Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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!


  • That was a great description of The Planets. Wish I'd been there to hear it.

    Thanks for the blow-by-blow.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 3:50 AM  

  • He he, he he. You said Uranus! He he, he he he he.

    By Anonymous Beavis, at 7:56 AM  

  • First - beautiful pics of the daffodils and ye olde academy's sakura. You caught them well this year.

    But you really are out of your ****ing mind, uh, I mean BRAVE. I've thought past performances were ambitious, but the ENTIRE Holst Planets Suite? Like, wow. And some of those have such incredibly thin orchestrations with extremely exposed parts - yipes. Kudos on attempting it, and double kudos for pulling it off.

    Floor waxing - a la Karate Kid - Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe, very important....

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:43 PM  

  • Haha, you good boy, you deserved those days off.

    Thanks for the review of The Planets. It is a lot to ask of students, and I am impressed - and not only that but they went on to play *Mozart* and he's so hard!

    Parts of The Planets remind me of John Williams-style movie music. Holst was ahead of his time I guess.
    Either that, or Williams grew up immersed in his music...

    Incidentally, I have spent most of my lunch break reading your post whilst eating a delicious meal new on the menu at the Japanese canteen round the corner, consisting of soba noodles topped with healthy Omega-3 seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, sesame), glazed salmon and chives, with a rocket, spinach, green bean, and edamame salad on the side.
    I drizzled the lot with soy sauce and chili oil and it has now become one of my fave lunches! Will probably haunt me some days till I buy it.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:13 PM  

  • Fantastic images of Japanese spring, MM. Just reading your descriptions of each of the pieces made me feel exhausted on behalf of the poor kids who struggled on.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:25 AM  

  • You better yourself each time, MM. Congratulations! You deserve trumpeting about it. Thanks for sharing the lovely flowers too.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 6:30 PM  

  • AND NOW without the score...

    By Blogger Pa've, at 7:33 AM  

  • Searching for perfection is really tough.. but I guess, the learning journey is more important than the perfect score.

    Thanks for the pics of the flowers, did they plant it just for spring or it has always been growing like that.

    By Blogger Robin, at 11:11 AM  

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