Category Archives: Japan Tour 2017

Japan Tour Day 7!

After a well earned rest day, which many of our group spent in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto (see pictures), it was back to work today.

Concert four saw us in Nagoya, one of Japan’s industrial nerve centres and the home of Toyota. The hall, the NTK Forest Hall, was a vast, hangar like space – Michael Collins joked that his pilot son could probably park a 737 in it. And we were warned that only 850 of its 2,200 seats had been sold. Well, four out of five concerts being sold out is ok we reasoned, and we’ll play our socks off for the 850 who have bought a ticket. (And being frank, most UK chamber orchestras – ourselves included – would kill to be disappointed with an 850 audience for most of their concerts.)

(Prior to the concert, my first conveyer belt sushi experience in Japan – see picture. Their UK counterparts pale in comparison…)

We need not have feared. Whether our hosts were managing our expectations by giving us a pessimistically low number, or there were many last minute sales, what we were greeted with was an audience of at least 1,700, brimming with enthusiasm.

We have now got used to the audience mouthing along to the words, and joining in with the actions to the chop-chop-chopping of the Barbershop Song, but at the end of the concert we got our first standing ovation. A rare occurrence in Japan I understand, and many of those standing were in tears, with one man constantly bowing to us.

After the concert, a quick turnaround to Nagoya Station to catch the last Shinkansen to Tokyo. Orchestral musicians are a resourceful lot, and refreshing beverages were purchased ahead of the journey (see picture), supplemented by CLS management. Our Shinkansen party caused a minor diplomatic incident, however. The guard had to come and remind us that as this was the late night train, many passengers were trying to sleep. We were all high from the audience reaction, and consequently conversation was ‘animated’.

Tomorrow we are being sent all across the Tokyo Metropolitan Area to perform Meet the Music projects and concerts in a care home, kindergarten and children’s hospice. Meet the Music is central to what we do in the UK and we integrate it into all of our projects, including international touring. At the kindergarten we are performing in, 12 young Japanese professional musicians and education producers are coming to observe our wonderful animateur Claire Henry, and our musicians. Four of us then go to the Brtish Council offices in Tokyo to share how we work with a wider group of Japanese musicians and producers.

We then have our authentic Japanese Karaoke party to look forward to / approach with embarrassed fear…

 

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Japan tour day 5

Day 5, and back to work, after yesterday’s day of travels and goodwill with our hosts at Min On.

Another sold out concert at Osaka Symphony Hall, probably the finest acoustic we have experienced on tour so far, then outside the concert hall, another great example of Japanese respect and consideration for guests: the entire front of house team lined up to send us on our way (here joined by Performances Manager Patrick), and as the coach left they all bowed in unison*.

Both we and the hall team then waved to each other until our catch was out of sight. More etiquette here, as it is considered rude to walk away before your guests are out of sight in case the guests think you do not care about them!

Earlier, we perfected some more of our own Japanese etiquette on stage. The orchestra now walks on together, waits until everyone is in position and then bows in unison. The applause immediately grows louder in appreciation of this gesture – our way of respecting Japanese customs and formality.

Post concert, travel to our next stop in Nagoya by Shinkansen, with all of 39 seconds to unload an entire orchestra at our destination, such is the punctuality of this amazing service!

Tomorrow is our rest day proper, with many of us taking the chance to visit Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, and this blog also takes a rest. More to report from Tuesday’s concert in Nagoya, then Wednesday’s Meet the Music and British Council projects around Tokyo, before our final concert in Yokohama on Thursday. Sayonara!

*A note on how to bow correctly in Japan from our violinist Takane Funatsu. Bend waist and neck, thinking (and the phrase is a good indicator of length of bow as well), “oh my shoes are so dirty!”.

Japan tour day 4!

No concert today, but a day of travel to Osaka, octopus balls (!), and later sharing food and good company with our hosts Min On. And the travel means….

Shinkansen!!!! (Bullet train)

If you find the subject of trains boring, scroll down to the bit about food in Osaka. If, however, you know Sinkansen to be the most fascinating and seriously cool mode of transport, then feast your eyes on the picture attached.

I’ll spare you the technical details (that’s what Wikipedia is for), save to say that for those interested, we travelled on the Nozami Express on an N700 class train.

More interestingly, Shinkansen are super quick (think 200mph plus), super smooth, super punctual (to the second) and VERY EXCITING. I admit to turning into the ten year old boy who first watched a documentary about them and has long wanted to go on one. Tick.

Osaka itself is an amazing city, very much Manchester/Glasgow to Tokyo’s London: impenetrable accent, industrial work hard / play hard ethic, great shopping, handsome rather than beautiful architecture, and an obsession with snow crab and octopus. Perhaps the last bit is unique to Osaka…

The food here really is amazing, from super high end to street stalls knocking out their one brilliantly cooked speciality. Osakan’s have a phrase: eat til you drop (very loosely translated). A few of us attempted just that at the Kuromon Ichiban Food Market where aisles upon aisles of stalls feature everything from 100 yen shops (=75p) to counters selling wagyu beef or tuna costing £100+ per kilo. Our own menu focused around an Osaka obsession: octopus.

takoyaki – octopus balls, crisp on the outside, gooey inside

Grilled baby octopus on a stick, with a quail egg stuffed inside its head

okonomiyaki – thick pancakes with cabbage, octopus and pork, topped with mayo, bonito flakes and a kind of brown sauce.

The evening was devoted to more food with our friends at Min On, at a traditional Japanese joint (kimono clad waiting staff, shoes off at the door) for a multi course feast, much sake, many toasts, and a few songs from our very own Joely Koos and her “air cello”. Put on the spot, Joely had to improvise and cajole colleagues to create an impromptu cabaret for our Japanese friends!

