Sunday, 27 February 2011

Japanese Snow Drama

While the wife is visiting her sister in Dorset during half-term, I pop over to Japan for two days and, like the wheelchair bloke in Little Britain, am back before she is.

I meet the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, Sakkyo to its friends, who are coming to the Royal Festival Hall in May and are working for a full audience. Their home is the capital city of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, which is snow-bound from October to April. It’s minus seven as we, a Times journalist, the PR and I, attend a rehearsal. Everyone keeps bowing and presenting us with business cards.

A photographer from the local paper, the Hokkaido Shinbun, takes a picture as we are being presented to the players. It appears the following day with our comments and names in Japanese writing. I am quoted saying they make a fresh, incisive and youthful sound and they do although I fall asleep during the rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No2 because it is 4am London time, which is where my body is.

I interview the conductor Tadaaki Otaka who once lived on Cathedral Green, Llandaff when he was Chief of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Generations of Joneses have been associated with Llandaff Cathedral – my grandfather, father, brothers – and I know it intimately. I ask Otaka if he used to go there, as I am anxious to talk about spirituality in music for an article in The Tablet. The readers will be as glad as I am to discover he went to a Roman Catholic primary school in 1950s Tokyo.  He even crosses himself once to prove it.

The hosts are generous. The executive director Nishimura and general manager Miyazawa take us to dinner in the hotel’s banqueting suite where they sit side by side like a double-act and invite questions while a bowing waiter brings a constant stream of increasingly colourful dishes. How can they be sure reviews of the orchestra are unbiased when the newspaper is a sponsor? What is it about the orchestra that attracted the composer Takemitsu? Its cool, clear string tone? Its razor-edged brass? Its responsiveness? Its quickness? Its virtuosity? Its youth? Have any of the players emerged from the Ainu, Japan’s aboriginal community?

Miyazawa is the hard man. He doesn’t welcome questions about the Ainu. He doesn’t wish to know that the principal cellist may have once mentioned to someone in the office that he had Ainu ancestors and says it was either misheard or a remark in confidence. As a double bassist with the Osaka Symphony, Miyasawa joined the union to fight management nepotism, or jobs-for-the-boys. Now in management, he fights the union. Nishimura is more laid-back. He avoids politics and sensitive issues. He once jumped 10 metres off Sapporo’s Olympic ski jump.

We visit the Art Park where the outdoor sculptures – Four Winds, Expressions of the Seasons, Intellectual Depression – sound like Takemitsu orchestral pieces. Sakkyo is bringing to London his How Slow the Wind, a dreamy overture for strings, wind, harp and piano which they play at their evening concert. A rising bell-like motif permeates the score as the players pass it on like a peace pipe. They play with one mind, sharing Takemitsu’s stoic mood, interpreted now by the much-loved conductor. Otaka does a stand-up routine with a mike before the concert and has the crowd in stitches.

The cellist Miklos Perenyi gives a charming performance of Shostakovich Two. What I sleep through one day, I am awake for the next. Witty phrases ping from his strings in the two allegretto movements. Stalin, so often a presence in a Shostakovich score, is nowhere to be seen. Perenyi seems to be smirking behind the neck of his instrument.

Stalin’s there in the next piece though. He’s the whole anti-matter to Shostakovich’s Symphony No5, or ‘the  Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ as the vilified composer wrote, perhaps in a spirit of irony, perhaps not. Takemitsu’s dreamscape is replaced by hard reality. The cello’s jokes are gone. The low strings grind the angry theme and a high bleak, bitter flute rends a leaden sky. Respite comes with the alleviating second subject, but the quavers lack bounce and it is not as light as it might be. The grotesque dance of the second movement moves with steady precision in contrast to the Mahler parody run’s threatening urgency. The Largo breathes lonely resignation while the Finale excites with crude violence. The timpanist is positively flushed when the principal players line up like a guard-of-honour in the foyer to see out the departing audience, ears tingling still with the jagged brutality of Shostakovich’s mighty forces. I can’t wait to hear them fire up the Royal Festival Hall. 

A blizzard is howling as the taxi ferries me to the airport and I pity his return journey. There’s enough snow to close Heathrow for a week, but the plane is delayed for only an hour and I am back in my seat for the rugby on Saturday afternoon as if nothing has happened.

CD Review

Grainger Jungle Book
John Mark Ainsley and David Wilson-Johnson
Polyphony / Stephen Layton
Helios CDH55433

Originally recorded in 1996 this disc is a re-release for the fiftieth anniversary of Grainger’s death. The opening number, Shallow Brown, a sea shanty, has haunted me now for weeks. Ainsley sings powerfully of parting and the men answer mistily like phantoms, swelling like the sea over eerie tremolando guitars. The Jungle Book settings are less successful as Grainger’s youthful music (some written when he was 16) doesn’t quite have the measure of Kipling’s catchy rhetoric. The twee tune for The song of the Inuit seems way off the mark. The folk songs are a surer demonstration of Grainger’s unique gifts as an arranger and the depth of intensity in the setting of My love’s in Germanie for instance, shows how moved he was by the simple texts. Many of these songs were notated directly from pub singers, whose repertoire, but for Grainger, might have been lost for ever.