Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Pulling Out the Sound

We have begun the yearly month-long opera project.  In the first two days, we played without singers, or rather, with the assistant conductors marking the vocal parts as they sat following along with the score.  While the Alfredo of them had a singerly vibrato and dramatic flair, his Violetta counterpart was more akin to a Wednesday Adams, with a low husky straight tone voice, giving a completely deadpan performance.  Were it not for her incredible accuracy and competence, one might wonder if she had any idea that La Traviata is a tragic opera.  But she clearly knows that score and how to pronounce Italian.

Today with got the understudies, which seemed more than adept for the job.  It will be exciting to hear the actual cast.  The human voice is capable of so much color and expression and opera as a genre does a wonderful job of inciting dramatic motivation.  It's hard not to be a little more alive when playing with singers that are relaying such a turmoiled and impassioned plot.  It's a funny thing that we don't dig within ourselves to find that inner voice as a source of inspiration more often.  How strange to divide these two things, playing and singing, the technique and the expressive intent.  But somehow opera helps to fuse them again.

How many other things could stand to know one another within oneself?  Ideals versus practice, practice in one area versus practice in another.  Perhaps there is a lot of learning that we can do if we reflect on bringing values to more areas of life.  To sing when I play.  I wish that I could do it more fully all the time.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Ten People, Two Languages, One Bach

A chamber music rehearsal with ten people and two languages is a lot to handle.  Luckily, everyone is hardworking and extremely courteous.  I will miss these two ubiquitous qualities in Japan.  They make the impossible possible.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Yay America!!!

Like so many Americans, I was thrilled to hear the news of the recent ruling by the Supreme Court allowing people of the same sex to marry.  It's only been two days and yet it seems amazing that there was ever a time when that right didn't exist.  I read the report of the court (not the dissenting opinions, however) and was reminded of a long history of rights of marriage.  From coverture (a word I thankfully didn't even know) to interracial marriage, to rights of prisoners to marry. And a history of gay rights as well.  We have come so far.

And it is amazing that most of us today don't even know how far we've come.  We take for granted so many of the rights that we have.  And now we can start to take for granted the right to marry anyone that we love.  Suddenly this is no longer a outlier, gay married couples are now a part of the norm.  The world just opened a little more.

And how beautiful.  But again, we forget, or are completely ignorant of how far we've come.  I don't think I have any idea how privileged I am as a woman in this time, how lucky I am to have the education and the sense of self that I have.  In the same vein, I find it incredible to believe that there was ever a time when African Americans couldn't vote.  It wasn't my time.  I've taken these things for granted.

And now this.  But as we begin to envelope it within the norm, that feeling of satisfaction and joy at the change will hopefully be more than just that.  It's not simply that we won this.  It's also a reminder that change is possible.  It's wonderful that we have moved in this direction, but there is still so much more that needs to be done.  There is still discrimination against gay people, and there are still racial issues that need to be addressed.  But this ruling helps build the belief that it is possible to bring about a change.  History as well, shows us this.  We can't stop here.  May the celebrating carry forward and fuel the work towards future victories.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Letting Go

I found some pictures of my apartment in Japan before I moved in, or as I was moving in.  So clean and untouched.  And I spent the day trying to get a few steps closer to bringing it back that state.  A lot of things have to go.  Two boxes and two suitcases will be my life moving forward from here (hopefully).  It seems manageable.  I realized that I've moved 7 times in my life.  This is number 8.  As I go through bits of paper, ticket stubs, boarding passes, cards and notes, I realize that I've been living happily without them for the past year or two or three.  And yet the feeling of nostalgia that arises in me when I see them and can touch being in a place and time again, makes me think I need them.  It's a strange thing that life isn't just moving forward.  In reality, I suppose it is, but also in reality we are made up of so many things from the past and they impose themselves on the present and future.  In those 7 times of moving, I've probably thrown away a lot of things that I would now love to see again, but of course I can't recall nor do I cling to their existence.  I'm moving forward without them.  Perhaps that's the better way, but something still makes me hold on to some memories, perhaps arbitrarily so.  The maps of places I've been.  I recall throwing out so many in the last move, and now regretting it.  

