did give Rush Limbaugh something to guffaw at.

I also remember hearing a report from scientists saying that many of the plastics we use in everyday life, particularly polystyrene, contain chemicals that act as hormone emulators. In other words, heavy exposure to such plastics could literally turn boys into girls, and vice versa. Unlike the cell phone brain damage theory, this report got considerable public attention. In fact, it became the health scare du jour for a very brief period right around the turn of the century. As with most such things, however, it soon became forgotten, and polystyrene dishware is once again a common sight.

I really have to wonder if one or both of these theories might explain why, with each successive, new crop of 7th graders entering Ye Olde Academy, the boys keep getting wimpier and more childish while the girls keep getting more obnoxious and aggressive. The group we have right now seems almost the exact reverse of what was there ten years ago.

I don't know about you, but this is weird. It's bad enough that the 8th grade girls, whose homerooms are right outside the staff room, seem utterly incapable of saying anything to each other without shrieking it (and those are the SMART ones!), but when I see little, pint-sized girls, cute as a button and dainty-looking in their crisp, new uniforms, noisomely bad-mouthing their teachers and openly flouting the rules after less than a week at their new school, I tend to think something is wrong. Maybe Japan, and this "exclusive" school where I continue to work, have spoiled me, but this definitely calls for a reality check.

I don't even want to get into what some of the boys are like. Let's just say we may need genetic proof of both gender and species...

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Regular, High Octane, or Total Confusion?

Recently I got a letter from the IRS (yes, even here in Japan). Actually, it was good news; it said that I will likely qualify for a tax rebate...even though I haven't had to pay U.S. taxes for almost twenty years! Yes, the letter actually said as much almost in those very words. It's part of the Economic Stimulus Package recently signed by President Bush. (I couldn't help but notice that they also made careful note of that last tidbit in the letter...during Election Season. But anyway...) I mean, it's all well and good for Uncle Sam to be handing some of its dough back to its masses as a way to try to get people to spend more money and, in theory at least, try to stimulate the sagging economy. However, when I hear stories of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq having to depend on donations for things like soap, blankets, chocolate, and body armor, it seems ridiculous for me to receive a check in the mail in hopes that I'll run out and buy things at American stores when I live in Japan! (Or will there be a stipulation attached that I can only use it at Costco?) That puts a rather interesting burden of conscience on me. Oh, well. You can't blame the government for trying to solve the economic problems.

What's really interesting is that a similar economic stimulus "measure" in the form of a tax cut is now occurring in Japan, only it happened by accident. You see, for the past thirty years a law has been in effect allowing the government effectively to double the standing tax rate on gasoline with all revenue thus generated earmarked for road construction. The ruling "Liberal Democratic Party" (which is really conservative, elitist if not royalist, and fractured) still maintains that that extra funding is needed for at least another decade in order to bring Japan's road system up to par with its needs. However, the last extension of that law was due to expire at the end of the last fiscal year, i.e. on March 31. Moreover, the (liberal) opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which currently controls the Upper House of the Diet, refused to approve a new extension. Their reasons for doing so were:
  1. Dropping the extra tax would greatly offset the rising price of gasoline,
  2. Reduced gas prices would help the Japanese economy, which is still just coming out of a prolonged recession,
  3. A lot of the revenue earmarked for road construction was really going into needless pork projects if not the pockets of corrupt officials anyway,
  4. Making Prime Minister Fukuda look like a wimp if not a total loser could force an early election in the more powerful Lower House with the LDP administration on the losing end, giving the (liberal) opposition a greater chance of gaining control of the government.
PM Fukuda wrangled, debated, discussed, lectured, and finally out and out whined, but all in vain. The opposition wouldn't budge on the issue, and the tax increase quietly expired at midnight on March 31.

I know what some of you are probably thinking. The liberal opposition cut taxes? Over the objections of the conservatives?? WHAT??? You'd think it would qualify for an episode of the Twilight Zone. (doo doo doo doo - doo doo doo doo...) However, that was nothing compared with the craziness that followed during the first week of this month.

On one hand, local governments, who had only just finalized their budgets assuming the increased tax would still be in effect, suddenly found themselves entering the new fiscal year facing a nasty revenue shortfall. The government department in charge of building and maintaining the national highway system was told its allotted funds for the following year will maybe wind up billions of dollars less than expected. Meanwhile, many gas stations quickly put up signs saying, "The tax cut does not mean prices will immediately drop," only to see their competitors lower their prices...and wind up with LONG lines of people eager to take advantage of an average reduction of around 20 yen per liter (about 75 cents a gallon at the current exchange rate). Many gas stations decided to avoid either possibility by simply eliminating their price signs completely, meaning customers wouldn't know how much they'd be paying till they pulled up to the pump. The result was a brief but totally insane price war until things finally settled into an equilibrium again based on the new, lower rate.

