Sunday, August 28, 2011

Matsumoto Wrap-Up

The Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra gave this year's final concert in Matsumoto this afternoon, and boy was it a good 'un!   As I've mentioned in previous posts, the best part of this whole experience has been the music, as it should be.  

The festival started out with lots of rehearsals, sometimes for 5 and 6 hours at a time.   In fact, the entire first week I was here was nothing but rehearsals.   I suppose they just want the orchestra to sound polished, which is not at all guaranteed when you assemble an orchestra with personnel that have never really played together.   Plus there's the pressure of having everything recorded for national broadcast and an eventual DVD/CD release.   

All that rehearsing definitely payed off, because the orchestra performed both Miraculous Mandarin and Bluebeard's Castle really well.   I had never performed the full-length ballet version of Mandarin before, just the concert suite with the VPO back in March, and it was really interesting to hear and play the eerie conclusion to what is probably my favorite Bartók piece.   And what fun it is to play!   John Engelkes, bass trombonist in the San Francisco Symphony, played beautifully in all his big solos.   There are quite a few trombone features (Bartók makes liberal use of glissandi to symbolize sensuality) and I had a blast performing them alongside John as well as Koichi Inoue, a fine freelance player from Tokyo.

The section for Bluebeard and Mandarin.  Shin, me, Mayumi, Koichi, and John

If there's one thing I've learned from 4 years in the VPO, it's that there is PLENTY of mind-blowingly beautiful music that involves the trombones very little, or not at all.  Bluebeard's Castle is a fine example.   Bartók's writing is truly masterful, with great themes, drama, and a great variety of colors and sounds to complement the bizarre storyline.  It was truly a joy to 'sit through' all four performances here in Matsumoto.

The opera/ballet production was made even more special on opening night when the festival's director, Seiji Ozawa, began the evening by conducting the strings in an emotional tribute to the victims of the March 11th earthquakes and tsunami.  The piece was Bach's famous Aria (known to many as Air on a G String), and Maestro Ozawa shaped it so masterfully that many in the orchestra consider it the musical highlight of the festival.  As I sat with my eyes closed and soaked it all it, I couldn't help but replay in my mind the terrible images of the utter devastation from March, and was more than a little surprised to find that when I opened my eyes my vision was blurry with tears.   I was certainly not alone in that.   It made me proud in that moment to be sitting amongst the proud Japanese people and to be participating in some miniscule way in helping to return life back to normal after such an enormous national tragedy.

We were all shocked to find out upon arriving at the opera house for the 2nd performance that Ozawa had developed a serious case of pneumonia and was being hospitalized.   He has been in bad health for some time now, especially following a bout with esophageal cancer a couple years ago, but his youthful demeanor and energy in rehearsals made it seem he was perfectly fine.   The assistant conductor had to step in with a grand total of 'zero' rehearsals under his belt.   Bluebeard is not an easy opera to conduct, but with the orchestra and singers rallying behind him, he did a fantastic job.   Seiji was eventually able to return for the final performance and was rewarded for his efforts with a massive reception from orchestra and audience alike.   It was a really special moment to see him bounding up on stage for curtain call after having been so ill just a few days before.    

For the orchestra concert side of things, the program is Tchaikovsky with a bit of Bartók thrown in for good measure.    I am having so much fun playing with this section, which consists of Massimo La Rosa (principal trombonist, Cleveland Orchestra), Randy Hawes (bass trombone, Detroit Symphony), and Yasuhito Sugiyama (tuba, Cleveland Orchestra).   I've known of all three of these guys for a long time, and it's so great to get to perform with them.   We mesh really well, and everything is SO easy.  Guess that's how it's supposed to be.   Plus, they're all great guys.

SKO 2011 section: Massimo, me, Randy, and Yasuhito
The program begins with one of my favorite Tchaikovsky works, Overture and Fantasy from Romeo and Juliet.   Say what you want about 'Tchaik', but that guy could write some melodies.    We've had two concerts so far, and the soloists have been fantastic every time, especially the woodwinds and horn (Neil Deland, Toronto Symphony).    Second on the program is Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3, another delight that came out of nowhere and has instantly become a new favorite, especially the gorgeous 2nd movement.   Who knew he wrote anything besides Concerto for Orchestra?   I'm embarrassed to say my knowledge of Bartók repertoire has been tripled at this festival!   The concert finishes with a spirited and energetic version of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, a piece I've wanted to play for a long time.   The brass section is let loose, indeed encouraged, by the talented young Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz, and we certainly take advantage of that freedom... tastefully and musically, of course.  :)    I have immensely enjoyed the orchestra programs so far, and can't wait to perform another couple times in China.   