So I have a box of random memories, problems to sort in the future.  But luckily, they only have to matter to me, and the moment that they cease to, it will be ok to let them go.  But for now, I can't be so sure what clips of Japan I'll wish I could come across again.  Perhaps it will be best to let them go a little latter, to let the past touch me a little longer.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

Foreign Ties

There was a space next to me on the train.  She saw it first and started to move towards it before seeing me.  And then we had the silent foreigner recognition.  I finished studying Japanese vocabulary on my phone and glanced over to see that she was alternately doing online shopping and reading the news on her phone.  I pulled out my book.  I thought I could say something but she seemed "engaged."  So I read and I noticed her checking out the English words in front of me.

As the train approached the final stop I broke the ice and asked her, "Do you live in Japan?"  "Oh do I live in Japan?  I've lived here 25 years!"  she responded with an English accent.  I congratulated her.  "Ha,  I suppose it's less 'congratulation' as 'commiseration',"  she joked.  And we had a short exchange.  She was from London and taught English at a university in Kobe.  She said she loved it.  She asked me a bit about myself.  Less than 4 minutes of introductions later we broke off on different trajectories but not without creating a little bubble of English in Japan and breaking out of the norm.  "Nice chatting with you."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lazy Summer

Such lazy summer heat.  I succumbed for a nap this afternoon.  It would seem impossible to do otherwise.  Perhaps I should live like an owl and find the quickening of the night hours instead.  But then, the lazy summer nights are calling as well.  It's lazy summer time.  And the sound of the leaves in the wind beckons.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Making a Dental Appointment

When I leave Japan, I will be faced with a gap in health care.  I'm not really sure how to sew together coverage in America yet, though I'm sure it will happen.  In preparation for the uncertainty I'm trying to get updated on my health appointments and for several weeks I've been carrying the number and the to-do list item of calling to make a dental appointment.  No longer!  It took less than five minutes thanks to the incredibly sweet-sounding receptionist that starting to speak slowly and gently when she heard my broken Japanese.  Such a bandaid to pull just to do the simplest things.  Hopefully when I move back to the States I will enjoy the ease of using my native language in exchange for the bureaucracy of getting coverage.  I'll be a fully communicating adult and will likely miss the gentle conversations of considerate Japanese receptionists.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

I"ll Take It

Sometimes I have to play the cello for a reason or in a manner that I don't really prefer.  Perhaps it's the project, perhaps it's the artistic requests being made, perhaps it's the music.  It happens and it never feels great.  Today was arguably one of those days.  They gave us a bento, but I don't eat meat, and they gave us an extra nominal fee, but it was nominal.  However, unfortunately, I'm always a sucker for flowers, especially the beautiful arrangements they have in Japan and today was my lucky day.  I managed to carefully bike them and my cello home, and now the obligations of the day are melting away I have these beautiful colors lighting up the room.

Monday, June 22, 2015


I struggled with some kanji this morning.  Perhaps I've started to think about the wrong things, looking at the spacing of the lines rather than the character of the strokes.  At least I'm noticing a difference in the way Sensei responds to these things, an emphasis on certain focuses rather than others.  I was then given a hiragana task and managed it quite easily.  It feels good to have established some competence.

She gave me another word, "amayadori," and then the entire class tried help me understand this concept.  It is the experience of the weather being sort of rainy and you don't have an umbrella and then take shelter under something.  I realized there wasn't really a word for this in English and the Japanese women in the class came to the conclusion that it is because in America people don't have the same need for umbrellas as they do in Japan.  We quite frequently make do without umbrellas and so we don't have this same sort of relationship with the weather.

