Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fanfare for an Uncommon Orchestra

I've left for and come back from my one and only bit of work this winter vacation. It was the 2008 All-Japan Selected High School Orchestra Festival (technical but not particularly musical fanfare). This has been a more or less annual duty for me since the first time I accompanied the Ye Olde Academy orchestra there back in 1998. Back then it was a day-and-a-half event involving a total of eighteen orchestras. This year it stretched across three full days and included fifty-six orchestras split into three blocks. (Yes, it has grown a bit.) Since I don't personally direct our school orchestra, my main job on this outing is mainly to help chaperon the several dozen kids that fill its roster as well as serve as a "gopher" (go pher this, go pher that...) for Mssr. Maestro Ogawa. It's a duty that I always enjoy...at least for the most part.

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 wrecked extended 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.


Fire Emergent Phone
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? :-)

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13 Comments:

  • "Don't write any negative or critical comments, write only happy, encouraging comments!"

    Common Eastern "etiquette".

    Though, i still prefer the person who truthfully tells me "You have something stuck between your teeth" instead of the person who lies "You look awesome".

    ".. the best orchestras, the ones that are really good, quite often have good attitudes to go with their abilities .."

    It's the ones who have good attitudes that make good orchestras ain't it? :P.
    (No offence intended)

    By Blogger ❤ IceGlacial™ ❤, at 2:00 AM  

  • You should send the Fire Emergent Phone pic in to EngrishFunny.com.

    I don't particularly see anything wrong with having a larger festival with more ability levels. The bigger trouble is when it runs three days and no longer really matches the title of the event.

    Now, there could be classes of invitation based on school size, etc. which would allow plucky small schools to be recognized, but "selecting" everyone who wants to come takes the All-Japan right out of it.

    I do think that the PC phrase, "the everyone is equal" stereotype, and left-wingism are more complicated than you do. I think what you are experiencing there could be more of an over-reaction to perceived cronyism than the other terms. I suppose if I heard some band that bricked their entire piece, I might feel differently.

    I'm sure you've been the victim of the opposite; where no matter how good your group does, the rich kids school always gets the trophy (cough, Lakeridge, cough). Injustice comes in many forms.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:36 AM  

  • Fire Emergent Phone: A phone used to request a fire to emerge wherever you want, or need it.

    Sounds like you could have used this phone to deal with the uppity orchestra members from some of the other schools.

    By Blogger Info Geek, at 3:09 PM  

  • Enjoy your full week free of work.
    Happy New Year!

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 11:15 PM  

  • IceGlacial™
    Hello! No offense taken. I think you're absolutely right. Attitude is very much the point.

    Our kids, luckily, haven't (yet) fallen victim to snobbishness, but they can be rather cold. I owe that mainly to being overprotected rather than arrogant.

    Snabulus
    I know exactly what you're talking about. (*cough*Barlow*cough)

    Actually, when the selective ensembles were strictly by-audition events they put a cap on how many participants could come from any particular school. That helped round things out without compromising the level or the point of the thing. Now it just seems ridiculous, since "selective" now means "by lottery draw". One orchestra might, for example, end up having to send their second bassoonist even if that person is one of their weakest members.

    The only ones who think it's a good idea are (surprise, surprise) the directors of the weakest orchestras as well as the retired idealists that chair the youth orchestra federation. Most everyone else thinks it's just plain silly.

    InfoGeek
    Oh, this happens every year. The most blunt criticism (not to mention the most pointless, i.e. griping because we don't do things exactly the same way they do) almost always comes from the weaker groups. We do get plenty of criticism from the strong orchestras, too, but it's almost always constructive, i.e. "You're doing ( ) very well, and we were impressed with your ( ), but we did notice you were ( ). It would be even better if you could give that some more attention." Those comments are generally spot on, too, so I welcome them.

    HappySurfer
    It's mostly going to be spent cleaning house, but I'll do my best!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:43 PM  

  • It's a shame such a well-conceived event got watered down and plugged full of rant-worthy aspects. I quite agree with your rants! Bravo to your orchestra - may you always have the grace to handle the loggers looking for specks.

    By OpenID nikkipolani, at 1:49 AM  

  • Next time you get a snooty remark, just poke their eye out with your baton.

    I remember when you and I were in highschool we had a jazz competition at RxPnm. we had comment cards to fill out there also. Noone thought it was a big deal.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 2:00 PM  

  • You've forgotten how to do nothing, haven't you?

    Anyway, I love Engrish: Fire Emergent Phone. If you use that phone, a fire WILL break out.

    Ugh, the orchestra members that try to lecture you are just jealous of your greater proficiency.

    For your group to have attempted and succeeded at Aaron Copland, I am very impressed.

    Do try to enjoy your time off, Minstrel! And Happy New Year!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:53 AM  

  • Oh poo. I've just read Info Geek's line.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:54 AM  

  • The year 2008 is gone but it makes us strong.
    The path was long, but we walked with a song.
    There were fears and tears but we had reasons for cheers.
    Wishing u happy memories of 2008and a healthy and blissful new year.

    With Gratitude and Loving Kindness,
    ROBIN

    By Blogger Robin, at 11:02 AM  

  • Happy New Year, MM!

    Wishing all the best for year 2009 :)

    By Blogger Selba, at 1:43 PM  

  • Nikkipolani
    Thank you very much. We still look forward to the festival every year, but it definitely tends to have its share of frustrations. That's why the teachers and alums always have a dinner party at that same French restaurant every year.

    I had roast venison. It was excellent! (Of course, the wines weren't bad, either...)

    Olivia
    You may be right. The harder I try to do nothing, the less success I have.

    Happy New Year to you, too, m'lady, and I forgive you (poo or no poo!).

    Robin
    Long time no see! Good to see you, and I hope you have a wonderful new year, too!

    Selba
    All the same and even more right back at you! :-)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 2:18 AM  

  • Hey,
    Happy New Year Moody

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 6:40 PM  

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