Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake, pt. VII: The (Not So) Big Regular Concert

The music club at Ye Olde Academy always holds its teiki ensoukai (定期演奏会 - regular concert) in either late March or at the beginning of April, capping off the school year with an event that culminates the efforts and progress of the previous 12 months. It is also the last hurrah and farewell for the retiring 11th graders. (12th graders don't participate in the music club.) Needless to say, it's a very important affair, possibly even the high point of the entire year.

It's also an enormous undertaking. At over a hundred members, the music club is the largest extracurricular club at Ye Olde Academy. It is also subdivided into a number of different ensembles. Both the students and the directors hold themselves to a high standard...and won't settle for "normal". Therefore, the regular concert is usually more than two hours' worth of carefully staged entertainment, complete with professional sound and lighting, held at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall. Promotion leading up to the concert is also active and professional (and expensive); most years we play to a nearly-packed if not packed house.

We were just over a week before the Big Regular Concert, well into the final approach, when the Great Tohoku Earthquake struck. When the faculty and students at Ye Olde Academy stood half-traumatized out on the piloti and watched part of the auditorium roof collapse during that first, massive aftershock, I had a terrible feeling that the concert was crumbling along with it. After that, everything just stopped. We were too tied up just with getting the school back into functioning order and keeping the lifelines open. All thought of the concert simply vanished, and it wasn't until we arrived at the date that we said, "Hey, wasn't it supposed to be today?" By then it just didn't matter.

But we weren't going to give up. We'd already put far too much time, effort, and money into the Big Regular Concert to let it go just like that. Moreover, the retiring 11th graders (by then officially 12th graders) had been a very significant group including many power players, among them some of the best brass players we've ever had. It seemed a shame to dump them off without a proper farewell. However, simply rescheduling the concert wasn't that simple:
  1. The Kashima Workers' Culture Hall was being used to house disaster refugees and wouldn't be available for at least another month or two. All the other concert halls in the region were either occupied the same way or closed down due to damage.
  2. The school auditorium would be a possible (albeit limited) alternative in a normal situation, but it was located in the school building that had suffered the worst damage and was in pretty bad shape itself.
  3. Even if the auditorium could be used, there was still the continuing danger of aftershocks.
  4. We still weren't sure how long it would take before transportation lines, to say nothing of communication lines, could be restored to some areas. That would make it difficult to get the members together.
  5. A considerable amount of time had passed with no rehearsing whatsoever. It was uncertain whether the students would even be in any shape to perform.
In the end, once the new school year started limping into motion, we discussed the issue with the administrators, did some begging, and made a whole lot of compromises. We were granted permission to hold a massively scaled-down concert event in the school auditorium after repairs were complete. The whole idea seemed nuts, but it was very much better than nothing.

Plans were made, a date was set, and preparations began in earnest for the Not So Big Regular Concert. The original two-and-a-half-hour program was snipped and compressed down to about a single hour. A number of planned stage sets, costumes, dance routines, and even a couple of ensemble performances were abandoned. We also made do with the sound and lighting gear that was already in the school auditorium, i.e. bare-bones simple, and put students in charge of working it. Mindful of the lack of available seating, we decided not to promote the event except by word of mouth through the club members. We used the fancy program guides we'd already had printed up for the original event, but added inserts showing the actual, abridged emergency evacuation instructions in case another big quake happened!

Preparations and rehearsals were jammed into any slot of time we could get, which wasn't a lot (since new school year functions kept getting in the way). There were lots of sudden schedule changes. After a couple weeks of isolation and uncertainty, it was like the kids had suddenly been thrown into a fast river and told to swim. There was a lot of frustration, and it was all we could do to keep morale up. To make matters worse, at least one rehearsal was interrupted by a strong aftershock that made the auditorium ceiling buckle and led us to evacuate outside. Still, it was clear that the kids really did want to do it, so we did our best to pull off a miracle.

And so it was that in the afternoon of April 17th, 2011, the Not So Big Regular Concert opened in in the scarred auditorium of Ye Olde Academy to a surprisingly packed house. It started off with the concert band playing a single tune, a Latin-style number called "El Camino Real". Next up was the Flying Eggheads Jazz Big Band, with me at the helm. We kicked off with the Cab Calloway standard "Minnie the Moocher", which I'd rearranged to make it more like the version sung in the Blues Brothers movie...complete with me leading the call and response singing with a little help from the rest of the music club! After that we closed with a jazz band arrangement of "Mambo" from West Side Story and then played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" as an encore. I can't say that the Eggheads were in their top form (which wasn't really their fault), but they still did a fine job and closed out the year with style, camp, and energy. Next up was the orchestra, which played selections from the "Coppelia" ballet composed by Léo Delibes. That was followed by a performance put together by the retiring 11th (now 12th, actually) grade members themselves playing a fun Japanese tune I'd never heard before. And finally...time to say goodbye.

