Today i'm in Urawa, in a department store named Parco. Haruko has stayed home with her parents for the morning. I find a nice coffee shop on the 3rd floor, where i'm greeted with a series of those inimitable and interminable irasshaimasèèèèèèèèèèè's. I get a drink at the counter and retreat to a corner table at the back. I need some quiet time after the Fukushima trip, and i want to organise my notes for this blog. I've been scribbling in a little black Muji notebook all along, and some notes are in my little iPod which i mainly use as a tuning machine: it's got a Cleartune app, which is wonderfully accurate.
On the walls are several big picture frames with publicity slogans, one of which reads: "Espresso Americano will always place the needs and preferences of our patrons over the rigid confines of systems and internal convenience". Never mind about Espresso Americano, but the idea resonates with how we see ourselves as performers. We happen to care very much about the needs and preferences of our audiences, contrary to how "real" artists are supposed to think.
Message in a bottle to the classical music world
We don't think we have to force-feed our listeners unpalatable pieces only because we happen to like them. We see no contradiction between being concerned about our listeners and our artistic ambitions. We also think it's up to the performer to take the first step towards the public. Look at it this way: the people who come to a concert have already done a big effort just by being there for you. They've skipped dinner, or they've had to find a baby-sitter. They've been trying to find a parking space for half an hour. They've paid (sometimes very much) for a ticket to your concert. Come on, give them a break. Now it's up to you to do a gesture.
The people who come to our concerts often feel relieved about our absence of formality. Classical music is often still too elitist, both in its appearence (jeez, those monkey suits...) and in its attitude. Many listeners we've spoken to (yes, we talk to them, and we listen to them) tell us they've become afraid and stressed about attending "serious" classical concerts. Haruko's mother is one of them. She never goes to concerts anymore, although she's a real music lover. Why? She's afraid to cough, and coughing is "not done" at a concert. So she stays home where she's allowed to cough when she has to, and listens to a CD or watches TV.
People who applaud between movements of a piece are shushed and scorned. I find that a ridiculous and shameful attitude. Some people are so afraid to cough, they'd rather choke till they're blue in the face and drop dead. As a matter of fact, recently a cougher was publicly stygmatised in the middle of a performance by an opera director with the words "please stop coughing, this is not a hospital".
We tell people, at the beginning of a concert, "Please feel free to cough if you have to. It doesn't bother us. And feel free to applaud anytime you want".
I guess then we're not real artists. That's all right. Couldn't care less. But if classical music wants to survive and mean something, it has to wake up to the real world. And that world has seen dramatic changes in the last decades. If we don't find a new way to connect with our audiences, we're doomed. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Back to my coffee then. I reviewed my notes for a couple of hours, then walked to Dolce to pick up the bass case that had stayed there while we were up North. At the same time we were scheduled to meet an aquaintance of Mrs. Nakahira's there, a Chinese musician named Lyu Hong Jun.
As it turned out, Lyu is an amazing musician. He started out as a classical flute player, he was principal flute at the Beijing Opera for a number of years. But he chose a different path and he became an expert on ancient Asian instruments, many of which are to be found in museums. He took it upon him to restore a great number of them and to use them in concerts of classical Asian music but also in fusions of ancient and modern music.
What's more, he is one of those Chinese and Japanese people who actively seek connection with the "other side", never minding the political macho rhetoric of their leaders . This results in wonderful recordings and performances by a group of outstanding Asian musicians. We exchanged CD's and ideas, he listened to our Ariosti and Sperger, we were flabbergasted (what a beautifully musical word) by the "Horse of Heaven" from his album "The Island in the Sky". Ancient flutes, percussion and electric guitars in a truly mind-blowing sound experience. Another inspiring encounter with a world class, open-minded musician. We're so lucky.
We talk for a long time about music, instruments, language: Lyu speaks perfect Japanese, he's been coming here for 30 years already. We discuss the different ways Chinese and Japanese transcribe foreign words. In Japanese they use Katakana, a phonetic syllabic system that tries to imitate the original word as closely as possible, except that, due to the nature of the Japanese language, they add vowels everywhere. Slipper becomes su-rip-pa, stocking is su-tok-kin-gu. Brand names, same principle: Mak-ku-do-na-ru-do is MacDonald's. In Chinese they only use characters, and they try to come up with characters that come close to the original sounds, but that have a special meaning which they feel describes the original name, or which adds a symbolic meaning to it. Danone becomes Da Néng, which would mean something like "reach strength" or something along those lines (depending on the different possible meanings of both characters).
