My music debut in Japan with the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra was a great experience. Under the direction of Keiji Ogawa, this young organization is nothing if not ambitious. Perhaps in another post I will speak of our maestro and some of the members. But for now, suffice it to say that we are a community orchestra comprised of people from many walks of life and musical talents from amateurs like myself to people with very impressive careers in music performance and education. I feel privileged to participate, and thank the Moody Minstrel for introducing me to this organisation.
Our pops program (each winter concert is classical, each summer concert is pops) was a tribute to the music of film, lots and lots of films actually. To bolster our ranks in the strings and percussion sections students from Seishin Gakuen, the school where we rehearse, joined us. Among them was a pianist who was very good. Some of the orchestra members, including Mr. Ogawa, and our solo clarinetist (aka the Moody Minstrel) are teachers there. There was also a sprinkling of professional musicians/teachers to fill positions not covered by our members. This is common in orchestras, particularly the community variety, as some instruments are not so common. In the Maui Symphony Orchestra, we always had to bring some strings and a bassoon or oboe player over from Honolulu.
Maestro Keiji Ogawa
Rather than have the conductor announce each piece or leave the audience to figure out which music goes with what movie, an emcee was hired in the person of Ippei Hayashiya, a comedian who is very popular with young adults in Japan. The humor was well received by the audience. He was funny on stage and also very personable off stage. He speaks English (which spared my friend Charles the chore of translating), and while talking with him during a rehearsal break, I discovered that he has been to Maui. His announcements and jokes kept the audience in an upbeat mode and gave us a much needed, if only brief, breather between numbers. Although his jokes were in Japanese,and my skills in that area are, well, ahem, still lacking, I could actually follow some of them. I became convinced he was a good comedian when I recognized a joke from my own repertoire. Ironically, it was a joke I told K the week before and nearly told the two other American orchestra members back stage before the concert, but figured that they probably had already heard it. They had not, but they soon heard the Japanese version.
Emcee Ippei Hayashiya
We played to a full house of some 700 people at the Kashima-Shi Kinrou Bunka Kaikan - Kashima City Labor Culture Hall.
(In comparison for you Maui people, the Castle Theatre holds 1200). We opened the concert in the dark. Mr. Ogawa was secreted on stage so that he could take the podium quietly and start conducting Also Sprach Zarathustra before the audience realized that we were starting. As the trumpets built up volume note by note toward the first big full chord, the stage lights came up like the dawn in 2001 A Space Odyssey. It was very effective - even the orchestra was impressed with the effect. After that, we went right into Blue Danube, which of course was used in that film for the docking scene of a space plane with the gigantic orbiting wheel of the space station, as well as landing on the moon. There is no trombone part for that piece but it was the last rest I would get for quite a while.
Next up was Moon River. Normally I would consider this a good warm up piece in a concert. Not technically difficult, with nice long tones - gets the orchestra warmed up and playing together, ready to tackle what is to come. Unfortunately, the orchestra had already spent the afternoon rehearsing the entire program, and was well beyond warmed up. It did invoke fond memories of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's for those of us old enough to remember it. But then I also remembered the ridiculous racial stereotype of a Japanese man played by Mickey Rooney in that film, and hoped that the audience hadn't seen it and, if anything, would just remember Perry Como's rendition of the song instead.
After that came a nice selection of music from Jurassic Park, which you may recall had some really majestic melodies (picture the gracefully striding dinosaurs in the beginning) featuring the French horns with a little help from their friends in the rest of the brass section. OK, the rest of the orchestra was there to, but I'm brass-centric by nature. That movie was filmed on Kauai by the way.
Adventures on Earth was fun, with music from E.T., the Extraterrestial - getting a little more challenging as we went along. With all the rehearsing that day, we should have been holding back a bit and saving something for the finale, but no, we went for broke (and got there pretty fast).
Then Moody Minstrel (no guts no glory?) took the center stage while six students with saxophones walked out on the flanks, and local jazz drummer, Mr. Hasegawa appeared. Along with the brass in the orchestra, and pianist, this formed our jazz band for the concert and we played Glen Miller's Moonlight Serenade. Then the drummer laid down a fast Louis Prima beat, the brass section stood up, and the mood shifted from the serene foxtrot to the jumping 1936 hit Sing, Sing, Sing with a great Benny Goodman style clarinet solo by Moody Minstrel which ended in a note so high that he had to file a flight plan before the performance. Happily, I had pretty much memorized my part, as I could not play, hold the horn up, and see the music at the same time.
Striking resemblance, don't you think?
After an intermission, we shifted gears back to orchestral arrangements and played Over the Rainbow then picked up the pace with Pirates of the Caribbean, which was challenging at times and a lot of fun in rehearsals, but at that point in the concert felt more like work.