But I still understand the idea behind the word.  And perhaps I have an even better concept of it now that I have a word for the feeling.  Is it going to rain on me as I'm biking???  Should we make a run for it???  It's having that sort of experience.  Amayadori, to avoid the rain with a feeling of trepidation.  My feelings have been legitimated.  Thank you Japanese!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summer Solstice (Last Subscription Concert)

On Friday one of our Tae Kwon Do Masters reminded the club that we were approaching the solstice, the longest day of the year.  And that is today.  He invited us to recognize and reflect upon the power of the sun and the power of this time of year.

This morning there was a forecast of thunderstorms.  It had been raining all night.  And because I assumed I would finally have to submit to the rainy season and leave my bike at home, I decided to spend the time doing a short Tae Kwon Do practice.  And somehow during that hour the thunder stopped and the clouds cleared and there was a blue sky and the forecast had changed.

I got on my bike and went to the bike path along the river, happy to be able to share this special day with the sun.  The light is stronger, the day is the longest it will be for awhile and I got to feel it on my skin.  And because the rain had been with us all night, the path was filled with puddles and I got to join the sun in the sky.


Today was also my last Subscription concert at HPAC.  Something I hadn't really reflected upon.  it's been an incredible week, sitting next Mr.Thornton, a cellist from the Cleveland Orchestra.  For the most part I tried to listen and play with him to the best of my ability.  This seems simple, but there is no end to cultivating this skill and he is probably one of the most highly attuned orchestral players in the world.  The Cleveland Orchestra and school of training, in my mind, is exemplary in its focus on matching style, phrasing, articulation, and character.  And so when I sat next to Brian I was extremely aware of my lack of awareness and inferior musicianship.  Despite him being one of the nicest people I've met, I'm still aware he also has the highest musical standards.

At the beginning of the week I noticed how he gave sound space, how nothing was rushed or thoughtless.  Then I started to notice bow placement and speed as he carved out my awareness and taught me with his example.  And then note shapes started to emerge, balance and sound became clearer.  And from a monkey-see monkey-do mentality, I started to find the reason behind it all and the fear and insecurity started to melt away.  He's played this symphony so many times.  He knows the points of focus and also the false traps, the fortes that aren't really climaxes.  I started to understand why he chose certain characters at certain points, certain shapes and colors and how it brought the whole piece together.  And I began to love a symphony that hadn't spoken to me before, and to find a freedom and satisfaction in playing that I've rarely had in orchestra.

It was incredibly liberating and purely fun.  And at the end of it was the audience, the Sunday Subscription audience that I've come to know.  There is the foreign gentlemen and his wife that sit a few rows back, the little girl and her father in the front row.  These people that I've come to know in the last year, this would be the last time I would see them.  I looked out at them trying to remember that see of faces.


We had another rehearsal after our concert for some chamber music and it took me to the end of the day.  The sun was setting and I could see that the rains had come while I'd been busy doing other things.  But in the purples and blues receding behind the mountains was a clear, crisp crescent moon and a friendly star, trailing the sun in recognition of its day of honor.  The bike path was refueled and overflowing with the dimming sky.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Overload of Goodness

Generosity, what a wonderful thing.  And so much learning this week from our guest top cellist.  A lesson today, a dinner with the cello section, and incredible dessert.  Still processing it all, including this chestnut cake and Appletiser.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Buckeye Guy

On the return home, I occasionally pass another foreigner.  Sometimes I see him going in the opposite direction in the morning.  Our commutes cross one another, if I happen to be going to or returning from HPAC at a particular time.  It's funny to see another regular on the bike path that isn't Japanese.  Seeing a foreigner in the train is far more likely, but to be on the bike path means that you have a fairly established life in Japan.  Foreigners in Japan–because I know a few–are generally somewhat curious about one another.  What are they doing here???  We all just seem so out of place and feel it, too.