It's tempting to jump to conclusions (sometimes i feel there should be an Olympic Discipline "Jumping to Conclusions". It would be very popular) about the different modes of thinking, the different ways the Japanese and Chinese minds function, the differences in philosophy. But i'll leave that to the champions in this discipline.
Afterwards we walked the bass case back to the train station (stairs up and down, but with an empty case it wasn't so hard). In the train i spotted a girl with a bag that said "Smile and be fat". I had to look several times to make sure, but that's really what it said. Not the only strange English slogan in Japan, but the funniest one for sure. As we descended from the train, two students got off as well, they were carrying a third one. The boy was unconscious, and from what i heard he must have had a few drinks too many. Unfortunately this is quite common in Japan nowadays: young people drinking way too much.
In the evening we had dinner, then i did some more blog-work. Tomorrow my son Tobias is coming over from Shanghai. I haven't seen him in a long time.
Points Sale Super Bonus.
What a job...
I take the Narita Express train and pick up Tobias at Narita Airport. He is quite sick and looks very pale. He suffers from Crohn's disease and every so often he's got a real crisis. Very painful and annoying for him, and very hard for a father to see his child in agony like this.
With all the worrying we board the wrong train, but we realise it in time to get off at the following stop, and we catch the next train back to Tokyo. By the time we arrive at Minami-Urawa he's feeling just a tiny little bit better.
The next day we're heading for Kakogawa. Since we have to leave very early (on the 7.07 Shinkansen from Omiya), we have reserved a simple hotel in Omiya, near the station. So in the evening Tobias comes along with me and we take the bass and as much luggage as we can carry. Haruko will then join us at the hotel at 6 in the morning with the remainder of our stuff. We're taking everything, bass, amore, pochette and violin plus everything else. After Kakogawa we go straight to Nagoya.
Toby can't eat much, we just get some plain white rice, water and yoghurt from a "kombini" (convenience store). We sleep early, tomorrow is going to be a long day and Toby is still weak so he needs all the sleep he can get. I'm glad he's here with me so i can take care of him. Once a father, always a father...
In the morning we check out early. It's quite a sight, the three of us schlepping luggage and instruments through the streets of Omiya. The train departs at 7.07, we have reserved 1st class tickets (with our prepaid Japan Rail Passes, it's not expensive at all) so we're sure to have space for the bass. We buy some food at the station kombini and use the bass case as our table. Tobias is still a bit pale but he's feeling better. He buys a packet of little pancakes, yummy. Unfortunately, they're with maple syrup and margarine, so he can't eat them. I can, though, and i sacrifice myself. What are fathers for?
"Le Déjeuner Sur La Caisse"
In Japan you always know exactly where to stand on the platform.
Waiting for the 7.07 to Tokyo.
In Tokyo we change trains, we need the 8.03 to Himeji. We've reserved the back seats, so we can leave the bass right behind us. It's the only space big enough for the case. Otherwise we have to ask staff to stow the instrument in a separate luggage compartment.
In Himeji, we will take yet another train. On the platform i see two yellow-clad monks, and i ask them if i can take their picture. They look at each other and mumble something, then one of them points to his mask, and they nod in agreement. If i imagine the scene from their standpoint, i guess it went something like this:
"Oh no, not another bloody tourist... Jeezes, what do they always want from us, taking pictures?"
"Never mind, he's just one of those bad-mannered gaijin. We're supposed to stay zen, right? And anyway, he can't really see our faces with the masks we're wearing".
"Yeah, you're right, i guess. Let him take his **** photo. After all, we don't even have to smile".
"True... Thank God, uh, Buddha for face masks".
Drink vending machines everywhere you go. Cold drinks, hot drinks, tea, coffee, soft drinks, vitamins...
Finally, we take the local JR (Japan Rail) train to Kakogawa. We were there last year. We're going to the budhist temple there, where Satori Hasegawa has his own little concert hall (see JAPAN BLOG 2013). We'll play a concert there and i'll give a few lessons to his bass students.
As we arrive at Kakogawa station, Toby is starving. He hasn't had much to eat since i met him at Narita. Since Hasegawa Sensei isn't there yet to pick us up, he goes in search of some food to take away, in a small noodle restaurant at the station. But a few minutes later the car arrives and i have to get Toby out of there.