It was time for one of my favorites of the evening: Titanic Suite. I like this music, even if I've never been fond of Celine Dion's voice (she's got that French nasal thing going on, you know?), but I like the fact that the trombones have a nice long rest toward the end, so our main challenge is not to lose count. The Moody Minstrel (once more into the breech!) opened the piece playing a penny whistle (tin whistle?) with a spotlight shining straight into his eyes, which set the mood with his eerie, Irish sound, and probably blinded him for the remainder of the concert. He was followed by Nao Ikeda, an opera soprano who added the spooky, wordless, vocal with harp accompaniment. The song is called "Never an Absolution"on the movie soundtrack and is repeated at the end as "Hymn to the Sea". In our rendition the vocalist and penny whistle play the ending part together. It was moving.
Nao Ikeda, Soprano
Ms Ikeda later told me it was difficult for her to perform that song, as the tune goes well below her normal range in places. The horn section also has some beautiful, high and difficult parts.
Speaking of difficult, I'm really glad I didn't choose to play French horn. Aside from all that tubing to deal with, horns are always either playing boring "oompah-pah" waltz parts or are saddled with totally exposed, stratospherically high solos that demand lips of steel. Seems like there is no middle ground for them. Kind of a brass purgatory. It was a struggle this late in the concert, but they did an admirable job. Our 1st horn, Mr. Ohsuka with his wife who plays 2nd horn, practiced their lips off for this concert and reached for the stars. They nearly reached them and I salute them. That night only the orchestra members could really appreciate how much work the all horns did over the last six months and how far they came. As the Titanic slipped beneath the waves, (taking the horn section and many of the rest of us with it), the lights dimmed, and all was still. Which would have been great, except the audience started to applaud before the last deep, somber chord was played. Such are the perils of live music and transatlantic ocean travel.
Our last theme was from another favorite film of mine because of its jazz dances and Romeo and Juliet plot, West Side Story. As we went through the piece it was evident that we were tired. Personally, I knew that at the end the trombone section must finish on a high A -near the top end of my range on a good day. I also knew I didn't have the muscles left in my embrasure to reach it. Sad, as on latter rehearsals I had been nailing it. But not tonight. Well, at least the concert was over...
Like one of those annoying kitchen appliance commercials, a little voice popped into my head and said "But wait! there's more!" Yes there were encores. The voice continued, "not just one encore, no, not even two encores, if you act right now you get three of them, all for one low ticket price!" I was thinking, "Just pull my lips out and hit them with a wooden mallet already".
The orchestra, sans brass (whew), played a nice Cha-cha from a very difficult version of West Side Story, then the brass joined for a frenetic Mambo. This was the most difficult piece of the evening for me. We only received the sheet music late in the season. In rehearsal, I never played the whole thing correctly, not once. Tonight was no different. In addition to challenging rhythms, which I finally did learn, our part is often high, sometimes in a terrible key, and sometimes written in tenor clef instead of bass clef, which just adds another layer of work as I try to transpose. Its the kind of music that is nice to listen to, but not much fun to read at least for this amateur. From the sounds on stage that night, I'd say I was not alone. But it was loud and fast and wild enough that perhaps the audience would not care. I hoped.
And finally, the true finale, the end, the close, the conclusion, finis, I walk off stage after this no matter what the rest of them do... Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, which I have renamed Death March for Brass Chops. Again, the brass stood up; again I strained to look down at the music while holding my horn up, and transposed tenor clef while I brutalized my lips. This brought back the bitter/sweet memory of my high school graduation, where we played this music over and over and OVER as my 960 classmates and I received diplomas, one at a time. But this time the audience was appreciative and enthusiastic with some of the students throwing streamers and balloons from the balconies as the crowd clapped in time to the march.
If any of the above sounds like a complaint or critique it is not intended to be. To the contrary, our community orchestra performed well and we all did the best we could with what we had under the circumstances, which is all any of us can do in life. In the end, we served our purpose to entertain the audience, promote culture and the arts, and support each other's love for making music. Can't ask for more than that.
After the concert many of us got together at a coffee house called, appropriately, Forte's. We enjoyed an excellent buffet as we watched a video of the performance, congratulated each other, shared stories, and basked in the fellowship and glow of our collective accomplishments. When K and I called it a night and left Forte's at 1:30 AM, the party was still going strong.
It took three days before my lips felt normal, during which time I was certain that if I looked in the mirror, a caricature with Mick Jagger lips would be staring back. Tired? Yes. Glad it's over? Yes. Do it again? Of course, any time! (But next time I am going to fake it through the dress rehearsal, so I have something left for the concert).