And this evening we crossed paths again only this time I noticed that he had an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt, which means that we may be two Ohioans commuting along the same river in Japan.  What are the odds?  Two people with midwestern backgrounds trying to find a place in this country thousands of miles from home.  We pass by one another's understanding every so often and never touch it.  Maybe we're always surrounded by familiarity but just moving in opposite directions.

Perhaps one day I'll talk to Mr. Buckeyes, but far more likely there will be a span of the normal two weeks between passings when I won't be there, and then a month, and then three or six months or perhaps never, and he'll realize he hasn't seen me for awhile.  And we'll be gone, on to new familiar misses.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Winds of 25 km per hour.  I was Don Quixote today on my bike.  Sometimes there's nothing to be done but move forward as capably as possible.  The wind cannot be stopped, but that needn't mean I must be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Custodial Kindness

A couple of months ago I almost killed a woman by stepping into and out of the wrong shower at HPAC.  Never again.  Firstly I learned my lesson, but secondly I haven't seen her recently.  I hope she didn't have a recurrence of the shock of facing me as I was coming out of the men's unused shower room right as she was opening the door to clean it.  The custodians seem to clean the showers around the time I wish to use them, roughly 8:40am and I had thought I could save some time by following the suggestion of the one of the HPAC staff to use the men's shower since it's never used, while the ladies' was being cleaned.  I stepped in but decided against it.  Again, never again.

But this morning I encountered another custodian on her way to cleaning the showers.  I followed behind her as she pushed her cart over to that corner of HPAC, somewhat apprehensive about the situation that might ensue.  I wanted to take a quick shower before eating breakfast, practicing and rehearsal, and was hoping not to have to wait and not to have to endanger another very nice seeming woman.  But as we approached the showers and she saw me and the towel and soap I was carrying she became very excited.  "Ahh!  Dozo!  Dozo!"  She seemed to want to say more but realizing I wouldn't understand muttered a string of offerings "Please! Please!"  She sort of guided me to the door to help me in, "Wakarimasuka?"  Do you understand?

Yes, thank you, thank you.  I do understand how to use the shower.  Despite my post-workout, post-bike ride smell, I am actually a seasoned showerer.   Thank you very much.

I really appreciate the meticulous work of the custodians and their invitation that I create more of it for them is a little overwhelming.  I will remember it when I return to the states where for whatever reason, quite often the custodial staff is not so eager to have more work, and quite often there is a tension in the roles of the one serving and the one being served.  But their kindness inspires a reciprocation of service on my part, even if it is just to be more polite or more clean.  And I can do it out of kindness rather than fear of contrition.

Thank you to the custodians at HPAC, not just for being so good at your jobs, but also for encouraging this kind of kindness in the way you serve.  There is still the American in me which sees the softening of these class boundaries as responsible for their continuation, but I am not in America and have no influence in this sphere.  And so I appreciate the kindness, from whatever situation it comes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Beginning of the Rainy Season

It is the rainy season in Japan which basically means that there is always a chance of rain, but very rarely is it actually doing so.  One encounters the outdoors at one's own risk.  The bike path is variably packed by people hungering for the riverside, or empty of those fearing a sudden shower.  I always imagined a rainy season to be sheets of rain for days, where the soundtrack of one's life became a peaceful haze of white noise, deleting all extraneous thoughts and masking all unnecessary words.  But it is something different.  It has a peacefulness separate from what I had expected, where the sound of frogs in the rice paddies oscillates in the drips of residual water.  The world is flooded by the impending heat and humidity of a millennially inevitable summer.  It's coming and it's already here.  It's been here all along.  But once again, it's our turn to walk upon it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Return of Mr.Thornton

There is definitely a different styling of playing between Europe and America and this week we have our first (and only one since I've been at HPAC) America cello principal, a cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra.  It is always a pleasure to have Brian lead the section, to have a familiar style in a country that leans towards the European tradition.  And just like it is always a little funny to go home after being in Japan for awhile, it feels a little funny to sit next to a professional America player again.  I've learned a lot from the European tradition here.  It seems much more about singing out with your individual voice than trying to blend and play as a unit with others.  There is certainly a balance.  But to be reminded of how much listening and adapting goes on for an American orchestral musician is a cool thing.  I feel like I have to have my antennas super attuned to what he is doing and to what he is listening.  I'm hoping I can find a better sense in this next week.  I think there is a whole world to learn from him.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