The scene is rather funny. There are plenty of clients eating at the counter. Tobias is gesticulating and trying to explain he wants his ramen noodles to take out. But while he's gesturing, they think he's pointing to one of the tables and they say: sure, you can eat at the table if you prefer. After i've managed to explain that we want to take the food outside with us, we understand that this is not possible. So the ramen, paid for in advance, stay where they are and we leave the place. They'll have something to talk about in their noodle shop. Bloody foreigners.
But not to worry. The bonze takes us to a restaurant he's reserved for us. Nice man. Today he's wearing a colourful hat, he looks a bit like a Japanese cowboy. The restaurant serves the most delicious bread rolls before and during the meal. Little freshly baked rolls in all kinds of flavours, from spinach to chocolate, from melon to tomato and many more. Not something i would have expected to find in Japan: bread that puts a smile on the faces of people who have been raised on the stuff and who know how to appreciate it when it's really well-made. Toby can eat his fill now and rises to the occasion.
There's more than just bread of course, and both Hasegawa Sensei and Toby get out their camera's to make food pictures. I must admit i never really get it when people post photos of what they're eating and drinking on their blogs or facebook pages, but then i'm probably just getting old. I don't even have a facebook page, and frankly i wouldn't want one. But for the sake of modern times, here's a yummy shot of the desert...
We drive to the temple. The main entrance is closed because the gardener is working there, so we go around the back this time.
Inside some young bass students are waiting for us. I assemble the bass, first of all. The gut strings need time to settle. With steel strings this bass is ready to play in no time, but the gut stretches and contracts much more than steel.
In the afternoon i teach two of Maestro Hasegawa's students. A few others just came over to listen: one bass player from Osaka, a girl student who brought over her bass, a very nice Viennese-looking instrument that unfortunately weighs a ton, and Chinatsu-chan, an 18-year old student.
One boy plays the 1st movement of the Vanhal concerto, and a girl student presents the Dragonetti concerto. Which isn't by Dragonetti, as we know, but (probably) by Edouard Nanny.
For the Vanhal concerto, a copy of Ludwig Streicher's own score is used. (Hasegawa Sensei studied with Streicher in Vienna). It's interesting to see this score. Apparently Streicher had access to the original, because some of the articulations match the ones in the manuscript. Except that they're "wrong", both in the 18th-century handwritten score and in Streicher's copy. One has to know the very specific way of notating the articulations that Sperger used (the Ms. is in his handwriting), otherwise one is bound to make many mistakes: the articulations aren't always what they seem to be. More on this favorite subject of mine can be found elsewhere in this blog (the Page Titles speak for themselves, but there's also some more information in the FUKUSHIMA PREPARATIONS chapter. I hope to find time soon to group all the little bits of information in one chapter).
In order to illustrate these points, i look up the manuscript, with the iPad, on the IMSLP site (easy trick to remember the right order of the letters: "I'm sleepy"), where you can find the bass part but also the complete orchestra parts in the original handwritten version. This allows me to show my students the little things to look for, the details of articulation that are almost always overlooked and that often lead to very awkward-sounding renditions of the piece.
The interesting thing about Streicher's score, is that in his recording of the concerto he didn't use the same articulations as are in his score. I can only guess that Streicher's innate musicality dictated a more "natural" way of playing.
The Streicher score.
Illustrating a point in the Dragonetti/Nanny concerto.
"Ceci n'est pas de la Musique": i can't hear anything. A score makes no sound. It's just ink on paper. It's the performer's job to make it come to life.
It's always so nice to teach here. The students have a good technical level and are very eager to learn, and they are usually able to realise new ideas or suggestions quickly.
At the end of the Vanhal lesson, i play the whole movement together with the student. He's playing his modern steel-strung bass in fourths-tuning, i'm in Viennese Tuning in C, with gut strings, frets and a period bow. I feel this way of playing together gives the students a kind of "élan", a different sort of courage and daring that has the potential to free them from inhibitions.
Playing Vanhal together.
It doesn't matter that our ways of playing don't always match: different trills, intonation, articulations etc. The idea is to take the students along for an adventurous ride and to create a feeling of excitement, and to encourage them to play while listening and to listen while playing, to find a "modus vivendi" between two different playing styles. Sometimes i "drop out" a little bit and let them lead me, and sometimes i take the initiative and oblige them to pay attention and to stay with me.
