Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve 2010

Good: Taking my ten-year-old BLUE RAV4 in for a free maintenance package check, tune-up, and oil change.
Anxious: Telling the mechanics that one of the belts appears to be slipping.
Not good: Being told that the belt is shredded and needs to be replaced ASAP.
Not quite so bad: Being charged only for the new belt, not for the installation.
Definitely bad: Being told that, when changing the belt, the mechanics have found that the tension-adjusting wheel is broken and jammed, a potentially serious situation that needs immediate correcting.
A little less bad: Hearing that, again, I'll only be charged for the part, not for the service.
Frustrating: Hearing that the additional repair work will take another half hour to finish.
A little more frustrating: Remembering that mechanics last year warned me that the tension-adjusting wheel wasn't quite right and probably needed looking at.
Irritating: Being told that, in order to replace the damaged tension-adjusting wheel, the mechanics have to remove a whole bunch of other stuff, including dismantling the ABS brake system.
Hair-pullingly nasty: Being told that, because of all the extra work needed, getting everything done will probably take another hour or more.
Agonizing: Having to sit and wait in the car shop lobby for a total of two and a half hours, wiping out almost all my final Christmas preparation plans.
A little soothing: Being charged only for the part, not for the service, and given both a 30% discount and free gifts for my trouble.
Amazing: Noticing that both my engine and my brakes are performing noticeably better than before while driving home.
Nuts: Arriving home after all this, far later than planned, and finding both kids upset and the wife about to blow a gasket on account of the kids' bad habits. In other words, same old, same old.

Hopefully Christmas Day will be better than this.

Merry Christmas / Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weep in Heavenly Peace

I'm writing this post mainly in response to all the anti-Christmas music wharrgarbl going on in my Facebook news feed these days.

Ever since 2002 or so, I have made it a habit to bring my guitar to my 7th grade English Oral Communication classes during the week before Christmas and sing a selection of Christmas songs. The program I have followed more or less from the beginning consists of:
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The Japanese are very much familiar with this 16th century English carol, and the kids often sing along, but only the very first part. They don't know the rest at all, particularly the thing about bringing figgy pudding right now. I use this song to introduce the centuries-old British custom of "wassailing". (The kinder and gentler American equivalent is called "caroling".)
  • The Wassailing Song. (Known as "Here We Come A-Caroling" in the USA.) As long as I'm talking about wassailing, I might as well do this 17th century English number, too. It has always been one of my personal favorites. However, being non-British, I only know the first verse by heart. That's still more than my Japanese audience; this song is almost completely unknown here. Actually, I've been caroling many times in the US and have always loved it, but I'd still like to try traditional English wassailing someday. The "wassailing bowl", which was usually filled with a mixture of ale and mead, sounds like a nice reward for a wish and a song or two.
  • Jingle Bells. This 19th century American song is a well-known favorite just about anywhere you go, and my students recognize it immediately. However, they're always shocked to find out that it's not really a Christmas song! (It was originally written for Thanksgiving and wound up getting transplanted.) The Japanese version of the lyrics is about Santa Claus, after all! When I translate the first two verses of the original American version for the students, some of them actually look like their bubble has been burst. They're also surprised at my energetic (and even raucous) way of singing the song. It's still good fun for everyone.
  • Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I always make it a point to contrast the serious-yet-not nature of traditional English carols with their just-plain-fun American descendants. At the same time, I draw attention to the fact that some American carols seem fun and/or silly yet have an important message. The story of Rudolph was first concocted in 1939 for, of all things, a coloring book. It was made into a song about ten years later. (The first and most famous recording was made by singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949.) Kids here in Japan are quite familiar with this song, but don't seem to realize what it's really about. Bullying, and the suicides that tend to follow it, are a serious problem in Japan and a current hot topic. This song gives me a convenient chance for a bit of moralizing...that the kids usually shut up and listen to.
  • Stille Nacht (Silent Night). When I first came to Japan back in 1990, it was more than a year before I was able to make a visit back to Oregon. That trip was to happen during the winter holidays, which made it even more special. I was very openly excited about the fact that I was going to be home for Christmas. My coworkers at Kashima High School, however, kept looking at each other and shaking their heads. When I finally asked what was up, one of the English teachers said, "I'm sure you can find your date here in Japan! Why do you need to go back?" What, I wondered. Find my "date"? Confused, I asked for an explanation, which made all of them confused. You see, in Japan, as well as most Buddhist countries, Christmas has come to have a mainly romantic theme. (More like a winter sex festival, actually.) If you're a teenager or adult who is not yet married (and sometimes even if you are someone else), you are OBLIGED to go on a date for Christmas...preferably finishing it in a hotel room. The problem is that THE JAPANESE FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT THAT'S THE WAY CHRISTMAS IS CELEBRATED EVERYWHERE. (I even saw a "Christmas special" on TV here once in which an image of the Nativity was superimposed over a scene in which a couple was having sex in a cheap hotel room! I'm not the most religious person in the world, but I just about threw my TV through the window!) Sentimentalist that I tend to be with regard to Christmas, I was outraged, and I explained that, where I come from, Christmas tends to be more of a family-oriented and/or religious affair like the Japanese New Year. My Japanese coworkers figured I was either lying or nuts! "After all," the English teacher continued, "the number one Christmas song is very clearly about romance!" "Silent Night?" I asked. "NO!" retorted the English teacher like I was the biggest idiot in the galaxy. "LAST CHRISTMAS!!!" I...just about...died...laughing. First of all, it's not even really a Christmas song. Second of all, I totally loathed WHAM! in my college days! Ever since that incident, I have always made a big point of making sure my students understand that the official number one Christmas song in the world has long been and is still "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night), that heartwarming song written in turn-of-the-19th-century Austria by a priest and a school principal, originally for performance on guitar since the church organ was broken. It is also a sentimental favorite of that tends to make me feel especially homesick, so I sometimes have to fight to keep from choking up when I perform it.
Actually, as it turned out, it had that effect on someone else. I've performed this program set several dozen times already and have gotten various reactions from my student (and sometimes teacher) audiences. I didn't expect what happened this year, however. In one of my classes, one which was reacting very positively to my performance, my closing rendition of "Stille Nacht" moved one boy to tears. His crying was obvious and noticeable enough to set the other kids, especially the girls, into fits of laughter afterward. What's really amazing is that the boy is a rugby jock! What's the number one Christmas song? As far as I'm concerned, there is no doubt in my mind.