This has been the first day of organizing things to move.  I've gone through electronic files in an effort to back up my computer, and sifted through specific items that I'm hoping to give away, taking pictures of all of them to help others decide whether or not they are interested.   I sorted through Japanese papers with the handwriting of Kaneko-san and my own translations and clarifications in English, reading through these early conversations as we worked towards understanding.  I looked through old pictures from the first days of my arrival, marveling at the simplest things, signage with Japanese writing, people on the train.  How strange to see myself becoming accustomed to Japan in fast motion as I'm peeling away the layers from it.   I've stopped seeing it in the same way.  Life has become life, though still not without its beauty.  I saw my first pictures of shodo, the beginning.  Some things grow, other fade.  I'm no longer amused by all the soy sauce in the grocery stores, but the rice paddies of the countryside are still captivating, autumn is still magical.

There is still a lot of sorting and sifting to do.  I'm returning to the early days of having very little, living very lightly.  They are coming, until everything evaporates and I'm no longer here.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mom and Dad

It was so good to talk to my parents this morning.  I don't think it's possible to express my gratitude for having them in my life.  How did I get so far away?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Knife-time Souvenir

I ventured to Kyoto to get a very nice Japanese souvenir for myself:  a knife from Aritsuku, a 450-year-old knife shop that once made samurai swords.  I had purchased a knife from here last year for my brother and his wife's wedding, and had remembered roughly the selection and prices.

When I arrived, I found a knife that looked like the one I was expecting to buy and roughly the same amount.  I thought about it for a bit and then asked the sales clerk for help.  I double-checked with her, "For vegetables and just general use?"  "Ah no, sashima, for raw fish."  Hmmmm.  In my life, a knife is a knife is a knife.  "Could you use it for vegetables?"  "Ehhhh....."  The look on her face made me not want to ask that question again.  It also indicated that I'd be heathen to go ahead and get that knife now that she knew my intentions.

"What is good for general purpose?"  I asked.  She pointed to some larger more expensive ones.  Hmmm.  I deliberated and deliberated.  "Are there any that are smaller?"  "Sold out,"  she said.  Ah, so that was what I had gotten before, and even then I had had to wait for a special delivery much later.  "Do you know when there might be more?"  I asked.  She turned her head and scrunched her face, "Mmmmm, maybe not for many many months..."  OK.  "And any other options?"  She presented another very small one, and another that could be used for peeling.  Peeling?  Could you also use for chopping?  But it was only a one-sided knife.  I was learning and was starting to see differences in all these options.  Even though I'm not so savvy in my knife knowledge or practice, I was realizing that my make-shift knife usage was not a part of the ethos of this shop.  And I respected that.  Still, I wanted something that would work.

I went for the larger knife.  I think it will be a nice thing to have in the years to come and something that I will use frequently, a reminder of the time here, the artistry, tradition, and craftsmanship of Japan.  I got it engraved, they taught me how to care for it, and I watched them box it and wrap it.

And then I took the train home from Kyoto and watched the familiar rice paddies go by, wondering how it will feel to cut vegetables in America.  Time, time, time.

