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Farmers' Philharmonic Orchestra of Hokkaido ?????????

February 18, 2011 at 12:00 PM

My next blog was going to be on the Kôda sisters who pioneered violin playing in Japan in the 19th century, but as a follow-up to my remarks on the joys of amateuring I will leave them for another time. Instead, here’s a story of a performance by very special amateur orchestra from Japan in collaboration with the Silkeborg Chamber Orchestra here in Denmark.


On 13 February the Farmers’ Philharmonic Orchestra of Hokkaidô (Hokkaidô Nômin Kangen Gakudan) and the Silkeborg Chamber Orchestra gave a joint concert in Silkeborg, a provincial town not far from Aarhus. The programme:


Mozart: Ouverture to The Magic Flute (both orchestras, conducted by Tokio Makino)

Mozart: Salzburg Symphony No. 3 (Silkeborg Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hans Holm)

Makino: Capriccio Hokkaidia for solo violin, Japanese wadaiko drum and orchestra (1998) (FPOH, conducted by Satoshi Nomura); Violin solo: Tokio Makino

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G major (FPOH with members of the Silkeborg Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tokio Makino)


The Farmers’ Philharmonic Orchestra of Hokkaidô (FPOH) is the brainchild of Tokio Makino and gave its first concert in January 1995.


Today it has 67 members, 17 violinists, 8 violists, 8 cellists, 3 bassists, 5 flautists, 3 oboists, 3 clarinetists, 2 basoonists, 5 hornists, 5 trumpet players, 4 trombonits, a tuba player,and 3 percussionists.

The FPOH rehearses at weekends during the winter months (November to February), when the there is little to do on the farms, and gives a concert each year. The idea to found an orchestra for farmers owes much to the philosophy of the Danish poet and pastor N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) and the farmers cooperative movement and the folk high school movement he inspired, as well as to Japanese thinkers who themselves were inspired by Denmark, including the poet and social reformer Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), who himself tried (and failed) to found a farmers’ orchestra.*


* I’ve written an article about other Japanese who were inspired by Denmark, should anyone be interested “N.F.S. Grundtvig, Niels Bukh and other "Japanese" Heroes: The Educators Obara Kuniyoshi and Matsumae Shigeyoshi and Their Lessons from the Past of a Foreign Country”, European Journal of East Asian Studies, 6.2 (2007), pp.155-184.


Tokio Makino, born in 1962, started to play the violin and the piano at the age of three, but like so many Japanese children gave up his music lessons when he entered middle school. He started playing again as an agriculture student at Hokkaido University played in the university orchestra, which he later led. Since 1992 he has been running Eco Farm, where he grows organic fruit and vegetables. (the video shows the farm's products, with the accompaniment of violin music)

The challenges of building up and running an organic farm business did not stop Mr Makino from pursuing his musical passions. Besides founding and conducting the orchestra, he is also the leader of a chamber music society with which he regularly performs. He even composes; his homepage lists 21 compositions and 19 arrangements, and the programme on Sunday included one of his own works.


The first thing that struck me about the orchestra - 60 players had come to Denmark - was that it included musicians of all ages; all too many amateur groups I’ve played in since leaving university have been heavily biased towards the upper end of the age spectrum. I asked if the members were really all farmers or connected with farming; apparently most of them are. Members include Mr Makino’s wife, a pharmacist, and their daughter. The concert master Satoshi Nomura, although he insists on calling himself an amateur, is actually a seasoned performer (but then so is Mr Makino himself) and runs a private violin studio.

There were a few music students, some roped in to replace regular members who couldn’t come. Other members were students and lecturers from Rakuno Gakuen, a private university, high school and dairy science research institute founded in 1933 by Torizo Kurosawa, another thinker and activist inspired by the example of Denmark. In fact, the orchestra’s tour was made possible through the cooperation of the orchestra’s member, Professor Isamu Kaneda of Rakuno Gakuen University with a Japanese colleague at the University of Aarhus. They were ably supported by Mrs Sumiyo Kinoshita, a Suzuki-trained violinist in the Silkeborg orchestra, as well as the orchestra’s other members. For Mrs Kinoshita, herself Japanese, and the other Silkeborg musicians this was not the first Danish-Japanese exchange. The Silkeborg Chamber Orchestra toured Japan for three weeks in 2005, although they did not venture as far north as Hokkaido.


The members of the FPOH had little chance to enjoy Denmark. Arriving late on Friday, they rehearsed most of Saturday and Sunday; their schedule on the day after the Silkeborg concert included a lecture concert at Kalø Organic Agricultural College, and on Wednesday they were on their way home again. An amateur orchestra they may be, but their schedule sounded hardly less gruelling than that of a professional one.


Even before the programmed concert, a group from the wind section gave a short performance in the foyer, including an arrangement of Dvorak's Humoresque.The concert itself was a resounding success, and the musicians received a standing ovation. Most of the works on the programme are well-known, and although I enjoyed them, I have to admit that it was Tokio Makino’s own Capriccio Hokkaidia that interested me most. Before he started playing Mr Makio introduced the Japanese instruments included in the score: the huge wadaiko drum (on loan from a group in Copenhagen, as it wouldn’t have been practical to bring one along on the plane), a small drum, and a small hand gong. He told us that his work used folk melodies from Hokkaido; not that I or most of the audience were able to appreciate this. What we did appreciate is that it was an accessible and melodic piece and that he played the impressively virtuoso violin solo part with skill and confidence.


Following his Caprice, Makino gave an encore for violin and orchestra, a work by Kosaku Yamada (1886-1965), whom he described to the audience as the first Japanese composer of Western music (when I queried this afterward, he did not seem to have heard of Nobu Kôda’s violin works – I guess it’s high time I get on with that blog about female violinists!).


Two more encores followed after the Dvorak, Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ and the Danish song “I skovens dybe, stille ro” (In the forest’s deep, quiet calm), composed in 1864 by Fritz Andersen (1829-1910 – no, not H.C. Andersen of Little Mermaid fame!), for the last the audience was invited to sing along, the lyrics having been given out with the programme.


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