(Invariably when teaching i learn at least as much as the student. This is what makes teaching so rewarding: it's a win-win situation. I take great care to avoid the mistakes my teachers made (although in the process i surely make new ones). Teaching well implies honesty and place for doubt and reflexion. There are no absolutes in life. Nor are there in teaching. All too often the teacher's opinions are sold as facts. I can't stand teaching methods that talk about "wrong" and "right" in absolute terms. Gentle coaxing, suggesting possibilities, a positive attitude are better than blind authority and obedience. But that's only my opinion, of course).
After the lessons we have dinner with the family and the students. I team up with Chinatsu, one of the students, to wash the dishes and this becomes our daily routine. She wants to come to Brussels to study with me, but although i belong to the Brussels Conservatory staff i don't have a teaching job there at this moment.
The walls in Maestro's living quarters and in the concert hall are completely covered with photos, posters and memorabilia of a very rich career as a musician and as a concert organiser. It's amazing to discover he has played in concert with Gary Karr, that he has organised Bass Conventions here with Ludwig Streicher, that most of the world's leading bass soloists and many other musicians have visited and played on the same little stage where we played last year and where i've just been teaching.
The great bass soloist Ludwig Streicher is held in high esteem here. Mr. Hasegawa studied with him in Vienna, and he teaches his own students the particular ways he played. He also owns one of Streicher's Bernd Dölling bows and many memorabilia such as concert programs, scores, cartoons, pictures. One of the students shows me a few photo albums of the couple of times Streicher came here, and i find some photos there that you probably wouldn't find anywhere else...
After dinner, we have our own Duo rehearsal on stage, then we spend some time in the living room where Mr. Hasegawa has inserted our DVD "From Brussels With Love into the player, but due to the different video standards in Japan the TV shows only half of the picture, widened to fill the whole screen so we look like very fat, broad cartoon creatures. Then bath and bed. Toby has his own separate little house outside the main building. The night is even colder than in Saitama and we both wake up sneezing. It's not just the cold, but now is allergy season and many people suffer from "kafunshô" or hay fever.
Breakfast together, then Haruko and Tobias go out to see the temple grounds where the Sakura are beginning to bloom. I prefer to stay inside and practice. Chinatsu-chan was normally supposed to play for me as well, but she's a little bit down because she failed the entrance exam at Public Art University. At the public Universities, they have to study many general subjects, not just musical ones: history, English etc. So it's quite hard to get in. We try to cheer her up: Haruko was only eighteen when she came to Europe, so in a way Chinatsu feels inspired and encouraged in her dream of studying abroad.
We rehearse again in the afternoon. I'm trying to decide whether to leave the mute on the bass or to take it off. I'm used to having it on, except for Paganini. But it seems to sound nice here without the mute. We decide on the program for tonight's concert. Toby has brought two miniature camera's which he can control from his iPhone (beats me how he does it, but i've given up on modern technology i'm afraid). Hasegawa Sensei has bought a new Sony camera as well.
Before the concert we have to wait upstairs, where we are served tea and sushi. The bonze introduces us and talks about our Fukushima trip. As the concert begins, we have to go down a rickety staircase which leads straight onto the stage. If we stumble here, we'll slide right down the stairs and into the 4 double basses that are parked on the right side of the stage.
Our first piece is the Borghi Sonata. Playing without the mute wasn't such a great idea, after all. I'm not used to this much sound from my bass and i'm a bit taken aback, so i put it back on after Borghi. The concert goes very well. We play a lot of Japanese music, Sperger, Ariosti and Paganini.
Jacques Grandchamp's Pochette, tuned A E C# A for Ariosti's Lezione II
Then we have dinner with the audience at a big table in the concert hall. During dinner we play our favorite encore, Fu Ten, and Chinatsu-chan finds the courage to play us two movements of a Hoffmeister bass concerto. It does her good to feel like a musician again, and the audience's encouragements go a long way towards restoring her self-confidence. I hope the effect will prove to be long-lasting. Young people need to be encouraged. For the older ones it's sometimes a fine line between giving false hope, and genuine confidence that the young student has a real chance of getting somewhere with what he or she does.
We can see the concert video straight away on the big TV in the living room. With his new Sony mini-camera set in wide-screen mode the image is bit weird: the Viola d'Amore seems gigantic. But the sound quality is very good.
The guests are polite and leave reasonably early, so we can get some sleep. The night is cold again.