And to think I'd only just gotten used to the fact that most gas stations here are now automated, vending-machine-style, self-service types! Hey, being from Oregon (where self-service gas is, to my knowledge at least, STILL illegal), I had never pumped my own gas in my life till just a couple of months ago! Now I'm suddenly pumping it a LOT cheaper than before! And! (?)

I can't say that I'm complaining, but I am a bit worried about what local governments and the highway department are going to do with the reduced funds. Are they finally going to tell the bribe-paying construction companies to stuff it, knock off all those nauseating pork projects, and just concentrate on what's really needed? Our survey says: "BAAAAAH!!!!"

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Trumpeting In The Spring

April Academy 08e

Daffodils are nicknamed "rappa" (trumpet) in Japan. These daffodils in one of the many flowerbeds at Ye Olde Academy certainly look like they're heralding the arrival of Spring with a glorious...if perhaps slightly off-key...fanfare.

Speaking of which, the end of the 2007-2008 school year was heralded by the Big Annual Concert put on by our music club. As always, it was a sizable event with a lot of hard preparation. In the past the Concert was always held on the weekend after the senior high graduation ceremony, but after lots of complaints we finally moved it to the last weekend of March, a tradition we've followed for the past three years. We may end it here, though. This time we ran into a LOT of trouble. You'd think it would be easy considering we had a full week from the last day of classes till the Concert, but nooooooo.....

Perhaps the biggest problem was that someone had the bright idea to send the entire grade 10 on a three-day jaunt in Tokyo and Yokohama. That meant we were missing several key members of our various ensembles during a critical rehearsal period. Then, when they came back, I got tied down with work related both to my new posting for the next school year (grade 7 again, i.e. ALL THAT ORIENTATION STUFF...) and the recruiting effort for our next trip to our sister school in Australia. (No, my resignation was not accepted, and it is probably a very good thing.) That meant I was running back and forth between Ye Olde Academy and the Kashima Workers' Culture Center like the tail of a very excited, little dog. (Woof!)

This was supposed to have been an off year for the music club, but it wound up being one of the best. It was also the 20th such Concert, so we wound up planning an ambitious program. It had been a busy year for both the orchestra and the Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble, but the concert band was hoping for more and had finally worked up the courage to ask for it. Therefore, we had them start the program for the first time in almost a decade. The orchestra was to close out the event with an epic performance. That left the Flying Eggheads squeezed in the center like the middle bun of a Big Mac, but we still managed to put together a pretty good show. The precedents set in all that got carried through to the end, too. We had decided from the beginning to use only simple sound and lighting and keep the last-day rehearsals to a minimum so as not to wipe out the schedule and the kids' chops. Guess what...

April Academy 08d

Anyway, the big day arrived...but the crowds didn't seem to be. When the first bell rang announcing five minutes to curtain it seemed like only a handful of people were in the audience. The mood backstage became suddenly grim. Undaunted, the concert band took the stage and opened it all up with the rousing, brassy fanfare that kicks off "A Prelude to Applause" by Toshio Mashima. Both band and conductor Mr. Karatsu were looking and sounding great as they went into Hiroshi Hoshina's "Fu-Mon", another very artsy and modern-sounding piece by a native composer (originally used as a compulsory piece for Ye Annual Band Contest [shudder]). They rounded out the set with yet another contemporary Japanese piece, this time the rather surrealistic, very Japanese three-movement "La Vita - Symphony in 3 Poems" by Yasuhide Ito. So far the kids seemed to be doing fine. By now the audience had grown to more than 85% capacity, so the mood was brightening.

April Academy 08c

Next it was time for the Flying Eggheads. Sporting a new uniform polo shirt saying, "One and Only," the idea of the student captain, we took the stage and kicked off with a version of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love". This proceeded into a more recent shuffle-swing tune by Howard Lowe entitled "Run With It". The stage lights switched to a darker color, and we moved into a swing set (No, not the playground variety! Shut up, you!) starting with Paul Desmond's "Take Five" and closing with the Count Basie tune "Splanky" (penned by Neil Hefti and Sammy Nestico) featuring some very impressive ad-libbing by a couple of rookies performing their first solos! Finally we ended the program with a Latin set coming in like a gentle breeze with Jobim's "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" (featuring some lovely bucket-mute trombone ensemble work and a gorgeous sayonara solo by our lead alto sax player) and going out like a screaming typhoon with an interesting jazz-band arrangement of "Mambo" from West Side Story.

