CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


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 its 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, Takashi Asahina and Akeo 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.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Late Schumann with Soo Park

…the result is still a substantial little wonder: The stringency of Bach infused with all the romantic essence of Echt-Schumann continues to leave me speechless every time I hear it…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Or How I Learned To Love Late Schumann


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Leopold Mozart, New Lambach Symphony

…Marpurg also commented in his 1757 “Historical-Critical Contributions”, now on Leopold Mozart the composer: “As regards the number of finished musical works, [Leopold Mozart] may be placed side by side with the two composers Scarlatti and Telemann, diligent and renowned in equal measure.” The cynic might find it hard to tell if that’s a jab or a compliment…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Mozart Père's Reputation Rescued


Forbes Classical CD of the Week: Stravinsky and Scandals for Two

…an insightful lack of relentlessness in Stravinsky and two more original two-hand piano versions of ballet classics: Ravel’s La Valse and the Kalendar Prince from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade compelling-propelling wit…

-> Classical CD Of The Week: Scandals Once Upon A Time

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 3)

A last fantastic breakfast at the Osaka hotel and the orchestra is off to travel from to Tokyo on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. If you like your trains, let’s specify: It’s the N 700 series that runs on this, the busiest railway line in the world, which the newest in the family of Shinkansen trains. It’s one of the ones that look vaguely like a platypus. (On the way there the rarest of all sights: A delayed Japanese train. Ten minutes! Someone brought shame on their parents.)

Even second class is astoundingly comfortable in this train: You would think that Japanese trains, what with the Japanese being an average of two, three inches shorter than central/northern Europeans, might be tight affairs – at least as tight as the TGV speed trains… but nothing of the sort. Despite having the same gauge width, they are a good deal wider (apparently this is possible because of thing called “structure gauge”), and even with five seats across, there’s no feeling of being packed in too tightly. Rows are also luxuriously far apart. The city flies by; the Japanese countryside flies by. About three quarters of Japan are mountainous and not inhabited.

This isn’t scientific, but looking at about myself, I sense that the Japanese—at least in the Kinai- (Osaka) and Kantō- (Tokyo) plains—are really not keen on living in the mountainside—at all. At the foot of the meekest hill, civilization seems to end. That’s in stark contrast to the famously densely populated urban centers. Leaves me wondering if one couldn’t squeeze another 20 percent habitable area out of Japan, by transplanting some South Tyroleans.

Suddenly a collective Uhh! Ahh! The musicians leap to the left and crowd the windows. One second I fear the train might tilt (it doesn’t, no doubt thanks to structure gauge), the next I’m right with them, pressing my nose against the window; pushing other onlookers gently out of the way and fumbling for the camera: Mount Fuji proudly gleams in the distance—solitary and beautifully—with a wisp of smoke wafting out of its top.

After two and a half hours, Tōkyō is reached—another hour or so later the new, humbler hotel in the western district of Musashino is reached. It’s a heavily residential district, with tons of little hole-in-the-wall eateries, and at the next best—a friendly little place oozing authenticity down to an alleged cockroach-sighting—the first groups of the orchestra found themselves enjoying delicious Gyōzas, delicious Japanese pork-cabbage-garlic dumplings that are both steamed and fried at once and which are irresistible with a beer or two.

The orchestra rehearsed; and eventually they found themselves dispersed in restaurants again, differing, shifting little groups invariably bumping into each other. Largely balmy weather and good food—especially for the culinarily curious ones—help raise the mood. More pictures below ("Read more").


Ballet Across American opens at the Kennedy Center

Now More Than Ever (short film directed by Ezra Hurwitz)

It's time for Ballet Across America, the festival featuring American regional dance companies hosted by the Kennedy Center about every three years. The format is a little different this year, with two programs curated by leading American dancers, Misty Copeland and Justin Peck. The festivities kicked off on Monday evening, with a celebratory program hosted by New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Copeland and Peck both made appearances but did not perform.

Somewhat oddly, this opening night featured one of the major works programmed later in the the week and some that were only for this evening. The festivities opened with At This Stage, a film directed by Ezra Hurwitz, about a group of dance students at the American Ballet Theater Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. They spoke about how they became interested in dance and about the opportunity to work with ground-breaking choreographer Jeremy McQueen, who created a dance just for them.

The seven students then appeared on stage to perform the work, Garden of Dreams, for the first time. In white and pastel costumes (designed by Mondo Morales) the dancers brought the short piece to life, appropriately on the theme of blossoming. McQueen set his beautiful, classically oriented choreography to the last movement of Mendelssohn's second piano trio, performed by musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, amplified from the back of the stage.

