Taxi cabs with doors that open automatically. Warm toilet seats that salute you when you enter the restroom. People bowing respectfully when you enter and leave a building.
Yes, it was great to be back in Japan.
Originally I was not supposed to return until November 2014, but Andre Previn decided that he could not conduct three weeks in a row and I picked up the middle set of performances. As it turned out, I had the time and was anxious to return after some wonderful performances last season.
Early September is now mostly free for American orchestras and the season in Lyon had already begun. This gave me a few free days before I had to start rehearsals and the thought was to see some other cities than Tokyo.
However, I came down with what appeared to be a case of the flu and starting with the 13-hour flight, the first few days were not exactly fun.
After a night in Tokyo, Cindy and I took the Shinkansen—bullet train—to Kyoto. The old capital is a wonderful place to start and we visited some shines and temples, including my favorite which features a sand and rock garden. Supposedly if you achieve a higher plane of enlightenment, you can see one more rock emerge from the carefully sculpted and raked sand. I have a long way to go.
It was not possible for me to take advantage of the Kanseki cuisine, one of the pleasures of this city, so it was just miso soup and soba noodles the first few days.
Cindy and I wandered around the incredible market, wondering what all the different vegetables were. Although we certainly have a good selection in the states, it pales in comparison to the variety available there.
We hopped on another train and traveled a couple hours to Atami. We had hoped to have a good view of Mt. Fuji but the day was cloudy and the mountain was obscured. Atami is known for its hot spring. I was going to take full advantage of the facilities available but the stomach virus was still hanging on. I did manage a late night shiatsu massage.
Atami has a remarkable museum, not so much for the art works contained but rather the structure itself. It all looks somewhat modest from the outside, but when you enter, there are a series of escalators that take you up to the exhibits. There must be six of these and you feel as if you have gone mountain climbing by the time you arrive at the top. Mostly Japanese art is shown but there were three pieces from the West, all copies.
The last day of our mini-vacation consisted of taking a tour of the outskirts. Hakone, one of the resort areas on the coast, was particularly fun.
Now it was time to get back to Tokyo and start working. The flu had mostly run its course and that also meant that I could now sample the cuisines I love, starting with a fine Teppanyaki meal. The particular restaurant we went to has wonderful sliced garlic that is cooked on the table.
For the program, the NHK had asked me to do a Shostakovich Symphony. Last year we had fine performances of the 10th and this time around we tackled the 7th. This is not a piece that comes up so often, mostly due to the size of the orchestral forces required. Having just done the Berlioz Requiem, with its four brass bands, the 10 needed for the “Leningrad” seemed positively tame.
Although the work takes about 80 minutes, I find that it is really not as difficult as one would expect. Most of the movements follow a very steady rhythm and with the exception of some of the third movement, there is not much in the way of rubato. Still, it is an effective piece and contains some very original sounds and ideas. I do find that there are echoes of Mahler in the middle two movements, the last of the Shostakovich symphonies to exhibit this.
The rehearsals were held in the NHK orchestra building. Like their London counterparts, only the dress rehearsal and concerts take place in the venue of the performance. We are very fortunate in the States as most orchestras are full time tenants of their own halls and develop their sound and style in those facilities. Nonetheless the NHK is a terrific orchestra.
You might wonder how we communicated. Every student in Japan now studies English in school and so they are used to instructions in my native language. I wish I knew more Japanese but I do try to greet the orchestra and use a couple of local phrases.
Cindy and I attended both a Sumo tournament and Kabuki. The former is truly remarkable, with its mixture of awkwardness and elegance. The bouts only last a few seconds but it is the ceremony and posturing that are fun to watch. We attended a match that came a little past the mid-way point in the two-week event. These days many of the wrestlers are not from Japan, coming from Belarus, Mongolia, Georgia and even Brazil. The big guy does not always have the advantage but I would not like to run into one in a dark alley.
Each time I come to Tokyo, I make it a point to attend a Kabuki performance. There are very rarely presentations of a full play, as that might last for several days. Instead, a variety is put on so the audience gets a taste for some different styles. On this occasion there were two pieces, one a play and the other a dance.
The play was about two centuries old and had to do with the traditional theme of warring parties, revenge and possible suicide. In this case, a young woman has accidentally broken off a piece of a tree limb and she must decide whether or not to kill herself. Talk about tough laws.
The hour-long dance concerned a spirit housed in a temple bell. Dance in this case means one performer carrying the main role with musicians and other actors on stage. Costumes are extravagant and I am always reminded of the intricacy and beauty of just a simple gesture.
On the food front, we sampled so many of the cuisines on offer. In addition to the Teppanyaki, we went to a Yakitori restaurant, a tempura bar, a Robata style country grill, had outstanding Shabu-Shabu and of course, lots of noodles. It was all quite healthy but as usual, I ate too much and will have to seriously get back on a diet.
From the first time I came to Japan in 1984, I fell in love with a particular drink. It is called “Nectar” and is made from white peaches. It comes in cans and has tiny pieces of fruit floating around inside. The company that manufactures this is “Fujiya.” As far as I know, it is not available in the States, so if the producers need a spokesperson for this, please call me.
Back on the orchestral front, rehearsals proceeded very well. The opening piece was the delightful Eight Russian Folk Songs by Liadov. I have been playing these pieces ever since I started as assistant in Saint Louis, but it had been several years since I last did them. They were a perfect complement to the big Shostakovich Symphony and I must remember to do these pieces in Detroit and Lyon.
The Shostakovich had the requisite bombast needed in the big places but there were also some fine subtle touches along the way. I don’t find this symphony as tiring as, say, number eight but control does become an important factor and making sure that the various climaxes do not occur too soon is crucial.
Since Andre Previn was in town for his week off, we spent a delightful morning catching up. He is very busy with composing, having just finished his First Symphony and working on several more pieces. His physical demeanor is a bit diminished these days but his mind remains one of the sharpest in the business.
I had to find out if the story with him and Georg Szell was true and Andre confimed its veracity. For those of you who do not know it, it goes like this.
Andre was asked to record the Strauss Burlesque with the maestro but the two had not met. Andre went to Szell’s hotel room and was asked to play through the piece. Noticing that there was no piano in the room, he asked how this would be accomplished.
Szell said that he knew the piece very well and that Andre should just play it on the coffee table.
Shrugging his shoulders, Andre started and Szell immediately said, “Too slow!”
With his rapier wit Andre replied, “Maestro, I am not familiar with this particular table but on my own I have no problem with the quicker tempo.”
Szell was not amused and threw the young Previn out. The recording did not take place and a legendary tale was born.
He was also kind to mention that he felt my parent’s quartet was the finest that had ever existed.
On the book front, things continue to go very well. Sales are strong for this kind of work and I will have some signings in New York as well as an appearance on the Charlie Rose show. The electronic version is now available on all the various devices.
My first recording with the ONL is out. Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique is the main work with an unusual added bonus of the 2nd movement played with the optional cornet part. A Ravel disc will be issued in a couple months.
Now it was time to head back home to open the Detroit season. It will be good to see my orchestra after several months. I miss them and the hall.
See you in a few weeks,