The Last Awaji

The terraced, flooded rice patties descended from the highway down to the sea.  I wonder how long it would take for me to grow tired of seeing the island of Awaji pass through the bus window, especially on a rainy day like today.  I'm sure this was the last time I will visit the place, one of the first gentle beauties that I encountered in Japan during an outreach in the beginning of my first year.  And every time it has had the same calm breath.  There is something very special about it, something which changes as one crosses over the Akashi bridge, something haunting and timeless about the motionless ferris wheel on the other side which enters the horizon, something magical about the whirling water beneath the bridge, about the large suspended cables.  And then this island of green, which seems so still and yet so alive.  There is no reason to go there, except to be there.  On what occasion I might be lucky enough to return?  Perhaps never.  I may have to take that breath with me, to the best of my abilities.  To be incomplete and reaching for it forever.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Megijima and Ogijima

Today's pictures will have to wait for another post as I don't have my computer.  This morning we visited two nearby islands, Megijima and Ogijma.  The first was apparently the home to demons from a familiar Japanese children's story, Momotaru.  We hiked up to the highest point where some of the group went into the demons' cave and we ventured to the top for a 360 degree view of the Seto Sea.

We hadn't planned to go to the other island but heard that it was one of Japan's cat islands.  So we got back on the ferry to check it out.  We were only able to be there for 20 minutes because the next ferry would not be leaving for another two and a half hours, but in that short time we did encounter a group of cats.  Or rather, they brought themselves out of their collective isolation to join together in hopes of getting food from us.  They were a cute and pleasant bunch.

Tonight is our last performance of Figaro, and then back to Takarazuka tomorrow for a few days of rest.


Any day that begins with a ride through Awaji Island is a good day.  We arrived in Takamatsu and learned that our 3pm rehearsal had been postponed to 6pm.  After getting some udon (because this area is known for a special kind of udon) some of us headed to the Ritsurin Gardens.  I took many pictures with my camera and will post them later.  Our rehearsal lasted for less than an hour so the day got even more beautiful with a sunset over the ocean.  

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Smell of Shodo

I love the way that the bike and motorcycle garage at Takarazuka Station smells like incense.  Every time I go to shodo class I park my bike there, stop at the door to pay my 100 yen and take the bike assisting conveyor belt up to the second floor to park it.  And along with the smell of tires and of gasoline from the mopeds downstairs is the smell of incense coming from someplace, perhaps the office, perhaps the clothes of very peaceful garage workers.

And in the shodo class it remains, hanging in the air from another source.  It is the smell of Sensei, of her paper, of the beautiful orange ink that she uses and the soft magical brush.  I don't belong in that world.  I can smell my otherness, but so too can I smell the fragrance touching my skin and my hair and my clothing.  If I sat there longer enough, perhaps.

The lines were as they always are in shodo, which is to say, somehow different.  I managed to catch Sensei creating the next piece for me to copy and so had the pleasure of seeing the orange ink beckoned from within the paper by her magical brush.  Every element of time is there, the resolution is complete, the physicists need look no further.

And afterwards I sat with the two pages she had handed me, and the order of the strokes written in a delicate orange hand, and stared at their magic, as though watching one walking on their hands and telling me it must be so.  Between my staring at these impossible pages and drinking the black tea served with the hope it would bring more clarity, I looked across again to Sensei.

Unoccupied by anyone needing her assistance she had gone about practicing something on her own.  On several pages I saw her create the same word, the same general contour.  But they were completely different, as though four different human beings had created them in completely different hands.  She had become another and another and another person, taking on their movement, taking on their breath, touching the page with any face, eyes, hopes, and fears she wished.  And yet always she sat there, the same, with the same brush.

I'm not sure there is anything like shodo in western art.  It is a practice of complete awareness and control mixed with poetry, and for the master, endless creativity.   But it seems that for years, one must be able to emulate what one sees precisely.  And even Sensei does just this.  She showed us a picture of a Chinese ink drawing of a fish on a flyer she had received and her own copied rendition, perfect and exact.

I am in awe of this art and humbled to be able to step into it, to even begin to smell something which is still largely imperceptible to me.  How much larger is the world than I know it to be?  I think it must be infinite in a way I can hardly comprehend.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Onward and Upward

A far more successful performance than yesterday.  It seems that this collection of people is still working towards their peak.  It's fun to be a part of a production with different types of performers.  As musicians we can benefit from the rhythm and emotion of the singers, actors, and dancers on stage and it makes each performance fresh and alive in a way that repeated classical concerts can sometimes lack.  It's exciting to be growing in this production with everyone, to become excited for an aria or enthralled by a certain performance, living it with them as they create it.

