Fanfare for an Uncommon Orchestra
Part One - The Rant
I'll start out by getting the venting out of the way.
- When this event was first conceived and held back in 1996, one of its main overseers was a member of the Imperial Family, and they were very serious about the "Selected" part of the title. In other words, they didn't "select" just any high school orchestra to participate. Receiving an invitation meant that you had been noticed and judged worthy. Our orchestra was first called in the second time the event was held, i.e. in 1997, and we saw it as a tremendous honor. All of the participating orchestras were very talented and capable, and it really meant a lot to us to be considered worthy enough to be counted among them. However, since the mid 2000s the event has been fully in the hands of the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation, and they are dominated by a very left-wing, "we're all equal, we're all beautiful, we're all happy," philosophy. In other words, there are no longer any standards; they invite whoever seems to be able and willing to come. That means that, while there are still many truly impressive high school orchestras on the (steadily bloating) program, it also means there are some groups that get up there and just make fools of themselves. Yes, I know - they're all proud to have their turn in the spotlight, and they're all doing the best with what they have, but it's still sad to see kids who flat out don't know how to play their instruments get up in front of a very demanding audience, try to play a tune that's clearly over their heads, and wind up being laughed at. Frankly, I feel sorry for them. Left-leaning though I tend to be in the political arena, there are times when I think forced equality is a bad idea. This is one of them.
- As if to underscore the point, during the opening ceremony one of the reps from the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation got up on stage and lectured everybody as to how to fill out the comment cards they're supposed to send to all the other orchestras. "Don't write any negative or critical comments," he said. "They just make people unhappy. Write only happy, encouraging comments!" Heck, if you're going to be that PC, why have the kids write anything at all? Just give them all standardized ink stamps that say, "Nice job!" That way EVERYONE is equal, EVERYONE is beautiful, EVERYONE is happy! (RETCH!)(No, I'm not a believer in PC.)
- The PC stupidity also
wreckedextended to the "selective ensemble" performances. They used to be purely "participation by audition only", i.e. the creme de la creme, and they were always excellent and a delight to listen to. Again, starting a few years ago when the JYOF assumed full control, it was taken over by that same "everyone is equal" philosophy. In other words, every participating orchestra was given an equal share, with the parts each filled decided by random drawing. I think you can guess the result. There were some very talented kids up there. There were also some poor souls that were totally ill-suited for the tough tunes they were called upon to play and probably had no business trying. You know the old adage, "The road to ruin is paved with good intentions"? That pretty much sums it up.
- The Nippon Seinenkan, the culture/convention center where they hold this event every year, was barely big enough for everybody back when there were only 18 orchestras participating. 56? Forget it. Our reserved section in the hall (which kept getting moved and resized as the event progressed) didn't have enough seats for everyone, so I wound up spending much if not most of the time either sitting in the lobby listening to the performances via the PA or parked on a bench over in the convention center section reading a book. Meanwhile, it was so packed that getting from place to place was always a problem. We were also rudely booted out of our assigned luggage storage area halfway through the second day so another school could use it, meaning we had to tote our bags and cases with us for several hours. No, it wasn't fun.
What the Sam Hill (whoever the hell he was) is a "fire emergent phone"??!? Cell phone pic taken at the Nihon Seinenkan.
Part Two - The Cheer
Don't get me wrong; there are usually a lot of good things about this event, and this year was no exception.
- The Ye Olde Academy orchestra continued its tradition of audacity this year. We've always had a tendency to play tunes most school orchestras don't and avoid those that they do. Our program this year was a salute to Aaron Copland and included two numbers. The first was "Fanfare for the Common Man", and it was performed by only our brass and percussion sections with the rest of the orchestra waiting offstage. Considering the kids had to play the thing cold after a half-hour wait backstage, I was really worried. Yes, the opening trumpet blare skidded a bit and it took a bit for the horns to get into gear, but once they got into the groove they sounded great. The one that really stole the show, however, was the 7th grade girl (in bright red) who conducted. Once that was done, the full orchestra came in, Mssr. Maestro Ogawa took the baton, and they performed El Salon Mexico, which is a very tricky and demanding piece to play, but the kids pulled it off nicely with some brilliant solo work from the trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and cello sections. The percussion section also wowed with the interesting array of instruments and toys they brought out. All in all, it wasn't a perfect performance, but it was still a very good one and earned us lots of praise.
- Speaking of which, it is always welcome and meaningful to get both positive feedback and useful, constructive comments from orchestras which are clearly more capable than us, particularly those that are fortunate enough (grr...) to have elite music major programs (which is generally why they are more capable than us). It is always an honor and a pleasure to be compared with such power groups, to be ranked among them, and even to be considered by them to be on their level. Considering what we have had to work with over the years, I'd say Mssr. Maestro Ogawa and his various trainer friends, not to mention the kids themselves, have accomplished a lot...and the fact that they enjoy doing it rather than treat it as a duty says a lot.
- On the other hand, at the risk of sounding arrogant (but hey...I'm a bit spoiled in this respect, right?), it's always extremely amusing when members of orchestras which are clearly NOT at our level try to lecture us as to how we should run our program. "You sit too deeply in your chairs," ranted a member of one VERY weak orchestra in his/her comment card. "Sitting fully erect on the edge of your chair to keep your upper body free is one of the most basic rules of music! I also saw a couple of violins whose bowing was out of sync! And one of your doublebasses was holding her instrument funny! If you can't even master such fundamentals, you have no business performing on stage!" Um...why don't we talk about the log in YOUR eye while we're at it, huh?
- The orchestra that followed us, a group from a very reputable school (with an elite music major course)(grr...) in faraway Fukuoka making its first-ever appearance here, was awesome. They more or less blew us away with an excellent combination of Verdi and Star Wars. But we were fortunate in that we shared our storage room and hotel with them, and they were a great bunch. I have found that it is often (though definitely not always) the case that the best orchestras, the ones that are really good, quite often have good attitudes to go with their abilities, whereas it's the pretentious ones that tend to be insufferable snobs. That worries me, however, because I've noticed our own kids tend to be rather cold...
- Our 11th graders did their best to manage things efficiently and effectively. I'd say they did a good job in terms of showing leadership, teamwork, and responsibility. I'd say they showed some flaws, however, when it came to coming up with a plan and sticking to it, because they didn't. What they wound up doing was quite often very different from what they'd said, and that did lead to some confusion. It was a good thing that they were attentive enough to avoid disaster, because we did come close on a few occasions. But at least they really were doing their best, i.e. no one was shirking his or her responsibility.
- Once again the teachers and alums got together for dinner at the usual French restaurant in Shinjuku (a tradition for the past few years). I always enjoy going there, though I have to say I didn't really enjoy squabbling with Mssr. Maestro Ogawa over matters concerning the Kashima Philharmonic. Perhaps it was inevitable, especially considering the position I've wound up in, but I'd still rather it didn't happen.
- I got sick of sitting out in the lobby (i.e. my butt was getting sore), so I went for a walk during the last hour of performances (missing some of the worst, I was later told). I was actually looking for a coffee shop such as Starbucks, but I didn't find any. What I did find was an interesting shopping strip with several boutiques, restaurants to keep in mind, and some novelty shops that I wish I'd had more time to check out. I also enjoyed looking at the Christmas light displays that were still out and in full swing. Ironically, there was a new Starbucks at the highway rest area we stopped at on the way home, so I was able to get a grande-size mocha.
- Now that that's over, I have a full week free of work or anything other than family business. Whatever am I going to do with myself? :-)