An exquisite rendition of the pas de deux from Anthony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading, danced by ABT principal dancers Stella Abrera and Marcelo Gomes, was the highlight of the evening. The gorgeous eighth movement of Dvořák's Cypresses, played beautifully by the orchestra, provided the dreamy backdrop for this wistful piece, a sort of remembered romance. It was paired unforgettably with Dwight Rhoden's Imprint/Maya, a solo dance set to David Rozenblatt's slow ballad setting of Maya Angelou's poem My Guilt (performed by Melanie Nyema). In contrast to the gentle caress of the music, the spasmodic movements of the tall, powerful dancer Desmond Richardson communicated both anguish and strength, frantic reaching out for help and solace followed by shrinking back as if in pain.

Desmond Richardson in Imprint/Maya, choreographed by Dwight Rhoden (photo by Teresa Wood)

The works on the second half were less effective, beginning with Justin Peck's curious Chutes and Ladders from 2013, danced by Miami City Ballet principal dancers Jeanette Delgado and Renan Cerdeiro. Its quirky movements are matched ingeniously with the music, the first movement of Britten's first string quartet, especially the pizzicato notes. The music did not sound optimally through amplification, and the choreography was not otherwise memorable.

The major disappointment was saved for last, Concerto, the large work being presented by Nashville Ballet later this week. It may have seemed like a good idea to select Ben Folds's music for this choreography by the company's artistic director, Paul Vasterling, now featured at the company's Kennedy Center debut with Folds at the piano on stage. Folds seemed to channel musical styles from Gershwin and Tchaikovsky and even Cage-like string manipulations, which sort of went with Vasterling's Broadway-tinted movements, but the result was sterile. The Folds piece has made the rounds in the last couple years -- the National Symphony Orchestra played it in 2015 -- a popularity I could not square with the effect it produced.

Ballet Across America continues this evening, with two different programs concluding on Sunday.

Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 2)

Sunrise over Osaka Castle. First an elaborate breakfast at the hotel: “Continental” for the cowards, or fermented beans, beef curry, and “Yum” (I never figured out what it consisted of but it acted admirably as a rice lubricant) for the culturally inquisitive. Then rehearsals for the musicians. Not burdened by that duty, I joined two fellow orchestra-hags who fearlessly braved the Osaka public transport system (quite tame outside of rush-hour, actually) and headed to the former capital Nara, an important site of temples and with a city park crammed with thousands of tame deer.

The beauty of Japanese transportation is its stereotypical punctuality. The trip from the transfer station to Nara takes 33 minutes. If you look at your watch on arrival and it wasn’t 33 minutes, your watch is not working right. The tourist notices with bemusement the “Women Only” cars on the local railways – which is admirable in one way, and disturbing in another. You sense that it acknowledges the reality that during rush-hour, when the Japanese do their best enactment of a claustrophobic sardine, there must be men who enjoy cupping an anonymous feel.

Nara is an impressive site, indeed… “pagoda-deer-deer-deer-temple-deer-Buddha-deer-deer-Buddah-temple” doesn’t begin to do it justice. The national museum taught me anything a foreigner can absorb about master sculptor Kaikei in an hour. His Buddhas, if the observer is lacking the relevant faith, just sit there and smile with their fat, smooth faces and little, suggestive hand gestures. But the temple guardians and demons are amazing to the naïve eye: As wild as anything the imagination can bring forth; bursting out of their skins with muscles that would have made Bruce Lee (is there an equivalent Japanese martial artist I should know of?) blanch. Elephantine-shin guards, collars of skulls, hair of fire, and invariably stomping a demon beneath their feet and poking their eye out with a lance. The figures at hand were somewhere between a yard and or three tall, but some of those were just the surviving models of figures (since lost) up to 30-some feet tall! Speaking of “since lost”, it seems that Japan has a serious problem with fire and flammability. Hardly a historical site, city, temple, castle, or artifact that hasn’t been burnt down trice, rebuilt and re-re-built or lost entirely, consumed by flames.

After an overdose of deer and a massively impressive statue of the Buddha (the largest bronze statue in the world), my companions and I fought our way back to the train station through the increasingly sizeable crowd; at this point deer and Japanese school girls having just about reached parity. After 33 minutes we were back at the connecting station, 12 ½ minutes on the loop line we were back at Osaka-Jo, ready to brush off the Cervidaen saliva and skip across street for the concert at Izumi Hall. On arrival there, a packet of materials was handed to me as the program book. I could barely find the program book amid 25 full sized single-leaf flyers advertising future concerts. Because I know how interested you are, here are a few samples of the what and the who of future Izumi Hall appearances:

• Arditti Quartet in Bartók, Kurtág, Ligeti and Nishimura (String Quartet 6; a premiere)
• Hagen Quartet in Shostakovich and Beethoven
• Olivier Latry in concert No.11 in a complete cycle of all of Bach’s organ works.
• The Japan Symphony Orchestra and conductor Norichika Iimori in a concert that caught my notice for its daring (I am not being facetious): Three Haydn Symphonies and Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.2
• The Taro Singers in works by Nystedt and Britten etc.

