BBC Philharmonic on tour - Japan 2013

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If you’ve landed here from the BBC page, welcome; and if you’re a regular on this blog, do take a look at them in return. There’s a piece about our tour here;

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/posts/Finishing-what-we-started-The-BBC-Philharmonic-in-Japan

And if you are indeed fresh to this location, I should point out that our story reads upside-down. In order to follow it in chronological order, head off to the bottom page, and read upwards. If, like me, you read magazines from the back, you’re in the right place now.

Wherever you begin, or whether you dip into the bran tub at random, here is a series of small snapshots of our magical experience in Japan. The orchestra is now back in the UK, working from our base in Mediacity in Salford, and once again giving concerts in our native language in places like Sheffield, Manchester and Nottingham. We like our home audiences too, and the landscape is familiar. But the view has changed, and we will never be quite the same after the experience you are about to read.

May 7
Concert No. eleven and a half, in Sapporo, at Yutaka’s indoor barbecue. An impromptu concert featured three mavericks from the orchestra, the soloist on melodica (a school instrument in the hands of a world-class piano player), the conductor and a member of the Crystal arts team on recorders. Perhaps this didn’t have quite the finesse of our professional gigs, but it had teamwork and it was played with gusto. The piece we’re playing here is the “Spootiskerry Reel”, a traditional Scottish number. Nobu learnt it perfectly after one pass… 

Concert No. eleven and a half, in Sapporo, at Yutaka’s indoor barbecue. An impromptu concert featured three mavericks from the orchestra, the soloist on melodica (a school instrument in the hands of a world-class piano player), the conductor and a member of the Crystal arts team on recorders. Perhaps this didn’t have quite the finesse of our professional gigs, but it had teamwork and it was played with gusto. The piece we’re playing here is the “Spootiskerry Reel”, a traditional Scottish number. Nobu learnt it perfectly after one pass… 

May 5

Two images caught by Peter Dixon, our principal ‘cello, during his week as Twittermeister. He’s captured Nobu’s natural, relaxed style very nicely. How can anything as difficult as playing the hardest piano works known to man seem so easy? We may never know.

May 3
Another fine picture from our Twitter pages- this one was taken by Andrew Price, who set up his special ‘Hadouken’ effect backstage with great care and precision. Four members of the team attempt a futile Manga-style assassination against Clare of the First Violins. Amongst all the pictures of concert halls, temples and fine landmarks of Japan, this has emerged as the headline image of the tour. 

Another fine picture from our Twitter pages- this one was taken by Andrew Price, who set up his special ‘Hadouken’ effect backstage with great care and precision. Four members of the team attempt a futile Manga-style assassination against Clare of the First Violins. Amongst all the pictures of concert halls, temples and fine landmarks of Japan, this has emerged as the headline image of the tour. 

May 1
The first of the pictures from the BBC Philharmonic Twitter pages for those of us who don’t twit; Yutaka looks every inch the Maestro, with images of us and a rather dapper-looking Nobu beneath.

The first of the pictures from the BBC Philharmonic Twitter pages for those of us who don’t twit; Yutaka looks every inch the Maestro, with images of us and a rather dapper-looking Nobu beneath.

CODA

I have an apology to make. In the joyful and frenzied excitement of catching up with a suitcase full of washing, a hallway carpeted with urgent mail, and a lost day of sleep, I forgot to remind you of the Radio 4 documentary feature about our return to Japan.

You may indeed have heard it - it was on air this morning at 11; however, if you missed it all is not lost, as it’s repeated this Thursday May 2nd, at 9pm, BBC Radio 4, and it will be offered as a pod cast very soon. It can be found at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s4vdt

It was moving to hear our own story all the way through, told in the words of the musicians, and recorded on the spot in Japan by producer Mark Rickards over two weeks of our visit.

Returning home from a tour involves a certain readjustment to real life, and recalling the alternative reality of the past through the looking-glass of home tends to release new, sometimes unexpected thoughts and feelings. Mark’s programme did just that.

The complete story of this trip began more than two years ago, something of which we were constantly mindful whilst we were there. The previous visit defined this one in every way; memories of last time cropping up time and again, the message of Nimrod direct to the Japanese people and delivered to the heart, the fact that we returned just as soon as we could to finish the business, uneasy recollections of the earthquake and the breaking news of the tsunami - and the extraordinary feeling of being so welcome and comfortable in a truly different and potentially baffling society.