I could just see Mssr. Maestro Ogawa gritting his teeth backstage as we burned into "Mambo". It is not only a very fast, difficult, and furious piece, but it is a hideous chop-buster. The brass were still sounding hot off the mark, but you could hear the edge fraying measure by measure as we got into it. You could tell they were struggling when we finally got to the final ordeal that was the coda. But we weren't really done yet.

Our encore was a massively fun version of "La Bamba" (mispelled "La Banba" on the score for some bizarre reason...). I ordered the music from a Japanese catalog only three weeks before the Big Concert, discovered to my horror that the arrangement really sucked, and did a bit of mucking with it. No, actually, the students and I did some mucking with it. The trumpets rearranged the melody of the first verse so that it matched the original song more closely in rhythm and articulation (and I was VERY grateful!). Then, when we came around to the verse a third time, the kids in the brass and sax sections put their instruments down, and we sang. Well...actually, I did most of the singing...especially since, at the insistence of the stage manager and the kids, I had a microphone. But they still sang along with me as best they could with a hastily-katakanized rendition of the Spanish lyrics. (Para baira ra banba. Para baira ra banba se neseshitte una poka de gurashia...) After that, when we took the D.S. so our lead trumpet player could play a round two solo (which she played very, very well despite half-busted chops!) and I was having fun dancing around playing with one of those two-tone Latin whistles, suddenly all the grade 11 members of the music club not in the jazz band came out onstage and did an unannounced dance number! It was a monumentally huge amount of fun, and the audience loved it almost as much as we did!

April Academy 08b

After a (grievously short) 15-minute intermission it was time for the orchestra to play its big production number, in this case all seven movements of Gustav Holst's The Planets. This is a work I have always loved, have always wanted to try (beyond Mars, the only one I have tried!), and have always wanted to hear our orchestra try. As I mentioned before, this was supposed to be an off year for the orchestra, and our guest clinicians all thought Mr. Ogawa was madder than a march hare or a mad hatter (Aaaaa VE-ry merry unbir...AHEM!!!) to try even one or two of those oh, so [censored] demanding tunes! BUT THEY DID THE WHOLE [CENSORED] THING!!!! [FUCK!!!] (oops...) (Oh, well. Maybe that will attract a few more Google hits.) Anyway, this is how it went:

I. Mars, the Bringer of War - This is no doubt the best-known of The Planets. It is certainly the most immediately recognizable. It starts out fast, an ominous and mechanical-sounding march in 5/4 time as the troops ready for battle. The crescendo builds, martial fanfares and subtle themes dance around each other, then it builds to a sudden, wailing preliminary climax. After that there is a chillingly evil wind blowing as if over the desolate ruin of a bombed-out battlefield. Then, suddenly, the march is back with renewed vigor, adrenaline surging as blood lust builds to the final, pounding finale.

Our orchestra played this at the All-Japan Selected High School Orchestra Festival last December. It was impressive then. It was impressive now.

II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace - This movement is everything Mars is not. It is gentle, soothing, romantic, a warm breeze over a sparkling sea as two lovers gaze longingly into each other's eyes and fall into a blissful embrace. It is not fast. It is not furious. There aren't a lot of notes. No pops and bangs. No howls or wails. Just gentle, peaceful, and lovely.

It is excruciatingly hard to play well. Unfortunately, it showed our orchestra's weaknesses all too clearly. Definitely more so than any of the other movements. It features some deceptively simple-sounding but very demanding horn solos, and our graduating lead horn player just couldn't get her exhausted lips around them. In fact, the soft dynamics and controlled attacks had the whole horn section reeling and the woodwinds going sadly out of tune. Maybe Venus brought peace, but it seemed to be in pieces.

III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger - This one doesn't get performed as much, but it is still very recognizable. Its rapid, 6/8 rhythm evokes the image of the god running. There are also different themes popping up here and there as he delivers messengers to and from each of the other gods. It is a complicated and tricky tune with a lot of convoluted rhythms twisting around each other and embedded meters. It requires some very deft handling of one's instrument.

The kids in our orchestra always tend to do much better with complicated tunes like this than they do with simple tunes like Venus. There were a couple of minor splats from weary brass players, but generally this one went very well...better than it did when they performed it at the All-Japan Selective High School Orchestra Festival last December. I might add that our concertmaster, whose self-confidence has never been very strong, did an excellent job on the solos in the middle.

IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity - This movement has probably always been the second best known of The Planets next to Mars, but recent pop adaptations have brought it very much into the public eye. Just as Zeus/Jupiter is a god of many moods, so this piece goes through some profound changes of tone. It starts out with a bold, brassy fanfare surfing atop a shimmering sea of triplet-rhythm strings. It then progresses through several sub-movements, each based on a different traditional dance style and quite could even say jolly! (Imagine that!) And then, in the middle, there comes that change into that most famous part, the one that is so sentimental, even melancholy. Holst says he penned that part with the well-known trio from Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" in mind. All I know is that it is a subdued yet glorious melody straight from the heart, appearing out of nowhere amongst all that carefree gaiety. But then, quick as a wink, Jupiter starts hopping about again...only to end on a sentimental yet prouder note.

This is a very demanding piece made all the more challenging by public familiarity. The kids played it at one of our Saturday Afternoon Concerts in February and really shone. This time they seemed a bit more tentative, maybe holding their strength in reserve, and the brass were clearly struggling with fraying chops, but it was still a convincing performance.

V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age - This is a strange piece, yet so deeply affecting. It starts out with the harps and flutes doing an eerie one-two, one-two, back and forth like a pendulum swinging on a clock. That's exactly what it is; it is a clock ticking away a man's life, each tick and tock another month cast into the winds of time, never to return. We all live to die, afflicted as we are with that terminal disease known as mortality. Saturn brings it all into perspective. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Haunting in the beginning, the piece goes through changes of tone and mood as it progresses through different stages of the man's life (or at least memories thereof), but all along that ticking just keeps going and going and going, ceaseless and inexorable, leading the man onward to his doom. As the end approaches the music becomes more ominous, more fraught with dread. Tick, tock, tick, tock. You can almost hear the ferryman's oar in the River Styx, or maybe Davy Jones muttering through his tentacled face, "Do you fear death?" Tick, tock, tick, tock. Yes, the man is afraid...he is really afraid. Tick, tock, tick, tock. And then, finally, the dreaded alarm rings in a ghastly cacophony of tubular bells and strings grating against each other. Saruman's deep voice can almost be heard booming, "It is over!" And it is. But it isn't. The music suddenly reawakens, but now it is totally different. No evil clock here anymore, just something serene, delightful. As Gandalf said, with a look of warm ecstacy on his face, "And then you see it." The man's spirit has found its way to the other side.

This piece doesn't seem to get performed as much. It isn't easy, and it's kind of weird. Done well, however, it is also very powerful. The kids also played this at the All-Japan Selective [etc., etc.] last December, but I think they did a better job this time. It might have been the high point of this performance of The Planets, but it's hard to say. Yes, the brass were still stuggling hard with blown chops, but they seemed to be holding it together enough to pull it off.

VI. Uranus, the Magician - Holst clearly admits that he modeled (ripped?) this piece off of Dukas' "The Sorceror's Apprentice", and the tunes are indeed very similar. Maybe for that reason I've always found Uranus to be the least interesting of the seven movements of The Planets. It can still be kind of fun, however, if a bit hard to find any real inspiration in it.

The brass were almost beyond hope. This piece opens up with a heavy, unison brass fanfare that pops up here and there later in the piece. They were really struggling, intonation questionable, and a couple of players couldn't produce better than a feeble buzz (or bubbling?). It was a good thing the bassoon and percussion sections delivered rock-solid performances with sound backing from the strings and woodwinds, or this tune would have been almost as disastrous as Venus.

VII. Neptune, the Mystic - This is another strange tune that doesn't get performed as much. Eerie, hypnotic, subtle, disturbing, a half-mad mix of ethereal and otherworldly voices coming together and dancing with each other in slow 5/4 time. And in fact, later in the tune you really DO start hearing voices!

Holst recommends that a large, all-female chorus be positioned backstage to sing that haunting vocal part so it sounds distant and its source can't be seen. We had only about a dozen well-meaning non-orchestra music club members to work with. That called for a change of strategy. After much discussion and experimentation, I and Mr. Sakuma (our sound and stage director) came up with the idea of splitting them into two groups placed just out of sight in the wings of the stage but turned so they were singing toward the orchestra. That way their voices got reflected back toward the audience by the acoustic shell. It took a bit to pull it off; each group was led by one of our vocal music teachers, tuned by a low-volume keyboard, and directed by a shadow conductor. No, they weren't experienced singers, so pitch was always a worry on some of those really high notes. Still...the end can I describe it? You had to be there to believe it. The effect worked PERFECTLY! The orchestra, its members exhausted but still soldiering valiantly on, was weaving those soft, mysterious textures, and then...just at the threshold of hearing...ghostly voices? And then they gain in volume and resolve into an exotic and uncanny harmony. But where are they coming from? It's almost like they're floating in thin air! After a while the orchestra powers down leaving only those seemingly disembodied voices, still playing off each other as the last few measures repeat over and over, fading to zero...

