Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Common Tongue

One of the fringe benefits of being an assistant director of the music program here at Ye Olde Academy is that we sometimes host musical groups visiting from abroad. That means I get to hear some really good music and get acquainted with the musicians themselves. (Most of them thus far have been great people.) Thus far, during my time here, we've had acts come from the USA, Indonesia, Austria, Italy, Germany, and Ukraine.

This time we were fortunate to be hosting what may very well be the finest youth orchestra in Switzerland. (Sad though it is, I'll refrain from mentioning the name of the group or its wonderful directors so there'll be no chance of my getting put in the dock again.) It is actually a combined group comprised of students from a public school and a private music school located in the same city, which is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Their program is similar in many ways to the one we've been putting together at Ye Olde Academy, though based on a somewhat higher standard. It also seems to share many of the same goals and philosophies. The director of their orchestra was kind enough to attend our Big Regular Concert last year during a visit to Japan, and he was very enthusiastic about the idea of putting us on the schedule for their planned trip here.

Needless to say, we were determined to make the event as worthwhile as possible for both parties. Since this wasn't just a performance by a touring group, but rather a joint endeavor (and hopefully the start of a beautiful friendship), we were under far more pressure than we'd been with any previous international guest. It was an enormous undertaking. We threw everything we had into the preparations, sometimes at the expense of other things (such as our regular jobs). Mssr. Maestro Ogawa seemed about ready to combust spontaneously at any second, so we did our best to catch the cinders and keep the temperature down. When the day finally arrived, we were all nearly in a state of panic as we waited for our guests.

The director arrived first with his family, and he turned out to be a very warm and agreeable chap. He even remained that way as we ran about bumping into walls and each other as we tried to tie down all the loose ends that had suddenly come undone. The buses with his students arrived one by one after that, and they were definitely high school kids. (A few of them came in making loud, snide remarks about Japan in German until they discovered I could understand what they were saying and reply to it. Then they promptly shut up.) Once we got the whole crew together, things started falling into place. That's when it really got interesting.

The kids in my school's orchestra spoke to each other in Japanese. The kids in the guest orchestra spoke to each other in German. Since English was the common tongue between us, it was what we used as the main mode of mutual communication. I used all three languages. The Swiss kids were generally far more proficient in English than their Japanese counterparts, and certainly more than I was in German (especially with a couple of decades of rust built up), but the fact that I was able to understand most of what they were saying without having to wait for a translation definitely came in handy (and surprised me). I'd listen to the German conversation, relay it to my group in Japanese, and then reply in English.

It was even more interesting when Mr. Ogawa took the stand to conduct a rehearsal of one of the pieces we played together. He doesn't speak a lick of German, and his English is limited. However, he does speak French, which happens to be one of Switzerland's four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). That meant he was able to carry out his rehearsal in French without any trouble.

One concert event, four languages. Why do you think they call it "internationalization"?

But there was a fifth language there, too, one which was central to the event and known to all. That was the language of music, and it was spoken loudly and clearly that day.

It was so fascinating to watch the two different youth orchestras perform and to compare them. The Swiss stuck with tradition, performing a Beethoven violin concerto and Brahms' 1st symphony. Our orchestra took a more modern approach, playing Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite". Those are all very challenging pieces that take both ability and musical maturity, but even that made an interesting comparison. I can't say that the Swiss orchestra was made up entirely of virtuosos; there were definitely a few weak spots here and there in the wind instruments. However, whatever small, scattered lack there might have been in technical ability, there was absolutely NO lack of musicality. Brahms pieces in particular are notorious for being performed badly by inexperienced orchestras; people think that the lack of flash and bang means that the tunes are easy. Not even. There may not be a lot of notes going all over the place, but there is an awful lot of emotion packed into the ones that are there. Simply making the sounds written on the page guarantees a performance that is trite, meaningless, even stupid. Not so with the Swiss youth orchestra. The tone quality of certain individual players suggested inexperience, but the playing style as a whole suggested musical expression as inherent as laughter or crying. They pulled off Beethoven and Brahms with comfortable ease as if they'd been born and raised with them (and in fact, come to think of it, they probably had been). Our kids probably couldn't hope to do the same, but they made a good accounting of themselves with the (sometimes quite literal) flash-bang and powerful, literal imagery of the "Grand Canyon Suite". European tradition vs. the current age viewed through Asian eyes. It was pretty remarkable.

I got on the stage after our orchestra finished and vamped around a bit with a mike while they reset the stage. I mainly said what I've written here. I also called the conductor of each orchestra out in turn for a quick interview. As I spoke to the Swiss director, a couple of his students came out in traditional costume bearing alphorns and played a tune. (That almost brought tears to my eyes.) (Incidentally, for those who are interested, the 4th movement of Brahms' 1st symphony is based on a traditional alphorn melody.) Then I asked Mr. Ogawa a couple of quick questions before they did the encores: Brahms' Hungarian Dances #1 (directed by Mr. Ogawa) and #5 (directed by the Swiss director).

What a show.

The reception we had after that was pretty amazing, too. The kids and adults both had a total blast, helped along with mutual PowerPoint slideshows of our respective towns and schools, games, and an impressive and totally unexpected Soran Bushi dance performed by our 11th graders! I was surprised (humbled?) by some of the brass that was there, too: not only city officials, but also people from important organizations in Tokyo as well as the All-Japan Orchestra Federation.

We got quite a write-up in the news, too! We were called "perhaps Japan's most beautiful-sounding youth orchestra". (Sound of head swelling...)

Yes, language is a wonderful thing. It crosses boundaries. It brings people together. I teach it, and I enjoy it, especially when it's music!


  • That will keep the old brain warmed up for sure. I am amazed that you keep your German so well when you have few opportunities to use it. I am glad it all went well.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 12:23 AM  

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