We have a day off tomorrow and then travel to do one more rehearsal and performance in Takamatsu.  A little further to go.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mysterious Malady

There was something in the HPAC hall today that seemed to place a hoax upon our performance.  And it wasn't too much air conditioning.  Perhaps it was that the singers were finally singing full volume and that somehow effected the reliability of there tempi and entrances.  Maybe it was the day off which made us forget how the opera was supposed to sound.  Maybe the heat and humidity of 2,000 bodies skewed the timing and pitch mechanisms in our brains.  Maybe it was the distraction of the over-the-top costumes that we hadn't seen before.  But there was something that persisted in making many small things very unsettling.  No one person was any more to blame than another.  It was hard to pin down the weakness in our concentration.

Regardless, it was a very successful performance with a very happy audience.  There were many close calls, but no show-stopping failures and in that regard it was an even greater success.  We won!  Hopefully tomorrow whatever bug it was in the air will be swept away and we will be ready to embrace the performance even more fully.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

First Morning Chamber Music Concert

It felt like moving mountains to get a core member chamber music concert to happen at HPAC and this morning we had our first one to a sold-out house.  It felt like such a success and everyone was so happy afterwards.  Playing chamber music and listening to my friends play chamber music are two of my favorite things to do, and this morning I got to do both.  Chamber music seems to help people grow in so many wonderful ways.  It strengthens working relationships, it helps people become better musicians, and it strengthens confidence and self-esteem.  I think there are few things healthier for a musician than chamber music.  It feels good to have this at HPAC and I hope we can ensure that it continues.  Through it I think we build greater trust for ourselves and our peers and trust is such a wonderful place from which to make music.  Many thanks to all the people who helped to make it happen, who played today, and also to the stage manager and crew for being so efficient and flawless.  Looking forward to the next one.

Ode to a New Production of Marriage of Figaro

This is perhaps the most beautiful, whimsical, creative, and relevant opera production and staging that I've ever seen.  The set is Japanese and extremely minimal: three gold boxes with large painted flowers the size of walk-in closets on a raised and raked stage, two slightly to the left of center and the other on the right.  The remainder of the set is created with bamboo poles which are moved to different location and form a giant double "X" in the front of the stage during intermission and beforehand.  Inspired by Japanese theater, there is a narrator which tells the story through added text in Japanese, and even speaks the recitatives in Japanese as the singers are manipulated like large puppets with their arms resting on short bamboo poles and operated by "puppeteers" from behind.  The stage is treated like a sacred ground, with the boxes serving as entrance and exit portals, and the long bamboo poles moving freely throughout to change the dynamic of the visual effects.  Throughout the production, people become puppets, living sculptures, and a physical representation of a metaphoric boundary through which other characters can pass.

The use of language also shapes the interpretation.  The story is told to us in Japanese by the narrator and all the servants speak and sing in Japanese to one another.  But the Count, Countess, and Cherubino, all foreigners, sing in Italian, as do the servants when they are in their presence.  Marcellina (lowly but with money) sings in Italian but is Japanese and sings in Japanese when she discovers the servant Figaro, whom she had wanted to marry, is actually her son (oops).   It sets up an added layer of class and race commentary, which is perhaps a more relevant interpretation for today's audiences to understand the abuse of power that the Count exercises in his sexual prowess.

And this is also given a lot of extra attention in the opera.  Staging suggests some very sad and horrific actions on his part, which although perhaps were suggested in Mozart's vague libretto, are not necessarily staged in such a way.  In a devastating and heartbreaking aria that one of the servant girls sings about losing a pin (though the object is never mentioned in the aria), it becomes clear she is singing about her loss of something far greater.

