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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?

All photos © jfl

1 comment:

Vicki said...

Your writing is delightful! It's so YOU. Hugs...