Merry Christmas, everybody! Keep your wassailing bowls ready near the fire!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Suite Sound of Fireworks, Sorcery, and Cracking Nuts

And so Year Ten of the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra (motto: "What was our motto again?") comes to a close with yet another iconic performance (or should I say "apocalyptic"?).

Once again our music director showed his uncanny ability to pick pieces that we probably had no business even trying, and yet as always we somehow made it work.

It all opened with the exciting "Fanfare pour preceder La Peri" by Paul Dukas, played by our brass section standing in a row at the front of the stage, and it went reasonably well.

After that, the whole orchestra (sans the flute and trombone sections) came in and hopped back to the Baroque Era with the first movement of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. (There's no clarinet part in that piece, since the clarinet wasn't yet accepted in Handel's day, but the 2nd clarinetist and I properly assumed our positions anyway and waited. It's actually rather impolite and unprofessional for musicians to go on and off the stage during a program in progress, but people here don't seem to realize that.) Music for the Royal Fireworks can be challenging, especially for the trumpets and horns, but our struggling sections were helped a lot by the addition of a few skilled extras, and it went quite well.

After that came another Baroque tune, this time a movement from Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons. It's a strings-only piece (so all the brass players promptly got up and left...while we woodwinds cringed...) featuring a violin solo, played beautifully by our professional concertmistress, and it went very well.

Next, we jumped ahead a bit to the early Classical period and played the second movement from Haydn's 101st symphony, popularly known as "The Clock". (Thank Heaven that Haydn, following the example of his young friend Mozart, had by then added clarinets to his orchestra lineup!) As with so much of Haydn's work, it wasn't particularly hard to play, it was a lot of fun, and it went quite well. And then...

"The Clock" was followed, perhaps ironically, by a composition made by perhaps Haydn's most ungrateful student, Ludwig van Beethoven. Specifically, we played the first movement of his Sixth Symphony (Pastorale). Beethoven has been a regular fixture of our performances for the past five years or so, which seems odd considering both directors during that period have said rather bluntly that the old Ludwig van is over our collective heads. Beethoven's music, like Haydn's, doesn't usually involve heavy finger work. The first movement of Pastorale is no exception; while not exactly easy, it doesn't require a fast technique or even much (if any) practice time to get the rhythms down. However, it does require discipline and control. It seems like every single note has to be played a certain way, or aficionados get upset. We'd rehearse the same passage over and over again, hitting every single note spot on, and still the conductor would stop and cry, "No, no, NO!!!" Every attack, every note length, every decay, every crescendo and decrescendo, and every trivial form of articulation had to be just right. (As principal clarinetist, I bore a massive portion of the burden seeing as I had a solo in every other passage.) We spent the lion's share (if not that of half a zoo) rehearsing the 6th, and I'm very happy to report that it went very well.

Then came the very antithesis of Beethoven: Dukas' The...Sorcerer's...Apprentice.....

