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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.

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