All of this is expressed in Mark’s programme by musicians, staff, Yutaka and Nobu, but, for me, most devastatingly by an unidentified member of the audience, presumably in the foyer, near to the end of the programme. It’s only a few words, translated, of how our message to the Japanese people had come across. It got through. These few words showed me how intensely the looking glass can sharpen the image, as you stand immobile at the ironing board, gently steaming iron in hand, fighting back the tears.

Thanks to Mark for making the programme; I can highly recommend a listen. the link to ‘listen again’ is above. It’s also worth looking at the Twitter pages too, if you haven’t been there yet; there are some excellent photographs and plenty of atmospheric on-the-spot reactions from members of the band. Copy the twitter link at the top of this page and paste it into your browser. I never thought I’d hear myself saying that.

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Mark Rickards tries to extract classified information from 007

12/12

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The last case leaves the hall… the final curtain.

12 shows

11 concert halls

7 hotels

25 coach journeys

7 bullet trains

Audience of thousands

No casualties

…and the thing you can’t quantify in numbers; one great experience. The final show in Sapporo turned out to be a perfect conclusion to the tour; possibly one of the finest modern halls on the planet, curvaceous and splendidly reverberant, and an orchestra still fit and splendidly reverberant, if slightly less curvaceous.

Final rehearsals on tour begin with thanks all round, to much applause. Kazu and everyone at Crystal Arts; our management team; Steve, Tom and Bob (who shifted five timps, two harps, ten cellos, and the rest of the mountain of gear into and out of two trucks across eleven venues); the recording team; 007; the orchestra and our guest members; Yutaka (the smiliest of conductors), and the towering greatness of Nobu Tsuji.

Yutaka saved his words for the end of the rehearsal. He looked around the orchestra, we sat quietly. He simply said; “I’ll miss you”, in the way you’d say it to a real friend, because that’s what we have become.

After a good helping of stamping and applause, we sat still. Nobody moved. This is pretty much unheard of after a rehearsal, as players usually scurry away to pack up and hunt for food; but it seemed that no-one wanted to leave. It was a moment of silent communication that spoke eloquently of the friendship and musicianship we share.

Then we scurried away to pack up and hunt for food.

The concert. Though we don’t understand Yutaka’s words to the audience, we sensed the emotion, smiled at the funny bits even though we have no idea why, and gave the Nimrod performance of the tour. Nobu’s Rachmaninov was grand as ever, and his Liszt “Rigoletto” encore, yet another new one, was, quite simply, astonishing in every possible way.

The last Symphony Fantastique crackled its way across the hall, the last encore, the last curtain call, and offstage - to an amazing sight.

BEER.

Thanks, Koichi! One hundred chilled cans of Sapporo’s finest were laid out for the players, and, once again there was very little scurrying away.

Further refreshments were available later at the place across the road from our hotel, for those who were still a touch thirsty. It’s good to celebrate a job well done, and we’re not too bad at that. We celebrated a successful tour,  a promise kept - a profound statement of the bond between us and this amazing country. Cheers.

Speeding By

The last few days have gone by like a speeding bullet…train. We’re now into phase three; the end is in sight. The day after our NHK concert in Tokyo, the orchestra formed another station galaxy and boarded the fast train to Nagoya, show number ten of twelve. This was the last of the Dvorak concerts, and the packed house once again made it something really special.

The concerts are going consistently well. I’ve never known an orchestra to be so fresh after two weeks of touring; a tribute to the way it’s been executed - the scheduling, the efficiency, the feeling that we’re really welcome here. The home-grown audiences here are the quietest I’ve ever experienced; either they time coughs with great precision for the loud bits or they’re  healthy beyond belief. There’s never a rustle or a dropped programme, and definitely no phones going off. Well, not yet. It helps the orchestra too; you feel an intense focus and attention from the crowd, which is energising.

It was party time on the train home; an hour and a half of high speed living. There’s a strict one-minute window at the station before the train doors close, which is interesting when there are more than a hundred of you booked into one carriage. And it’s the last train of the night. We spread in linear fashion up and down the platform, which gave us the chance to re-coalesce our interstellar dust cloud in an interesting and novel way.