I actually tried my hand at conducting The Sorcerer's Apprentice when the concert band at Ye Olde Academy played it in 2000. It was also a piece that I'd always wanted to try. However, when I got my copy of the 1st clarinet part and looked at it, the sound of my jaw hitting the floor could be heard a kilometer away. It had far more black ink in it than should be considered legal. The fact that it starts and stops with slow, easy, expressive clarinet solos was probably Dukas adding insult to injury. Once the piece gets going, it doesn't let up. Either the fingers are flying, the tongue is working double-time, or both. To call it "exhausting" would be like calling a neutron star "heavy". Some of those extended 16th note runs and grace note rhythms don't seem physically possible for a normal human being to play (which makes me wonder how I was able to pull most of them off). And the fact that the end of one passage-from-hell only serves to introduce the next one in a never-ending series like successive layers of the abyss means that, when it finally hits that explosive climax, one is left physically and psychologically drained. In other words, it was among the most fun I've ever had. Despite some inevitable gurgles and squeaks all over the orchestra, it also went unexpectedly well.

Mercifully, we took a break. After that, there was an interesting segment in which we played part of the second movement of Dvořák's "New World Symphony" and invited the audience to play along on recorders. That was fun. Amazingly, a lot of audience members actually brought recorders and participated.

After that was another break followed by the big production number: Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. Tchaikovsky was certainly a musical genius of high caliber, which unfortunately tends to be synonymous with "chronic sadist". The various pleasant, little tunes he culled from the Nutcracker Ballet to form the Suite don't sound very difficult. They don't look difficult, either. However, playing them is another story entirely. Once again, part of the problem is that you can't just play the notes on the page and expect it to sound good; you have to create the right atmosphere, and that takes control, discipline, and the right kind of sense. There is also the fact that, intentionally or not, Tchaikovsky scored the thing so that many if not most of the solos are centered in very inconvenient locations on the instruments. (It is widely said that Tchaikovsky wrote the Nutcracker unwillingly and was never happy with it. Some reports say he was openly contemptuous of it. That makes me wonder whether he really was taking out his frustrations on the performers!)

Naturally, the clarinet has all kinds of solos in the Nutcracker Suite, and all of them are far trickier than they sound. They even make pros nervous. In fact, when the Kashima Philharmonic first attempted the Nutcracker back in 2002, I was NEVER able to get either the solo in the first tune ("Miniature Overture") or the duet with the flute in the second ("Marche") under my fingers no matter how much I practiced, so I wound up asking the just-joined Mrs. Ogawa to take over the 1st clarinet part (which she then held for several years afterward). Now she's no longer in the orchestra, so it was all up to me. However, this time I surprised myself by pulling them off almost like nothing the first time we read them...possibly a fringe benefit of having practiced "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". The director and rehearsal director kept saying, "Don't push the tempo or poor [Moody] will be in it deep," and I kept replying, "Push the damned tempo! I'm ON it!" And I was.

However, that famous solo in the "Flower Waltz" was another story; it had me deeply worried. Again, it doesn't look or sound difficult, but it's in a really inconvenient place on the horn...especially for someone who has a bit of carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand. I've performed it a number of times, mostly without incident. But when we played the "Flower Waltz" as an encore two years ago, right after the "1812 Overture", my left hand was so numb and shaky that the solo sounded like an elephant dancing in a swamp. The ham-handed flopping wasn't so obvious in the recording, but it was a personal disaster to me, and I nearly quit there and then. Cut to this year. That solo was NEVER a problem for me in rehearsal...until the dress rehearsal the day before the concert. My left hand froze up solid, and I came to a dead halt in the middle of the opening run. Suddenly everyone forgot that I'd managed it flawlessly till then, and all around me were mutterings of, "Why can't he play that?" The director himself was...well...a bit annoyed. After that, I had all kinds of well-meaning professional extras coming to me with kindly patronizing smiles and saying, "There, there. Don't worry about it. Even pros are scared of that solo." I was furious. Maybe that's why I steeled myself, fought my exhausted left hand into submission, and gunned my way through the f*****g thing during the performance. After it was over I was told I'd never sounded so good. Okay, I guess I won't quit.

But enough about me. I should also mention that our music was accompanied by a performance by a local ballet school. The littlest girls did an adorable dance with the "Chinese Dance". The eldest ones, all teenagers, gave a beautiful and graceful exhibition during the "Flower Waltz". The ones in between came on during the "March". It was a very good idea, since it allowed another bit of local talent to be put on display. It was also appreciated by the audience, who gave us thundering applause.

The encore was Leroy Anderson's "Christmas Festival", a fun medley of Christmas songs (with an AWFUL LOT of sharps). Unfortunately, we were pretty worn out by then, so there were some spectacular bricks....especially the opening fanfare. It still ended everything on the right note (ha ha). All in all, it was yet another potential disaster that turned into an almost magical success. At any rate, the audience went away pleased, and we felt pretty good about ourselves, too...between sighs of relief.

Until next time!