Tomorrow is concert three. Back to the grindstone!

 

Japan tour day 2

Day 2 and our first experience of Japanese concert halls and audiences. Both amazing.

First the behind the scenes stuff. Our performances manager Patrick arrived at the hall 8 minutes before his allotted time and was not allowed on to the stage. Patrick feared the worst: a late starting rehearsal (being even a minute late for a rehearsal is very much verboten in the orchestral world), but all was well.

On the dot of his allotted time, Patrick was invited to instruct 8 stage crew exactly what he needed and 10 minutes later the entire stage was built. This was not a matter of placing a few music stands. Risers were constructed, and the walls of the stage themselves (about 50ft square) were brought in to transform the Bunkamara Orchard Hall from a full on ballet stage to a small chamber orchestra platform. Japanese efficiency may be a cliche, but in this case it was definitely true.

And the front of house experience… the like of which I have never seen before.

An hour before the concert was due to start, an orderly queue was forming outside. The doors themselves were kept shut until 30 minutes before the concert though, by which point most of the 2,000 audience members were patiently waiting.

When the doors were opened, no-one rushed in, complained about being in the cold, or barged through. Instead, two uniformed ushers addressed the queue in unison, bowed, and only then did people come in. Calmly.

We Brits like to think of ourselves as gold medal queuers, but we are definitely amateurs compared to the Japanese. I have seen enough queues for concerts and events on the UK turn into shouty frustration and barging to know that our queuing skills have their limits.

Once in the hall, the audience was one of the most simultaneously respectful and emotional I have witnessed. The Orchestra noticed that many people were mouthing the words of the Japanese songs we were performing, and most of the audience were in tears during Hana Wa Saku (flowers will bloom), a song written to commemorate the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

After the concert, a reception with Princess Takamado, a member of the Japanese Imperial Family, and before she married, an employee of CLS director Teruko Iwanaga.

We then retired to our hotel for an early night – we have a busy few days ahead!

(Picture of the day spotted in the backstage loos. Something often in short supply on tours!)

Japan tour day 1!

Day 1 of the CLS japan tour is actually a bit of misnomer. The “day” cruelly started at 5am on Tuesday morning (UK time) when alarms went off and the orchestra began its journey by collecting at Heathrow Terminal 5 for check-in. It’s now gone 10pm on , half round the world. I’ve had more British Airways g&ts in that time than I’ve had hours sleep.

No thoughts of moaning about our lot: the general feeling at Heathrow in the Orchestra was one of excitement and anticipation as three years of planning came to fruition for CLS’s first ever tour to Japan.

An incredibly stress free flight to Japan (many thanks to the ever fantastic BA cabin crew who were their usual helpful, patient and generous-with-the-gin-miniatures selves) which arrived on time, and importantly with Ben Russel’s double bass intact, saw us arrive to be greeted by our wonderful friends at Min On, our hosts for this tour.

For a number of our group, it was either the first time in Japan, or the first time in decades, soit was great to spend much of our first day on a coach and boat tour of Tokyo, organised by the excellent Teruko Iwanaga, one of our directors.

Bringing CLS is the fulfilment of a long held ambition for Teruko, and it was a great pleasure for her to show us all her City, even to an orchestra of half-asleep people who had survived a long haul flight on next to no sleep, gin (are you sensing a theme here?) and adrenaline.

The work definitely begins tomorrow: full rehearsal, a sold-out concert at one of Tokyo’s premier concert halls, with the British Ambassador and Princess Takamado (Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado to be exact) in the audience, and a post concert reception with all the formalities. Then a further concert in Tokyo (Hachioji), then Osaka, then Nagoya, then back to Tokyo for Meet the Music projects and forums at the British Council, then Yokohama… but today was a chance to get to know Tokyo, rest, relax and EAT.

Despite lack of sleep and time difference body clock confusion, there was no way that a bit of tiredness was going to get in the way of many of us indulging in a food culture which is undoubtedly one of the best in the world.

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For or those readers who know Japan, the intense pleasure of meals remembered is no doubt flooding back. For those that don’t, food is beyond culture or pride in Japan. It is woven into the fabric of the country’s identity, with thousands of tiny restaurants, chefs who have spend decades agonising over nigh-on imperceptible improvements in something seemingly simple like the exact thickness of noodles or stickiness of their rice, never mind the meat and fish that go with it. Read a tome like Rice Noodle Fish (google it), and you will perhaps understand 1% of what makes food here so amazing. (And do read it, but make sure you’re not hungry when you do.)

So tonight, various parties went to hunt different specialities in Roppingi, Steve Stirling (horn) took Karen Jones (flute), Fran Barritt (violin) and CLS management off for an eight course tuna feast (different cuts, cut in different ways, cooked, or not, differently, and so on).

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I will admit to hitting the jackpot though: an exquisite sushi dinner in Ginza (a cross breed Mayfair / soho / regent street area) with Chairman John Singer and Teruko by our great friend (and special adviser on Japan) Mr Munetsugu Miyawaki (see pictures). Seaweed marinaded sea bream, devil fish pate (think foie grois minus the ethical dilemma, and with added seaside salinity) and squid that was super tender and crunchy *at the same time*, we’re just a few of the highlights. Mr Miyawaki has been our advocate and catalyst behind the scenes in japan for this tour, and it was a joy to have a meal ‘conducted’ by a great sushi aficionado.

Tomorow, the inevitable post flight early wake up will see some of us head to Tsukiji fish market for tuna auctions and sushi breakfast, and then the work begins.

So far though (and Elaine Baines, our operational supremo, will curse me for tempting fate like this), great food, great company,  good times and no hiccups. Orchestral touring is such a burden…!