On that note, I'll sign off for today.   Look for updates from Beijing and Shanghai in the next few days!

PS - After the last concert on Sunday evening, the festival threw a big farewell party.   The spread was amazing, but the thing I will always remember is the GIANT tuna that was wheeled in during the festivities.   

This is what happens when you tell a piccolo player to make a funny face...
The crowd gathered 'round as a sushi chef expertly sliced and diced the mammoth fish to feed the multitudes.  CRAZY!  Only in Japan, I guess.  And no, I did not partake.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Domo Matsumoto (Mr. Roboto?)

Tomorrow is my last day here in Matsumoto, Japan, and I must say I am eager for a change of scenery.   By the time we leave for China on Monday, I will have been here in the same town, with the same hotel room and same basic routine, for 18 days.  That's a long time by my touring standards, and it's been exacerbated (5 syllables, whaaat?) by the unfortunate fact that I'm here alone.   I REALLY wish I had been able to bring Kristi and Eli.   It was just too much after six weeks in America followed by two weeks in Salzburg.   Our little man needed some time at home with his normal routine, and it would've been torture on all of us to try living in a hotel room for 4 weeks in Japan.   As it turned out, they've been keeping busy with all sorts of fun stuff.

Though I don't think I ever want to commit to something this lengthy ever again (without my family accompanying me), there have been some great things about the experience, which I'd love to share with you.

First, a bit about Matsumoto itself.   It's not what I would consider a beautiful town, though I can't say I would consider any of the large cities of Japan to be particularly attractive.  I'm not a fan of the modern architecture, the crowded narrow buildings, or the whole industrial/business look of it all.  That said, there are some quite nice things about the town. 

There's no denying the surroundings are breathtaking.   It reminds me a lot of Upper Austria, with the lush rolling hills on the outskirts of town and the snow-capped mountains beyond that.  In fact, the whole atmosphere of the place is surprisingly similar to Salzburg, which is where I would be right now had I not come here.   Much like the Salzburger Festspiele, the Saito Kinen Festival takes over the city every summer.   Everywhere you look there are SKF banners, posters, or t-shirts, and I am frequently stopped all over town by music 'fans' when wearing my festival staff shirt.  
Looks a lot like Salzburg

There are SKF banners everywhere!
VPO bass trombonist Hans Ströcker has done this festival a lot, and he told me the food here was great.   Boy, was he right! And much to the detriment of my waistline!   Of course, no matter how good the restaurants are, I can't eat out every meal.  

Enter the wonder that is the Japanese Convenience Store!   It is amazing to me how well one can eat by just taking a visit to the corner market.   In the US, about the best you can do is a Slim Jim and a Yoohoo.  Here, there are many more fresh and somewhat healthy options.   My favorite is called onigiri, a triangle of rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with one of a few various substances (tuna, salmon, etc.).

An example of onigiri
You can also get really high-quality sandwiches and other prepared pastas, noodles, and sushi.   I have been eating about one meal a day from the convenience store just down from the hotel called Lawson Station.

'My' convenience store, with the Hotel Buena Vista in the background
One day this week we had two orchestra rehearsals back-to-back, which didn't leave much time to get lunch in between.   So the good SKF folks organized a "Soba Party"!

Soba noodles are served cold and dipped in a bowl of soy-based broth.   They are traditionally made from buckwheat (which is what the word 'soba' means), and supposedly the most famous soba area is just up the road in Nagano.    SKF invited several soba makers to come provide the noodles for our party.   They all lined up their big boiling kettles under the awning of the performance hall, and cooked MASSIVE quantities of noodles, which were then poured into colanders and rapidly cooled in a big vat of ice water.    Then each maker piled up their noodles on these big circular wicker mats and everyone gathered 'round the tables with their individual bowls of broth.

Cooling off the soba noodles
I was a little unsure of the 'procedure', but after watching some of the Japanese folks do it, I caught on.   I dug my chopsticks into a big pile of soba, grabbed a big chunk, and dipped it in my broth.    I enjoyed so much delicious buckwheat pasta that I nearly couldn't play in the afternoon rehearsal!