And these were only the times that I was able to turn around.  It is a visual feast and a beautiful journey.  A work that is over 200 years old is as relevant, if not more so, than it was when it was written, and done in an incredibly creative way.  It's amazing the extent to which the production is true to the original work and the extent to which it is able to deviate.  It is a feat in meaningful artistic interpretation and a true honor to be able to be a part of it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Making Music

Sometimes Maestro Inoue wants articulations short, sometimes long, sometimes we are too loud and sometimes we are too quite.  He has a spontaneous imagination and it can be hard to predict what imagery is occurring to him at any given point.  Bagpipes, tickling, robots?  These are just a few of the suggestions he's offered.  Luckily he is very expressive in his gestures.

It would likely be much easier to predict if I knew the opera much more than I do.  I've watched it online with the supertitles and generally know what each aria is about and who sings it; but as to the specific words being sung and the intention behind them, I can't be sure.  A loud passage might be joyful or angry, and it might not always be so easy to know which direction to go without knowing the words at a particular spot.  There are so many ways to interpret instrumental music, such as a symphony, but once there are words attached to it, things get a little more directed.

And so Maestro Inoue has to help us.  None of us, save perhaps the concertmaster, knows the opera as well as he does.  He has to tell us what to do to support what is happening.  Should this be a strong forte, or should it trail off?  How sharp are these articulations, how noble, how angry, how sweet?  We just don't know.  It is as though he is telling us how to walk by instructing us to move each individual muscle.  If we just knew the goal, it would be so much easier.

But we don't.  And that's how opera works and to some extent the way that orchestral playing works.  The conductor is there to know the big picture better than anyone else.  That's the conductor's job, and our job is to do what they say.  It seems there should be a better way, but then I think that's what chamber music is.  With too many people, there are too many ideas and so we have to have a dictator and that dictator has to be a patient teacher.  They have to have a strong idea about what the work is and should be and they must communicate that to us as fully as possible.  And the more of the picture we can grasp, the better able we are to realize their ideas.  We are the black box, receiving inputs and creating outputs.  But with more knowledge, we can help in the generation.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Second Chances

Tomorrow the singers will arrive.  We've been working with the understudies which unfortunately seem to be just that.  Tempos are not terribly reliable, nor are entrances, nor all the pitches.  They only get this one chance to practice their parts, to sing with an orchestra, and that's it, the opportunity is gone.  It's such a privilege to get more than one chance.  Perhaps the soloists also had their difficulties in the early days, but they are different in that they were and are entitled to try again.

In some areas of life, there is only one chance, but often it's possible to open the perspective and see more chances.  Yes, these understudies only get this one opportunity to practice with an orchestra, but there will be other orchestras on the tour of this opera that will need rehearsal singers, and beyond that, other opportunities in life to be an understudy or a soloist.  Sometimes things don't go as one wishes, but maybe we can entitle ourselves to more tries than we think, to step back and see a larger progression of opportunities ahead.

It continues to be a pleasure to work with the Maestro as well as the concertmaster.  And I'm very much looking forward to having the soloists, who have had a few more shots at perfecting their arias, with us tomorrow.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Maestro Inoue Returns

Maestro Inoue arrived today to work with us on Marriage of Figaro.  He explained (as many of us knew) that in the last year he had been ill and lost his voice and that he wouldn't be able to speak as loudly and would be chewing gum during the rehearsal for his health.  None of this seems to have affected his demeanor from the last time we saw him.  If his voice is any quieter it is hardly detectable for the incredible energy he emits.  And the gum-chewing only adds to his deadpan humor. He conducts with his whole body, his feet, his chest, his head.  He gestures what he wants in dance-like moves and uses colorful imagery to evoke very specific character ideas.  Everything is extreme and vivid and most of it is communicated in a very metaphoric or evocative manner.  It's always a pleasure to work with such a unique conductor.  There are very few like him.  And I'm glad, as are well all, that he is better and able to share his time with us.