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1.5.17

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
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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.





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