From Russia With Love

The Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra performed its fifth annual classical concert last Sunday night. K and I were really looking forward to it as I had played in this orchestra for its pops concert last June, and K had attended many of the rehearsals for that. So, we knew most of the performers, some better than others of course,and their respective musical talents and weaknesses.

The Moody Minstrel has posted four articles on his blog "Life In The Land Of The Rising Sun" covering the four days of final rehearsals and two performances of the orchestra last weekend, as well another non-classical gig he played. Busy man. If you haven't done so, give them a read. You will find out how difficult it can be to put a concert together and perhaps a clue as to what can make the Moody Minstrel get, well moody.

I attended the early rehearsals for this concert but bowed out when I realized (hoped) I might be off to Fiji at some point and miss too many rehearsals or the concert itself. As it happened I did not go anywhere, but the good side of that was that I got to watch the performance.

This post gets its title from the music that the conductor, Mr. Keiji Ogawa, chose for this concert. No, not music from the James Bond movie, rather, the theme was Russian classical music. The pieces were Mussorgsky's "A Night On Bald Mountain", "Pictures At An Exhibition", and the Tchaikovsky "Concerto For Piano & Orchestra No. 1 In B-Flat Minor, Op. 23". The soloist was to be a guest pianist from Russia. Quite an ambitious program for a community orchestra to attempt.

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Maestro Keiji Ogawa

We arrived at the hall early and parked in the lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street. The statue of Colonel Sanders was wearing a Santa suit, and I could not help but think of Moody's story about his son asking him about that statue (sans Santa suit) something along the lines of, "Papa, is that Santa Claus or Jesus?"

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Is that Santa or Jesus? - I guess we have the answer now.

In the concert hall there was already a line of people waiting. That line grew until it took up the length of the hallways that surround the building's central atrium. K had made a donation to the orchestra six months ago and had a reserved seat in the center of the hall. I had purchased my ticket through Moody just a couple weeks back and it was open seating. K and I expected that we would not be seated together. When the doors opened and K explained the situation to the ticket collectors, they made a quick adjustment and put me in the reserved seats next to K. Good thing as the 700-seat hall was about full. Did I feel guilty about that? Short answer: No. Great seats too, top of the first section with an isle behind us. Unobstructed view of the stage and right in the center of the hall for good acoustics. Off to the side of the stage, a piano tuner was doing a final going over of the instrument. The Mayor of Kashima City came out to give a welcome. This year marked the 10th Anniversary of Kashima being a "city" and the politicians have not missed the opportunity to speak at every event they can.

You can read Moody's blog for a detailed account of the performance of each piece of music. While the concert was not totally perfect, it was great and any criticism I make would be "nit picking". So I'll just highlight a few of my own reactions, mostly of what went right.

With "Night on Bald Mountain" they got off to a great start, except perhaps a little trouble in the trombones (wasn't that a Star Trek episode? No, that was The Trouble With Tribles, sorry.) Pictures At An Exhibition has a lot of fast runs up and down for the woodwinds and strings. The brass parts are high and powerful. Every one performed very well inspite of the difficulty of the music. I was most impressed.

We were surprised when we opened the program notes and saw that the pianist was not a Russian after all, but was from Germany. As you can read on Moody's blog, a couple of months before there had been a rush to find a replacement when the Russian backed out of the performance citing health concerns.

The replacement was eighteen-year-old Janka Simowitsch, native of northeastern Germany and even at her young age, winner of many prestigious international piano competitions. I love Tchaikovsky. My first ever recording was 45 rpm record of the 1812 Overature. [If you don't know what a 45 rpm record is, you may be too young to fully understand this blog.] I bought it through the Quaker Oat cereal company which used the music in their advertising - "Quaker Puffed Oats, shot from guns!" - and sponsored one of my favorite TV series of the time, "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon" (and his dog King). I also love piano concertos and have listened to this one many, many, times both at live performances and of course recordings. I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time, let alone get my fingers to cooperate with a keyboard, so I'm no piano expert. This is a favorite piece of mine though and over the years I've formed an opinion on how it should sound - my favorite is a recording by the late, great (Russian) pianist Sviatoslav Richter with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Obviously, I would never hold a community orchestra or a young pianist to that standard.

Miss Simowitsch seemed nervous as she took her seat and adjusted the piano bench, which surprised me coming from someone with her experience. The orchestra was obviously tense as well, which I could fully appreciate.
But from the beginning the performance was excellent. The soloist getting everything out of the piano that it could give, the orchestra staying with her and sounding fantastic. I was surprised to learn later that she was not satisfied with the performance and was holding back. If that is holding back, I'd like to hear what an all out rendition sounds like.

The thing about a concerto is that the orchestra is there to provide musical backdrop for the solo instrument. No, more than a backdrop, but still subservient. The conductor is in charge of the orchestra, but must follow the soloist. Tricky business, yet everyone did their part and made it almost seamless. To me, that is part of the great magic in playing music with a group. When the players get on the same wave length or groove or whatever you want to call it, everything comes together and becomes one.

We had a good view of the Moody Minstrel and I could see the smile on his face. He was obviously a pleased and Happy Minstrel. Chuck, another fellow expat in the orchestra, usually hides himself in the back of the second violins, but I actually could see him clearly as well. I was surprised with just how good the violins sounded and how well they stayed together. There are a lot of very young musicians in the strings, and they should be proud.

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Janka Simowitsch

Individual performances were the best I've ever heard from this orchestra. I was particularly pleased with the French horns, led by husband and wife team, Noriyuki and Noriko Ohsuka, in 1st and 2nd chair. They nailed their entrances and their sound was rock solid. The cello solo by Mr. Ohe sounded beautiful and moving.

The audience expressed its appreciation with long applause. The second movement is fast with a dramatic climax, which inevitably leads to people applauding even though the piece is not over. I've often been amused by that when playing in an orchestra. I appreciate the applause but also wonder why people can't follow a simple program and count three movements. Sunday night I found myself making the same mistake! (Fortunately accompanied with most of rest of the audience). Oops! But the music sounded so good it was easy for one to get carried away.

After intermission came "Pictures At An Exhibition". I always had trouble with this in rehearsals for two reasons. One being that the trombone parts are written in tenor clef rather than bass clef. That is because the parts are high and the tenor clef reduces the number of lines above the staff for a given note and theoretically makes it easier to read. (Jazz charts almost never use tenor clef no matter how high, and I suspect the real reason it is used in classical music is for the benefit of the copyists and printers). It would in fact be easier if I read tenor clef a lot, which I don't, so I am slowed by it and make more mistakes. The other problem is that the brass don't play a lot in this piece, but what they do play is important. That means having to count long rests and not get lost, then jump in with (usually) high and loud notes. I'm not alone with the counting problem, as during rehearsals the first trombone player, Mr. Kuboki, was selling small copies of the score to help people keep track of where H*** we were. (I was reminded of my friend Lisa Owen, the tuba player on Maui who used to play in the San Fransisco Symhony Orchestra. She was once hired to play an opera gig where she had only a few notes to play, but was paid the same as everyone else in the orchestra. Paid for counting rests.) Did I mention the notes in the Mussorgksy pieces were high?

Once again, the orchestra performed well. Better than the first piece. Individual solo parts went really well. The tuba solo was hauntingly beautiful. If I had one criticism to make it would be that Moody Minstrel did not play the saxophone solo. When I heard Moody play it in the rehearsals it sounded great, so smooth and with a much better tone than the person they brought in. Ah well, it would have been too much to ask of Moody anyway; he had plenty to do already. He and Mrs. Ogawa had a duet that sounded perfect. And his clarinet solo (in the same movement as the sax solo) was likewise flawless.

Mr. Ogawa's 9th grade son, Sanshiro, on trumpet put in an excellent performance. I was happy for him. Must be tough playing for "Dad", and I like him as he always went out of the way at rehearsals to talk to me and make me feel welcome. Nice kid. The brass over all sounded good without any of the cracking of high notes that I had half expected - knowing how much they tend to over blow during rehearsals. Third trombone, Kosuke Uchida - in his second year of college - played a perfect concert from what I could hear. The first and second trombones had a few problems at the beginning of the concert, but redeemed themselves with a solid sound for the rest of it.

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Click Photo to hear "Sleigh Ride"

For the encore, Mr. Ogawa donned a red Santa hat and conducted a bright rendition of "Sleigh Ride". It was a good choice for lifting everyone’s spirits for the trip home after some pretty heavy duty classics. Send 'em home humming a tune. As soon as Sleigh Ride started K had to stifle a laugh, and then myself as well. I am always complaining of the cold weather here and K gets tired of my Pandabonium grumbling. So now, when it gets freezing cold - which it does at night - instead of grumbling I start singing Sleigh Ride (or Frosty the Snowman) as a more cheerful expression of my distaste for the cold. Sunday evening, at the end of the tune, the trumpets stood up and made a sound like horses neighing. Just before they stood up, they put on caps with horse faces on them, which brought laughter from the audience.

The audience applauded non-stop until Mr. Ogawa had come back on stage for a bow three times. It was well deserved and I think everyone was proud of their hometown orchestra and appreciative to have great music performed so well in their concert hall. The musicians must still be riding high after that concert. Bravo!

And yes, I was singing "Sleigh Ride" on the way home.


YD said...

and now IT IS complete - both account from the performers and from the audience. The posts from you n moody just go together!

This is such a mesmerizing experience to share! I can imagine how well the performance went. Yup i agree with you, when all the performers find the same wavelength, they resonate and become one. and the feeling will just sweep over anybody.

hehe... i can never get tenor clef right, after all i am only familiar with the common treble n bass. (it alwys cost me time trying to read it in my theory exam!)

n u know what? at the first sight when I saw the Colonel in santa suit (when I was skimming through the post), I was thinking, why this santa seems soooooo familiar??!? now i know.

The Moody Minstrel said...


Thanks for coming to see us, Pandabonium, and I'm sorry you weren't up onstage with us. Thanks for your wonderful comments! It was great hearing the audience perspective.

(still blushing)

(I completely forgot about Mr. Ogawa's Santa hat...)

Happysurfer said...

Yep, I enjoyed the concert too. That was how I felt after reading your account, Pandabonium. Thank you for sharing the details.

MM, Congratulations! **Applause! Applause!**

Pandabonium said...

yd - after looking at Colonel Sanders again, I think he bears a resemblance to Ho Chi Min - trim Uncle Ho's moustache and beard, add eye glasses, hmm...

MM - Thanks. I'm sorry I missed playing as well, but it was a treat to sit and listen and not have to sweat the pressures. Great concert.

Happysurfer - Glad you enjoyed the vitual concert, even if silent. I've added a picture of a sleigh to the post. If you click it you can hear Sleigh Ride performed by a band.

Happysurfer said...

Pandabonium, awesome! Thank you.

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

I think i'll just fly a plane.

Maybe i can fly after hours of lesson but not sure if i can play like Moody after years of practises.

Onegaishimasu, Pandabonium-san. And best thing in life are shared, arigatouu - - for both of you!!! :p

Pandabonium said...

Happysurfer, you are welcome, thank you for listening and commenting.

Low, interesting point. It takes many more hours of practice and instruction to play a musical instrument well than to fly a private plane. However, I would not base a descision on chosing one over the other in that way. And there is joy in the learning as well, even if you never become professional at something.

Try things out and see what you enjoy and have an aptitude for. Then follow your heart and do what you love. And don't think you are ever too old to start something. Maybe if your goal is to be a violin or piano virtuoso, you would have to start very early, but there are excellent musicians, writers, and pilots, and others who took up their vocation or hobby later in life.

Robin said...

Thanks for the post..

Yes, I think the task is complete (agreeing with YD)

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

Again, thanks for that piece of sharing. I still play simple guitar tune and i guess i have a fair share of what you're trying to say :)

Let's just say that our state of mind changes with age, time, experience and environment along the way. Physical fitness included. I even ready to venture into art of tea, landscape painter and such but for now, the world as a whole is more interesting for me.

Turning on a TV in Fiji isn't that similar to doing it so here. I'll get unreasonable excited thinking that way. While trying hard to remind myself the fact that i'm almost a walking undead (working life, bla bla bla...), perhaps i'll be a "freeman" like you sometime.

Maybe that's when i fly a plane or play trombone like one :p

Pandabonium said...

Thanks Robin.

Low, You're right about the TV - even in the capital of Suva, Fiji, there are only two television channels. ;')

As for being a "free man", that is an illusion. Reading your blog and all your travels, hiking, volunteer work and so on, from here it looks like you are the free one my friend.

Keep sharing your most interesting life and views of our world.

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

Hmmm..."Sleigh Ride" are good, like having a good old friend! :)

Maybe we both are "free man", singing "Sleigh Ride" on our way home! Mr. Ogawa made us, no? :p