The concert itself: Beethoven Sixth & Fifth. It was preceded by a little speech of Martin Haselböck’s[1]. He introduced the ReSound project (see: “Vienna: Premiering Beethoven Symphonies All Over Again”) and the Japanese audience chuckled politely, especially at incidences in Haselböck’s speech that referenced the tight and packed spaces of Beethoven’s Vienna. Like a crammed “Grosser Redoutensaal” of the Hofburg Palace where a reviewer (though not in one of Beethoven’s concerts) recalled that “applause did not occur, because use of the hands was not possible.” The Japanese can relate to that, every Monday through Friday at rush hour. Bang on job by the translator, too! What’s “embouchure” in Japanese again?

Izumi Hall, which officially gets to proclaim itself “modelled on Vienna’s Musikverein” (the management of which probably financed half their new underground halls on that deal), looks odd: A little like a model of itself, with the smooth wood (don’t know what type, but will find out) and neat red curtains; prim and proper and as if just taken out of the shrink wrap.

The instruments, the bows, the strings – and back home even the venues – are all authentic for Beethoven’s time (or, as it were, Liszt’s time or Bach’s time). But the conventions are unshakably, solidly, artificially 19th century. That stifling, lazy tradition: Orchestra appears. Applause. Concertmaster waits until he can appear as the last person to garner extra applause. Applause. He struts about like a peacock, giving everyone their A=430. (Perhaps that’s authentic; I’ll give it a pass in that case, though I could do with less strutting.) The conductor appears. Applause. Annoying. I mean – I understand how it might be nice: If I had a room full of people commenting appreciatively on my abilities, merely on account of my sitting down at the keyboard, perhaps I would find it easier to get over the hump and actually write a banger. But at least until I get that, I won’t like it in concerts… And it’s not like the shtick stops there. No. Now the conductor shakes the concertmaster’s hand. Because the two are meeting for the very first time, you know! And then, after the concert, it’s almost the same in reverse. Shake shake shake. Bow bow bow. Hug hug hug. Premeditated encore. Shakebowhug. If I hadn’t been busy petting deer all morning, I’d have done some serious research to show that none of this is historically informed but a post-Mendelssohn invention and convention, as alien to Beethoven as an electronic drum set. I understand that we have to draw the line somewhere at the attempt (or gimmick) of being ‘authentic’ (i.e. actually playing in tune or, even more rudimentary, enjoying the benefits of antibiotics). But if we are to draw that line arbitrarily anyway, let’s please just draw the line somewhere behind the conventional gestures. Anyway – just wanted to get that off my chest.

Or maybe I was just stalling before getting to the music. There are many reasons for not being enthused with a concert. The trick is to determine the degree to which they each play a role. There’s the fact that I’m not that keen on Beethoven’s Pastorale in the first place. In fact, I think that if I absolutely had to call any of Beethoven’s symphonies boring, that’d be the easy pick. All too often it’s like a musical depiction of someone yawning near a brook and then taking a nap under a tree until, woken by thunder, he rushes home as quick as he can. If you ask me, the Pastorale works better than slipping someone a Mickey Finn.

Then there’s the aspect of one’s own condition. Exhausted from deer-petting, I was not in peak condition. Then there’s the ability and effort of the orchestra… then the conductor and his choice of tempos and interpretation, and finally there’s the acoustic. After blaming some of my lack of response on my bias and on my condition, there was still much explaining left to do as to why this Sixth – or for that matter the following Fifth – didn’t really achieve lift-off. Looking [sic] at the proceedings, I could rule out plodding. The pizzicatos (Pastorale, second movement) were not trudging or behind the beat or mechanical, they were swaying and had a musical lilt. The balance, too, was good – which is to say that the instrumental groups all were all audible separately, rather than being dominated by a permanent symphonic string sound. (Also described here: “REsound Beethoven & Schubert/Liszt and Lisa Larsson's "Ah Perfido" Revelation”) And finally, there was definitely plenty of energy put into the music. Accents were attacked head-on, bowing looked crisp, not hung over. And Martin Haselböck performed his Swedish exercises in front of the band with his trademark vigor.

On closer inspection and introspection, the problem seemed to be that the energy – and overtones – were sapped by the acoustic and never really transmitted to my would-be ideal seats. The orchestra sounded dull, nothing was crisp, nothing rang on… as if it was performed on a big felt carpet. (Incidentally, the hall has a stone floor… which makes the acoustic phenomenon difficult to explain – but there it was.)

On the upside, dinner was excellent! Eating in Japan is a constant joyride with occasional bumps on inadvertent discoveries, usually luring amid the Kobachi or, more insidiously, among the Tsukemono. Umeboshi – pickled plum – can throw you off a little, on first exposure during breakfast. Ditto kelp tea with plum powder. Japanese Whisky of course is also a treat, even for the snootiest Scotch-connoisseur. In this case a thimble of Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old to end a splendid day on a high note. If you are thinking of that in lieu of applause after reading this article… just a suggestion! Until tomorrow, from Tokyo. More pictures below.

[1] Come to think of it: does anyone else ever conduct that orchestra? Surely a little diversity would be good for everybody?