...and the audience erupts into thunderous applause.

I could tell Mr. Ogawa was frustrated even before I talked to him afterward. We both know the orchestra could have...should have...done better. Mistakes had been made that shouldn't have. A level of concentration hadn't been there that should have. Still, it was impressive in many ways. I would even call it a history-making performance by any count. I've certainly seen far less impressive performances coming from orchestras that were thought to have been better at the time. Besides, the most important thing is the audience, and they seemed duly impressed. As for me, I was amazed simply by the attempt. The Planets is not something anyone can play, and this off-year orchestra did it. I can forgive a few busted chops, off-key flutes, and more tentative than usual violins.

April Academy 08a

Two encores were played. The first was a heartfelt, string-intensive tune from a Puccini opera (whose title I can't recall). The second, in which all the members of the music club were called in to participate, was a fun samba version of Mozart's Turkish march. It was an arrangement downloaded off the internet by Charles, my new American coworker who is now also a music club director. He also conducted the piece as his official debut with us. (Mr. Ogawa and I both had issues with the arrangement...which was not very good at all. Still, it was a fun tune and a great way to end the show.)

And then it was done. After that was just the usual cleanup followed by the end-of-the-year party.

2008 tkesk program
The concert program for this year's event.

The next day, Sunday the 30th, I was exhausted, but I was also on duty to keep tabs on students at the school preparing for April's sports festival. Mainly I just had to tell them when to quit and go home. I found almost no one there when I arrived, and the few students present were already closing up ahead of time, so I went home early. On Monday the 31st and April 1st I went AWOL, figuring I had more than enough leftover paid vacation time anyway. Today (Wednesday the 2nd) I tried to be a good boy and show up at the school, but I arrived there to find the English and music offices off limits due to floor waxing in progress, so I gave up and left again. (Well, Olivia, I guess I managed to get a few days of holiday, so you don't need to slap me yet.)

The new school year officially begins in a few days. I guess I'll try to make the ones in between count!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Now You See Them, Now You...Ah, There They Are!

You know, for the longest time I wondered what was up with my Neoboard...that little chat box in my sidebar. People kept talking about those silly, dancing bananas that have become such a staple of the thing (thanks, Dewkid!), but at least since my reinstall last year I never saw them. That was true for both my home machine (using Firefox) and my work laptop (using Internet Exploder 7).

But then, when I accessed my site once from a general office workstation at my school (using an older version of Internet Exploder 6), suddenly there were those dancing bananas again! Thinking that perhaps it was a problem at the source that had finally been fixed, I heaved a sigh, went home, logged in...and no bananas. I did a raspberry and thought, well, nuts! My guava-d! This is just peachy! It was totally the pits. The apple-let definitely wasn't working. I kept my eyes peeled for answers, but I never did find the core of the problem. As my mood became black (cherry), I began to wonder with much passion (fruit) if maybe the trouble really was at the source, and they had managed to pear it down and figs it briefly...only to have it break again. Totally mangoled! Talk about a plum-useless lemon!

[Okay, I just slapped myself. Sorry...]

Yesterday I tried downloading and installing the latest version of Safari for Windows just to check it out. Guess what? THERE WERE THE BANANAS!!!! The smileys worked just fine in Safari! But then when I went back to Firefox, no dice (and no bananas, either)! Clearly it was a problem on my end, so I checked everything even more thoroughly. Finally I noticed that Neoworx had made a slight change to the code entry that was to be added to the html of my blog. There was a small addition that hadn't been there before. I recopied the code, and voila (as opposed to viola, which is a stringed instrument similar to but slightly larger than the violin)!

[Okay, I just slapped myself again.]

The smileys are back! Now people can bananize the board as much as they wish!


(So why did it work without the additional code in I.E. 6 and Safari, but not in I.E. 7 or Firefox? Hmmmmmm.....)

Speaking of bananas and total weirdness, I don't remember if I've ever posted this video or not, but it has to be one of the strangest...and funniest...I've ever seen! It was also Dewkid who first foisted it on me, so I owe it to him to share it here. I give you: