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Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 7)

This trip is turning a little more awkward as it becomes increasingly obvious that the orchestra leadership labors under the illusion that it can tell me—presumably on account of my being grateful to get to tag along on this trip—what to write and how.

Now, I wouldn’t wish to suggest that my journalistic integrity hasn’t got its price, lest I discourage a bidding war amongst willing and deep-pocketed parties of interest. But it might be said, by way of orientation for anyone but my editors interested in telling me what to write, that my fee for definitely never being taken seriously in my profession again (even if this differs only slightly from possibly never having been taken all that seriously in the first place) is in the robust middle to highish six figures. And that is just a preliminary estimate, not a firm offer, since I’ve not had occasion to mull this subject at any depth before. Nor does it include the premium that buys out my self-respect.

Perhaps the market price for buying tailor-made journalistic coverage is lower in Vienna, where toadying and bootlicking presumed authorities in pursuit of personal interest has been part of the bon ton for a few centuries running, but the yawning canvass of emptiness that is the local coverage of the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s activities suggests otherwise. I had once been told that the reason for this neglect was a vast conspiracy on the part of a wicked, Harnoncourt-loving, Liszt-hating Kabbalah of journalists… but given my experiences, I’m starting to be open to alternate explanations.

If only something could be done about such an utter and unhealthy misconception of just about every aspect of journalism, from the idea that the reported-upon ought to have control over what is being reported about them to the idea that only all-out pleasant reviews are efficient at achieving the greater objective (in other words that it were better if nothing be said than anything containing even a whiff of criticism)… But 30 years of folly, bad advice and even worse instincts are not likely to be overturned. An epiphany so late in the game seems unlikely, unfortunate though that is, because the product—namely the orchestra—deserves better.

available at Amazon
LvB, 9th
OWA / M.Haselböck

But come back to me from the morass of easily aroused vanities and delicate egos (mine included) to a gloriously sunny, blue-skied, balmy Sunday afternoon of Japanese suburban calm and wholesomeness that is Musashino on such a day. The end and grand finale of the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s (OWA) visit to Japan looms, with a performance of the Eighth and the impoverished-by-greatness Ninth Symphony.

The audience that assembles before 3PM is particularly decked out today, with several traditional kimonos dotting the audience like beautiful flowers on a lawn. It is the doom of the Eighth Symphony to float by like a prelude of an afterthought, overshadowed by expectations of its unequal brother. That’s a shame, because apart from the smeared entry and a host of flute irregularities, this wallflower symphony, this—to speak with the words of the poet Ralston McTodd “pale parabola of joy”—has the heck played out of it, at a wild pace and with the kind of tempo-unrelated panache that is the OWA trademark.

And now for the Ninth, ladies and gentlemen, a symphony so popular and so laden with symbolism that it has become its own cliché. The notes seem to summersault off the staves, as the orchestra and their conductor Martin Haselböck jump into it. An interesting acoustic phenomenon of total heterogeneity occurs, quite the opposite on the symphonic cohesion of the previous two concerts: A pointillist picture emerges. The third movement is a constant walk on the edge by the horns, which adds a riveting quality that ears spoilt by modern, studio-recorded perfection might find hard to get used to. But there’s a real question to what extent composers, very possibly Beethoven and certainly Mahler, composed the ‘difficult’ into their works as an expressive element:

Take, by way of excursion, the Frère Jacques moment in Mahler’s First symphony. Leaving the question aside whether it’s a solo for one double bass or for the whole section (reasonable people disagree), what is of chief importance here is character. The ‘absolute-edge-of-the-playable’, the deliberately designed to-be-out-of-the-comfort-zone character of that episode is the key to Mahler’s deliciously insidious tilting of the “Bruder Jakob” ditty. Unfortunately (of sorts), today’s best double bass players are too good to let that part frazzle them in the least. You can hear blindfolded audition renderings that are spot-on: Great playing and an impressive achievement, but unfortunately undermining the intention of the composer and the character of the bit.

The writing for voices in Beethoven often suggests something similar, as does Schumann writing deliberately for natural horns when he would already have had new and improved models available to be played. A Beethoven Ninth that oozes with assurance and confidence sounds different from one where there’s always a bite to the affairs, and a proverbially chewed nail or two. From precariousness can arise a certain kind of tendresse.

Fourth movement. Enter several Japanese percussionists in charge of the Janissary elements—and of course the Japanese chorus, the New National Theater Chorus (drilled, on this occasion, by Kyohei Tomihira). The chorus members take their positions—as they would have during Beethoven’s times (and as they did at the Resound-performance in 2015)—to the left and right of the conductor and proceeds to sing, amazingly (though almost a given in Japan) from memory: Females with grim determination in their faces on the (audience-) left and men with bold wide stances on the right, and both equally ready to take a bit bite out of the music. Which, being principally an opera chorus, they do with dramatic gusto. If you know the work of the Bach Collegium Japan in the Bach cantatas, it will also not come as a surprise that the New National Theater Chorus’ articulation, enunciation, and pronunciation, is so darn perfect that they are easier to understand than most native German-speaking choruses in this work.

Their forcefulness and occasional fierceness actually suits the performance of the orchestra, which may have adapted to it, as it was—in this movement—playing all-out. Only on “Sternenzelt” do we get a hint of fire-sirens from the choir. The soloists, flown in just for the occasion, were all very good. Çigdem Soyarslan first came to my attention when her Jemina was the best thing about a Theater an der Wien performance of Schubert’s Lazarus… The work at hand didn’t give her the opportunity to push expectations still further, but consolidated the good impression. Mezzo Michaela Selinger is all charming sonority, Marcel Reijans proves a tenor with a surprising elegance and downright noble restraint, and Sebastian Holecek (a member of the Vienna Volksoper’s ensemble whom I first heard as Keikobad in Munich’s Frau ohne Schatten), despite having a bit of a bearish streak about his delivery, sounds darn good, too; round and warm. Once all the world is sufficiently kissed and the last of the Götterfunks fully gefreudet, the show is over and the warm and enthused audience shows its appreciation with very considerably prolonged applause. Mission accomplished—the first HIP Beethoven cycle in Japan has commenced.

Furthering my mission of immersing myself in Japanese culture as best I can—a task which pertains mostly to my most sensitive and appreciative organ, my stomach—I seek out my old college roommate (and fellow foodie) to go for some Korean Barbecue (or Yakiniku). By way of Shinjuku Station (I don’t notice much of the nearly 4 million daily travelers that apparently use this busiest of all transport hubs), I end up in Toshima and enjoy some of the best beef I’ve had. Also excellent liver (rebā) and easily the tastiest intestines (tetchan) and tripe (mino) of my life.

My friend’s little kid courteously ladles the marinated and grilled intestines on both of our plates by the chopstick full. I can tell a gourmand when I see one, and there’s a pint-sized one sitting across from me. First Beethoven One through Nine and now a cow, snout to tail—what an evening, what a week! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt, indeed.


Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 6)

After a day of exploring the world of semi-suburban middle-class Japanese shopping, including accidental acquaintance with the Japanese Wallmart (Seiyu, similar but vertical) which leers in the area of the Harmonica Yokocho, the little grid of shopping alleys north of the Kichijoji station, and walking through the Nakamichi shopping street, it is onward to the third of the four Beethoven concerts of the Vienna Academy Orchestra at the Musashino Hall, featuring symphonies One, Two, and Three.

Those symphonies—despite the presence of the ‘gate-to-romanticism’ “Eroica” Third—having less cachet than the higher numbers, this is the only concert that wasn’t sold out on subscription. On the upside, this allows a few more spontaneous Beethoven-seekers to purchase tickets and the hall ends up just as sold-out, and with a crowd perhaps even more enthusiastic than that on the days before. Then again, they had reason to be. Starting with a tight first movement of the First Symphony, this was the best concert of the tour so far, by far.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 1 & 2
Vienna Academy Orchestra / M.Haselböck

Second movements really do appear to be something of a blind spot for the orchestra, though, because once again this movement in the First is just a bit more slack and looser and less precise than those before and after. Meanwhile the fourth movement opening—several false starts before it gets going—is one of the rare instances of Haydnesque wit and coyness in Beethoven, and I have never heard it so obvious or as humorous as in this performance. It’s like a little toy car revving up to get over a hump: One-uhrmp-umhmp. Two-uhrmp-uhmp-ump. Three-uhrmp-uhmp-ump-mp. Four-uhrmp-uhmp-uhp-mp-p. Five-uhmp-uhmp-phmp-ump-mp-p. Six—and we’re off to the races, with the movement motoring and humming, unleashed and unbound and full of spontaneity. It’s a darling touch by Beethoven, wonderfully accentuated by the orchestra, and enough to raise the First Symphony in my estimation considerably.

Despite an opening stumble in the Second Symphony which might bode ill for that ominous second movement, said movement goes by without a hitch. The ripping finale sends the audience into the second intermission with broad smiles on their faces, and they come back to a Third that—individual mistakes apart—is well led and dances lightly in the third movement. The fourth movement works along those lines, better coordinated, and uplifting.

But what stands out all of the sudden (and it should have for the last four symphonies already) is that the improved sound stemming from the risers on which the orchestra now sits, also causes the strings to dominate… particularly the first violins, followed by the violas, cellos and finally the rather well hidden second violins. The result is a more conventional orchestral, modern symphonic sound, much less typical of the individual sections that can make a classical symphony sound like a concerto grosso (see Day 2, and the performance at Izumi Hall).

This is not just because the Third Symphony really, truly is a bold step away from the world of Haydn that the first two still occupy… after all, it was precisely in the Third, and also the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, that I have noticed this phenomenon most notably in the first place. Also having heard the orchestra achieve both: a dynamic sound, with brilliance, punch, and easily conveyed energy and very distinctly grouped into instrumental sections, I know this is not an either-or thing, and therefore not a matter of lamentable or laudable choice. For the concert at hand, in any case, the trade-off seems apposite, since the result is much more satisfying than it was at Izumi Hall. Perhaps it really does take the original locations (or similar such types) to get the best of both worlds. In any case, this is a real highlight of the OWA’s Japan stint!

Another highlight afterwards: The most authentically Japanese dinner yet, in a little place with a big carved wooden fish hanging outside and with only a third of the seating Wester-style tables and the rest zashiki style seating. The menu consists of little banners that hang from the ceiling – Japanese only, of course. The staff’s English is better than our Japanese, of course, but not by much. Communication works smoothly at the “Beer” and “Sake” level, but trails off hard, beyond that. Fortunately we find ourselves sharing the restaurant with two couples that were at the concert and which positively beam, being in the presence of the conductor and some of the players. The gentleman in one couple passes his fan around and is thrilled to get it back with everyone’s signature on it and a little picture of everyone’s instrument to go with it. They are only too happy to translate and order for us, and introduce us, upon a little encouragement, to the more hidden delicacies that the Sea of Japan and the North Pacific Ocean bear.

They order a specialty for us, delighted that we are evidently open for less conventional, traditional foods. When nothing is forthcoming, they let the waitress know—but the woman professes innocence: she’d delivered. We look about and sure enough the Tyrolian trumpets (of course!) one table over are licking their chopsticks having just cleaned off the plate initially intended for our table. “Oy! That was our food! Did you know what you just ate?” “Sorry, didn’t know”, they reply. “And no, we don’t, but it sure was tasty! Some kind of stew.” “Well, that was whale.” They are amused, but completely unruffled. “Oh? Really??? What Ho, there it blew! Well, tasty, certainly, as we said.” We get our own serving in short order. Delicious indeed! As are, for the more inquisitive palates, the subsequent whale sashimi, the raw squid, and the octopus. The sake flows liberally, accompanied by Japanese toasts to Beethoven and to the musicians. The kind of cultural exchange that one envisions ideally ensues.

Except for the headache, all bodes well for the final concert.


Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 5)

Day five of the Japan excursion with the Vienna Academy Orchestra starts early: Four-something in the morning, to be ready to leave at five for the famous Tsukiji fish market. We negotiate among our little group of six (a violin, a horn, a manager, the unofficial tour doctor, myself, and a fellow tourist) how to get there via JR lines and the Tokyo Metro system. Not without some difficulty, arriving eventually at Tsukijishijō Station around six. We emerge from the station, where the first whiff of fish tells us that we must be on the right track, awaited by what is already a well-lit morning we throw ourselves into what is supposed to be one of the grand adventures of visiting Tokyo. In fact, I had promised a life-altering experience; insights into culture topped by a sunrise over Tokyo Bay. All just to get everyone to agree to get up at four-something in the morning.

Now, guides and friends and anyone who has ever been to Tokyo or would like to have been there will tell you that you must go to the Tsukiji fish market. It’s the thing to do… and you must do it at five in the morning (our six o’clock arrival was already a compromise), and oh, “you will never eat sashimi anywhere else again.” There’s universal agreement about it – and I think I know why:

If you have made it to Tokyo and actually have hauled your rear out of bed that early, and have made it through the public transportation system at such a wee hour, you’ll be damned if you tell others that the experience of Tsukiji fish market at sunrise consisted not so much of a life-changing moment of immersion in the most bustling, most authentic spot of Japanese culture-become-manifest; an impression to stay with you for a lifetime, but instead the anti-climactic occasion of standing in front of a few dilapidated open industrial shacks, being allowed no more than five feet behind an invisible line after behind which the interesting going-ons might happen, because you’d be swarmed by gamekeepers that make sure the obvious tourists don’t interfere with business. That instead of witnessing the magic of labor and an unparalleled aquatic harvest, the only sight is tons and tons of Styrofoam boxes and a few stands selling spring onions and tea.

And about that ‘never eating nigirizushi anywhere else again’: I definitely will! But I’ll grant that that hyperbole sounds a lot better than: “There are tons of places catering to tourists which serve anything between good and very good goods by way of raw fish and sea urchin… but hardly such that the ignorant westerner (and such we are, even if we have a favorite sushi/sashimi restaurant at home and know our Norimaki from our Temaki) would have an epiphany and suddenly be able to distinguish between the very good and the as-good-as-it-gets. (I’ll grant the possibility of a revelation if you’ve hitherto sourced your “sushi” from Panda Express.) Good seafood aside, the best thing about the market experience ended up watching the little turret trucks zoom about like bumper cars, at reckless speeds and loaded with Styrofoam boxes.

So with all that just between you and me: The Tōkyō fish market is an absolutely magical place; you positively have to go, though of course if you haven’t by now, you may never manage—since the whole place is to be shut down and relocated to a different part of town before the end of the year. That way, conveniently, you can never prove my hyperbole wrong.

But back to Beethoven, the nominal reason for being in Japan: Musashino Hall calls for symphonies Four and Five. And they sound quite different—frankly better, clearer, more brilliant, more overtone rich, more dynamic—now than they did yesterday, because the orchestra sits on risers this time. The effect was noticed during earlier rehearsals of the Ninth Symphony, where the risers were needed for the orchestra, because the chorus stood—in accordance with the original performances of that symphony—in front of the orchestra. That result noted, the arrangement is being kept for the remaining performances. The timpanist (a new face because the regular was busy and couldn’t come along on tour) shows his rock-star potential, explosive and on target and equally capable of subtlety… something which some of his species, when they get carried away, occasionally forget about.

“Horns must crack and squeak”, said Nikolaus Harnoncourt once, in his disingenuous (or genuinely confused) attempt to justify the lack of a high standard in natural horn-playing in the early and mid-days of the Historical Informed Performance world. That’s nonsense of course, but it is true that they will crack a few times on all but the best days and nights. They do so here, but as per usual, the energy of the performance carries the day and individual mistakes be damned. Certainly is Fourth was better than the last time I heard the orchestra in it, at the Theater an der Wien. In particular the Adagio, which is much improved, whereas the under-coordinated Allegro vivace third movement isn’t.

That said, there’s a caveat: Everyone around the orchestra wishes the band well, especially on this tour, which really is a special occasion, so they don’t have to hear a critical word about their performances, seemingly ever. It’s a problem of the entire classical music world (and beyond), and one that P.G Wodehouse wonderfully lampooned in his Hollywood stories that carefully described the rôle of the Yes-Men and Nodders. Bringers of bad news are likely to get shot or, worse, looked at askance. Fine, shoot me—I don’t mind much.

There is a standard of performance out there, for HIP bands just as there is for grand philharmonic orchestras, and it’s a standard I’ve heard this orchestra help set and on rare occasion surpass. This concert, and the two before it on this tour, were not among them. There is much to be said for the energy the OWA almost uniquely manages to convey in Beethoven, and the excitement this can create. But there’s a loss of efficiency when sloppiness gets in the way, which is lamentable. If it could be better, it should be better. The fact that the performances were sufficiently different from anything Japanese audiences are likely served as Beethoven and the fact that the Japanese are both sufficiently enthusiastic not to notice and sufficiently polite not to mention it, shouldn’t distract from that fact. Even if something well short of perfection is enough to enrapture a hall of 1500, that is not alone the determinant of true success. If the orchestra is to take on the mantle of the Concentus Musicus Wien as principle HIPsters in Vienna and beyond, which it now might just have the chance, “sufficient” will have to be the new minimum standard, not the average, and it’s knock-out performances like those of Schubert’s Ninth (reviewed on Forbes) and very recently the “Eroica” at the at the Palais Niederösterreich (reviewed here on ionarts) will have to be the average.

Knowing, as I write this, how the next concert turned out, I am filled with some optimism about the possibility, if not probability, of this happening.

More pictures below.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Johann Pachelbel, Un orage d’avril

…Misreading this present disc’s title as “An Orange in April”, I thought it a basket of sweet delights, juicy Suites for two violins and basso continuo. Now that I know better – “Un orage d’avril”, not “Une orange en avril” – I amend that impression, still accurate though it is…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: A Very Brief Excursion Into The World And Music Of Johann Pachelbel


Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 4)

The sun rises over the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s Day Four in Tokyo, a beautiful day and the day of the first concert at Musashino Hall. But there’s plenty of time until then to discover a bit of Tokyo. Little groups set out to get lost in the city; some new to the place and others veterans already from previous trips. Daring the Tokyo commuter rail network – what with nine rail and two metro companies some of which seem to require different tickets, some of which seem to require transfer tickets, and a number of stations that serve several millions of passengers each day – can be a bit daunting.

I opt to visit the Meiji Shrine, more on random instinct than for any particular reason. It was described to be somber, which appeals, and so it was, alas in vast parts covered for restauration. There’s a garden within the park, with a tea house which the emperor to whom the shrine is dedicated enjoyed, with a view of a little pond with lots of carp and a field of lilies that must be spectacular when they are in bloom.

The wooden tori gates are the largest of their kind and appeal to my sense of architectural stereotype. Despite its popularity with tourists and Japanese alike, the park—and especially the garden—are a lovely spot of calm green in Tokyo… not that I particularly yearn for that, since I haven’t even remotely experienced the hum and buzz of hyper-urban Tokyo yet.

I also head to another more personally relevant shrine of mine which happens to be just south of Yoyogi Park in the Shibuya district. I walk through the quainter, hillier part of Shibuya just below the Yoyogi 1964 Olympic National Gymnasium, I turn an inconspicuous corner, and there it is, rising high above me: Tower Records! As a veteran of Tower Records, albeit the bankrupt American branch, not the Japanese survivor, and an inveterate CD collector, this is a Mecca… a refuge… a treasure island. There’s still one, vast floor entirely devoted to classical music and I barely know where to start. Why not “B” like Beethoven. And look at that, right at eye level, replete with mini-review, sits highlighted one of the Beethoven recordings of the Vienna Academy Orchestra (OWA)! It’s the fresh-off-the-presses Ninth, but unfortunately I can’t read what the employee’s recommendation says.

There are lots of other goodies to be had at Tower, too, especially box sets of recordings long out of print in Europe, specially made for the Japanese market which seems not to know the idea of deletion. Haitink’s unfinished Berlin Mahler cycle. Ingrid Haebler’s second Mozart Piano Sonata cycle. Sawallisch’s Bruckner—all that which he got to record before his untimely death. And many Japanese composers either entirely unknown to me, or only by name. The only think I cannot find are the sets—be it Beethoven, Bruckner, or Sibelius—of the classic Japanese conductors of the last generation, NAME Asahino and NAME Watanabe – the “Karl Böhm” of Japan, as I am told.