Concert number eleven was closer to home, in Tokyo at the Suntory Hall. One thing that we remember well from this place is a huge photograph that graces the corridor backstage. It’s a picture of the hall, and I’ve posted it here instead of taking my own. You’ll see why it attracts quite a bit of focused attention from us - it always gets a crowd, and after we’ve been there, is probably the most photographed photograph of any photograph.

…And today, further from home again. A flight to Sapporo in the North Island, and its quite different feel. The ride from the airport took us past forests and flat landscapes that could have been Finland…until we saw the mountains in the distance. The first night features a dinner for the orchestra, hosted by Yutaka, our conductor. He described it as an ‘indoor barbecue’, an intriguing prospect.

Tomorrow’s concert will be the last one, and the morale is high. Tonight’s shindig will no doubt enhance that. This concert is one to look forward to, and yet probably with a sense of regret that we finally have to leave. This time, it’s for a very different reason.

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The famous picture backstage

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The trick is to find this lady- the only unique character in the picture. It can take many minutes to spot her, resulting in severe corridor congestion

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Vibrating leader at Tokyo International Airport

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Hand-carried instruments had their own seats on the plane. Here, two fiddles relax to some Japanese pop tracks.

Symphony with A Major

I’d like to introduce our guest. You’ve seen him lurking on the blog photos, and you may wonder who this mysterious figure is, and why he’s here. I shall explain.

Meet Chris Cobb-Smith. He’s known to us simply as ‘007’. Chris set up the BBC’s ‘High risk unit’ in 2001, to protect journalists and reporters in dangerous parts of the world that other reporters cannot reach, and runs a company that does a similar thing. He’s a former Major in the Royal Artillery, and now looks after the likes of Jon Snow and John Simpson in the field of battle; he’s served for the British Army in Afghanistan and the British Government in Iraq, amongst other places where we don’t do concerts. He’s been kidnapped and shot at. Chris is, well, 007. He is the real thing. And he looks after the Johns.

Now, he’s looking after us.

It’s reassuring to know that Auntie Beeb cares; when the nuclear plant at Fukosihma blew, our employers got us home to safety quickly and efficiently- this was the work of the high risk unit. They know how to deal with emergencies, and, on our return, for the purposes of research and reassurance, put a man on the ground. Chris. 007. He’s the man at the back of the crocodile with his eyes peeled.

It’s been fascinating to see how many things we have in common. We do dangerous things, like solos or exposed passages of unison; not quite life threatening but terrifying all the same; and we like to debrief in the mess after a mission. The relationship has engendered a mutual respect that has added something very special to the tour. And we have a new convert; he’s listened to the rehearsals and managed to secure a ticket to most of the concerts, and is beginning to love Dvorak,Mendelssohn and Berlioz.  In his own words- ‘life changing’ - a new view on the wonder and beauty of music.

We won’t have the luxury of our own Bond in the future, but we will learn a lot from Chris’s expert observations on international travel.

Having the ambassador’s phone number in your book, a satellite phone and a ‘Ah hello Sir Rodney, Smudge here, in a spot of trouble, need a bit of help’ is something we can’t expect on the average tour, but… this is not your average tour. 

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Nothing can go wrong

Home from Home?

Sunday 21st April, 2013, and the orchestra has an afternoon concert at the NHK hall in downtown Tokyo. The NHK is Japan’s BBC, publicly funded with nationwide coverage.

The NHK hall is enormous! It’s built in the pattern we’ve seen almost everywhere so far, with a vast backstage space for expansion for opera production. The auditorium seats around four thousand, somewhat more than the studio at Media City, and there won’t be an empty seat in the house. Despite the inevitable mid-tour colds, sore throats and insomnia affecting the troops, the audiences, the hospitality and the Japanese people are keeping our spirits on high. Sniffling, but still smiling.

It’s interesting that the Japanese way of doing concerts over the weekend seems to be to have them in the afternoon. This leaves the evening free to attend your favourite evening theme restaurant featuring Ninjas or Nurses, depending on your predeliction; a very sensible way to proceed. The orchestra scattered into the metropolis after the concert to make use of this advantage; and discovered one fascinating aspect of the laws of chance - in a city of twenty million people, and orchestra of ninety-odd can bump into each other on the streets of Shibuya with surprising regularity. Hello, Bob.