Actually, the entire music club formed a "grand orchestra" to perform my personal (and probably not entirely legal...though I'd argue it qualifies as fair use) arrangement combining "Time to Say Goodbye" with Ravel's "Bolero". I've done quite a bit of arranging for the music club, especially this year, but this is still what I consider my proudest achievement. I first made it in 2005 to showcase our departing 11th graders. We've done it three more times since then, including this year, and each time I've changed it to reflect the 11th graders saying farewell that year. This time was by far the most profound alteration. Last year's version started out with a cello duet that I still believe is the most moving we've ever done. This year's was based on that one, but with two cellos and a viola (with one cello part scaled way down out of consideration for ability level). It then segued into a brass ensemble, a new experiment featuring those historically significant (and now sadly gone) brass players, and it turned out even more beautifully than I imagined (thankfully, since a brass ensemble I made for them last year kind of sucked). Then the scales were balanced by a baritone sax solo accompanied by the 11th grade woodwinds (a bit heavy in the clarinets, but lovely). Then the usual Bolero-but-in-4/4 beat started, and the piece proceeded as it has every time...with one monumental exception. In answer to what seemed like an insane request from the director, I modified it so that in the middle, after a dramatic build-up, it suddenly modulated into Bolero's original key and changed to the original 3/4 time so that our departing (and exceptionally talented) 1st trombone player could play the original, chop-busting Bolero solo! (It was a little rough, but I've heard highly-paid pros brick that damned thing!) Frankly, I didn't think I could possibly make it work, but it did. I'm even more amazed that I was somehow able to switch it back to the "Time to Say Goodbye" key and 4/4 beat again so it could build to the finale without sounding frightfully stupid. It actually worked. Overall, although I still love last year's outstanding cello duet opening, this year's version was probably the most dramatic overall that we've done to date.

The whole concert was just over an hour long and dirt simple. It seemed crazy, but the audience appeared to be quite satisfied. The donation box we set up in cooperation with a local quake aid charity took in over $500, too. Most importantly, the departing 12th graders seemed genuinely relieved not to have been lost in the shuffle. They deserved a grand send-off; after all, they are leaving us something of a hamstrung group that will probably have to be in maintenance mode for a while. We had to have our usual farewell party in a different venue, too. (The one we originally booked is still under repair.) It didn't matter. Even in an old, yellowed ceremony hall with a musty smell and creaky equipment, emotions were charged. We managed to end the year properly, and the kids appreciated it.

Now this looks to be an interesting year...though I'm not sure if that's good or not.


  • Sounds like an excellent concert, all things considered!

    Time to say goodbye - I was talking to another blogger about this a while back. He was saying that one day he wants to make a mafia movie using this music to accompany the obligatory gang massacre scene in a restaurant, all filmed in slow motion. Sounds like a wonderful idea to me!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 12:10 AM  

  • great that the kids had a proper 'send-off'. am sure it meant a lot to them, and the parents and faculty.

    we had some japanese students who came back specially for their graduation on the day after the tsunami event. and they returned to japan two days after.
    they practised in our studios for their farewell concert. naturally i was worried about their safety when they returned. i needn't worry though. because of this farewell, one asked for my facebook link, and then another. i now see that they look well and happy. i am very happy for that.

    By Blogger tuti, at 2:39 AM  

  • I am glad that your efforts were for a good cause. It may have been a more modest event, but the memories of this year may be the strongest of all.

    By Blogger Don, at 12:05 PM  

  • Rock Chef
    Oh, man...I'm gonna have nightmares about that next time our orchestra does the tune. LOL

    Japanese can be emotional when things get tough, but I've found they can adapt very quickly and bounce back. It's good that band was able to rehearse there safely.

    Definitely. It was a break in the routine, to say the least, and that alone will etch it in our memories.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:44 PM  

  • A valiant effort by all. I appreciate reading about the tenacity of your students to get the concert put on. Your work on that Bolero and Time to Say Goodbye sounds amazing. Wish I could hear it.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 1:04 AM  

  • Hat's off to you for pulling off the concert, especially with such a complex arrangement! I really wish I could have heard you do the leads on Minnie the Moocher, I don't guess you recorded it, did you? Well done! -- Andy

    By Blogger Andy Wheeler, at 8:15 AM  

  • It is good to see that you are getting on quite well... good luck!

    By Blogger Lrong, at 1:41 PM  

  • Nikkipolani
    Hopefully the new 11th graders, a notoriously immature bunch, did some much-needed growing up in the process. :)

    Andy W.
    Hey, when did you arrive back on the planet Earth, Mr. Wheeler? ;-) Actually, we did record it. There is a DVD of the concert. I'm pretty sure there was a pure audio recording, too. If I can, I'll see if I can post something.

    Good to see you! And thank you!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 5:47 PM  

  • A very memorable concert indeed. El Camino Real - by Alfred Reed? Nice piece.

    You have a trombone player who can play Bolero? I am in awe!

    For all its brevity, it seems an excellent concert, and in these times, I feel it most important that you all "went on with the show". A priceless life lesson for all.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:28 PM  

  • Panda-B
    Yes, by Alfred Reed. That's right!

    We DID have a trombone player who could play it. This was her farewell performance, which is why Mr. Ogawa insisted that I find a way to rearrange my "Time to Say Good Bye-lero" to fit that solo in! (I'd also bought a Tommy Dorsey medley for the jazz band to play because she's the only trombone player we've ever had who can play those high, warm tones! We wound up not doing it, so...) I honestly didn't think I could pull it off, and I take tremendous pride in the fact that I somehow managed to make it work. I'm just happy that she says she plans to continue playing.

    The short, simple replacement concert really seemed to help the kids' morale...and possibly even that of the faculty.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:26 PM  

  • MM - While I haven't been in your orbit, I have been on planet Earth for years now. It was only recently that I remembered the name of your blog and looked you up again. I'm very glad I did so! - Andy

    By Blogger Andy Wheeler, at 10:53 PM  

  • Andy W
    The last contact I had from you was when you said you were going to be in Choshi and wanted to meet up if not come and visit us. That was the last I...or anyone else I know...heard from you. We tried sending e-mail till they started to bounce back. Seriously. I and others were all in "WTF happened to him" mode for quite some time. Well...judging from what you wrote in your profile, I'm sure there were a lot of things happening. It's good to know you're still kicking.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:49 AM  

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