The whole vibe reminded me a lot of the huge company picnics I attended as a kid when my Dad worked for a Japanese company.   There was loud 90's American rock music, swimming pools filled with bottled drinks, and even a shaved ice stand in the corner (I had the blue flavor).  All that was missing was a dunking booth in the corner.   And besides the soba, there was fried rice, tempura, yakitori bbq skewers, and crepes.   Yes, crepes!    It was a great time.

The best part of the SKF by far has been the music and the people.   More on that in the next post!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Where Exactly Have You Been, Young Man??

I have officially been chastised by at least 5 Back Row Perspectives readers for not posting in so long.    On the positive side, I guess that means that there are at least 5 people that read this thing!

Well, I have some good reasons, though it's not like nothing has happened since late June.   After the wonderful experiences of my solo tour in Texas and Tennessee (more on that later) and some great quality time with my family during the month of July (more on that at The Vienna Wilsons), I dove straight into my fourth Salzburger Festspiel, playing almost every call for two weeks (more on that later, too). 

Now I'm here in the middle of the Japanese Alps in a town called Matsumoto.   It's south of Nagano (site of the 1998 winter olympics) and is the home of the Saito Kinen Festival, which is the reason I'm here.   I was invited by Seiji Ozawa to perform in both the opera and orchestra portions of this year's festival.   I'll be playing 1st trombone in the opera, where our repertoire will be Bartok's opera Bluebeard's Castle and Miraculous Mandarin ballet.   In the orchestra, I'll be playing 2nd trombone on Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Romeo and Juliet Overture.     After about 20 days here in Matsumoto, the festival goes on tour to Beijing and Shanghai.   Definitely looking forward to that.   I have really enjoyed China in my previous trips, but I've never spent as long in China as the 12 days the SKF will be there.   We'll see how that turns out.

It's been a crazy few weeks, going rapidly from one mode to another, and I am ready to be in one place for a little while.   The absolute worst part is being away from Kristi and Eli for 4 weeks.   I had originally planned on bringing them along, but Kristi and I decided against it, mostly due to the fact that we've already been on the road so much this Summer.   It would've been cruel and unusual punishment to stick Eli in a hotel room in Japan/China for four weeks after all that.   In the end, we decided to put Eli's interests above our own (welcome to adulthood, I guess) and have them stay in Austria.  On the bright side, my mother-in-law Sherrye is there with Kristi and Eli while I'm gone.  Makes me feel better when they're not alone.

Getting here was relatively easy in spite of my two-hour flight delay out of Vienna.   Once I landed at Narita airport I was picked up by a SKF van and driven 5 hours to Matsumoto, arriving in the late afternoon.   The area is beautiful, with lush, green mountains surrounding the town and a couple pristine lakes in the area.   I hope to explore Matsumoto while I'm here.  There's supposed to be an impressive castle just north of the hotel.  

The view of Matsumoto from my hotel window
It's really hot and humid here, though not quite as bad as the stifling Tennessee/Mississippi heat and humidity we experienced a month ago.   My poor body doesn't know what season it is anymore.  In three weeks, I've gone from 100 degrees in the US, to 59 degrees and rainy in Salzburg, and back to 90 degrees in Japan.   

I'm trying to get out and walk as much as possible, mostly because I need to lose some weight ASAP.   Six weeks in the US was not friendly to my waistline, and not just because of the food.   Actually, I was more disciplined and reserved with my eating than I've been in a long time.   It's mostly due to the fact that I was basically on vacation for 6 WEEKS!   Once my solo tour was finished, I didn't do ANYTHING besides lay around and have quality time with family and friends.   So I'm hoping to maybe get out and get some exercise while I'm here. We'll see.

My first rehearsal was yesterday afternoon... a 7-hour one.   Which was not great for my jet lag, except that it forced me to stay up later than I probably would have.   The orchestra sounds good, and I've already met lots of nice and interesting people.  It feels a little weird to perform with a different orchestra, but that was part of my reason for coming.   I am already learning a lot and gaining a better perspective of what the VPO is good at and/or not so good at.   As far as the trombone section goes, we're still getting to know each other and feeling each other out.   But I think it will be a good-sounding group when it's all said and done.   

Stay tuned for more updates on various subjects!