I also do find another whole wall and listening station decked out with all the Beethoven recordings of the OWA and Martin Haselböck. The only thing that’s missing is a poster announcing the concerts at Musashino Hall that start tonight… though it might be argued that that didn’t matter, since they are sold out, anyway. But it would seem that the orchestra has already made its mark on the town, before a note has been played Eventually I tear myself away and without knowing that it is the busiest intersection and famous for it, I cross PLAZA and am amazed at the spectacle—and urban ballet, almost—of all these people starting to cross the street in six directions (including diagonally) at once. From Shibuya station it’s back to the comparatively sleepy Musashino and its bourgeois charm.

A few Gyozas at the newfound favorite dive to strengthen myself for the concert and off to Musashino Hall for symphonies Six and Seven… the start to the first historically informed Beethoven Symphony cycle in Japan if not all of Asia. A historic, historicist event!

The hall itself has a distinct new car smell – so much that I realize I’m in the right place when I walk by the unfamiliar side entrance after dark. It makes sense when I hear that the community center has just been renovated and that this was the grand re-opening of the hall… and not a shabby re-opening that is, with a complete Beethoven cycle.

It looks like an outsized high school multi-purpose auditorium and seats 1252. Not a bad looking hall… just a little… different. The audience is dressed more casually than I had assumed, which suits me just fine. Whether correct or not, to me that suggests that they might be there for the music, rather than the event and its prestige. Decorum is nice, but stale traditions are not.

The acoustics on 12th row of the raked auditorium seating is good; certainly more effective in transmitting the orchestra’s efforts, than Izumi Hall which, on paper and judging by its looks, should have been the superior sounding place. Acoustics is a strange science—or rather: no science at all, but advanced guessing with a dash of luck. The acoustic is also more effective in the sense that it generously covered some off moments and ensemble issues whereas Izumi hall had been on the exposing side. In the Sixth symphony, the horns behave notably well; the third movement is particularly energetic.

The Seventh Symphony’s slow opening strikes me as a little slack. If that were tightened, I think it could be more effective in ushering the ears along and the contrast to the Vivace would be just as great, even if the latter was a touch less furious. The transition between the two parts consists of a few staggered notes traded between the flutes and oboes together and the violins: little hesitations, that ought to unleash the awesome forward momentum of the Vivace, rather than being a mere interruption of the flow. Like an expanded, dramatic comma in a narration, not fumbling for the shopping list between the dairy isle and the what-is-it-that-I-wanted-again… ah, grapes![1] Just a tiny moment that struck me, but in any case wiped away by said furious Vivace which I swear had some Japanese audience-members utter impressed chuckles. This ain’t your Karl Böhm Beethoven! (Not that there’s anything wrong with. Although, yes, actually… there is. Different topic, though.)

If Viennese Beethoven cycles in Asia seem to ring a bell, in Shanghai, the Vienna Symphony just played the complete Beethoven cycle of nine symphonies, under Philippe Jordan. On the occasion, Jordan commented—as reported on China-Daily—somewhere along the lines of the famous Vienna sound of the strings being “warm and sweet, with lots of vibrato playing that makes it sugary, with gliding notes and portamenti” and that playing the Beethoven symphonies with the special Vienna sound is less aggressive, even when sometimes Beethoven requires that: “It is always a beautiful sound”. The OWA is also not your Philippe Jordan’s Beethoven. And if aggressiveness is required by Beethoven, they are the first to give Beethoven his dues. I like the OWA’s rough-n-ready ways; the VSO’s homogenized brawn rather less in Beethoven, although it is decidedly good to have both and then some other varieties, still.

The third and to some extent the fourth movement of the Seventh Symphony, to get back to Musashino Hall, too, were fiery stuff, at the edge and sometimes beyond, even if it sounds nothing like in the original performance spaces, which is of course the conceit of the ReSound Project and where I find it affects the listener most profoundly. A Japanese Wine bar (again: recognizable as such only on the foreigner’s second look) reveals a very decent Japanese white wine, from the Kerner varietal. Later I am told that the specialty of Japanese white wine, unlike French et al., is that it goes with soy sauce, making it a commendable partner of Sashimi and Oysters. An assertion that would need to be put to the test, it seems. More pictures below.