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Chamber Music Heaven with a View of Mount Fuji

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Published: October 23, 2013 at 7:58 AM [UTC]

Thanks to sabbatical in Tokyo for the first time in 10 years, I have at last managed to update my experience of amateur chamber music in Japan. On Friday, 18 October I took a series of trains which brought me to Lake Kawaguchi at the foot of Mount Fuji for the Japanese Amateur Players Association’s (APA) 37th Annual Kawaguchi-ko Autumn Music Festival.

I’d already been to a couple of APA’s regular local meetings in the association’s headquarters, a tiny two-room apartment in one of the seedier parts of Shinjuku where numerous hotels advertise their rooms at rates by the hour. We played quartets in the adjoining, soundproofed, rooms and exchanged introductions and information over tea and cakes between sessions.

The shores of Lake Kawaguchi are definitely resort country and the Sunnide Resort Hotel is fairly typical of its kind, offering an array of generously designed Japanese- and Western-style rooms, open air hot spring baths, beautifully presented, sumptuous dinners and ‘viking’ (i.e. buffet style, all-you-can-eat) breakfasts. A more distinctive feature are the marvellous views of the lake, and if you’re lucky (which we were for part of the time), of Mount Fuji.

Perfect Fulji

The advantage of Japanese-style rooms was once again brought home to me after the orientation meeting, when the tatami mats in our sleeping quarters were covered with blankets to protect them from being damaged and chairs and stands set up in readiness for the first ensemble sessions. Later in the evening the blankets and chairs would be replaced by futons for sleeping which are hidden away behind sliding door panels during the day.

The first scheduled two-hour playing slot was free for me, so I listened to a group giving an impressive rendering of two movements from Beethoven’s Op. 59.1. Three of the members had elected to play with a professional, so the second violin part was taken by Yamamoto-sensei from the Hymnus String Quartet, whose members had been invited as coaches. A point was made of addressing them as ‘sensei’ at all times - none of the informal, first-name style familiar to me from England and Denmark. Still, the interaction between the young professionals and the (mostly much older) amateur players was relaxed.

Next it was my turn to have a go at an Op. 59; I had myself requested 59.3, a work I’d played on a course before and so felt reasonable confident about. My heart sank when we introduced ourselves, and the violist said he wasn’t playing in any ensembles these days and had little time to practice. Oh well, viola players, I thought, they’re obviously the same everywhere in the world. Once we started playing, however, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a substantial and agreeable tone, immaculate intonation and a steady rhythm. And it certainly wasn’t for his sake that we took the final movement (‘Nein – ich kann die Fuge nicht!’) at a fairly cautious speed. At the barbecue party which followed the session I learnt that the violist had formerly played professionally – oops! He lives locally, usually works weekends (at the nearby museum of musical boxes), and had been roped in for the evening to make up the numbers. A lucky start to a weekend of playing!

After the party, which finished promptly at around 8 p.m. there was a scheduled meeting for violinists with Yamamoto-sensei and Kobayashi-sensei. I had registered for this slot mostly out of curiosity. It had been decided to work on the Bach Double Concerto; hardly the last thing in originality, I thought. Only 3 fellow-violinists took part and they seemed to come from the less confident participants on the course. Still, it was good fun to play along with the two professionals. Kobayashi-sensei reminded us to think about where the high points in the first movement are and about when to take the lead and when to make room for the other solo part. I asked for ideas how to come to grips with the couple of bars in the first and the last movement respectively which I always seem to have to practice again every time I play the piece (I’m sure you know which ones I mean, if you have played the work yourself). Kobayashi-sensei demonstrated a method she had learnt from her teacher at the Hochschule in Berlin: play the passage at speed, but PAUSE at every string change and every position change in order to get your brain around it. We tried it briefly and it seemed to work. I made a note to give it a proper trial at home.

Next morning, after a soak in the hot spring and a walk along the lakeside admiring Mt Fuji, it was my turn to play with a professional. Kobayashi-sensei, the first violinist of the Hymnus quartet, led us through Haydn’s ‘Lark’. Despite my rant against people who regard playing the second violin part in a Haydn quartet as the easy option for beginners and other inept players, I had opted for a second violin slot among the play-with-a-pro options on offer and suffered the consequences. I have played the first part in the Lark, including the infamous finale. Yet again it was brought home to me that middle parts have their own challenges. In the finale, the first violin just has to keep going no matter what. The second violin and the other lower parts have a few fast runs that have to happen at exactly the right time; get off to a bad start and that’s it. In the end we spent more time on the first two movements. We discussed how to feel the rhythms. Kobayashi-sensei also urged us to listen for the key changes and be aware of the changes in character they signify. This turned out to be one of the most significant points we picked up in the session.

For me this became clear when I played in my fourth group after lunch; Beethoven’s piano trio Op. 1.1. The pianist turned out to be a type familiar to me from the amateur circuits I’ve experienced in Europe; the type who loves to rattle through an allegro movement at top speed without being overly concerned whether a player or two get lost by the wayside in the process. Still, the two of us string players managed to slow him down a bit. We even spent a bit of extra time on the slow movement. It was there that I caught myself thinking consciously about key and mood changes – the effect of having my awareness raised by Kobayashi-sensei that morning. It’s so easy to take these things for granted and not pay them the attention they deserve.

That evening there was a party, which included various lighter and humorous musical performances as well as a memorable performance of two movements from Ravel’s string quartet by the Hymnus, during which the cellist’s string slipped twice. The second time, the others kept long notes and a trill going until he had adjusted it again.

Next morning, feeling slightly fragile from the exertions of the previous day and night (the party continued more informally until the small hours), I was quite relived to find that I was scheduled for a baroque session. Like the baroque sessions during the Chamber Music Summer Course at Keele in England I used to attend before the university decided to scrap it, the principal function of this one seemed to be to keep a maximum number of players out of trouble at one time. Here at Kawaguchi, the idea was to play trio sonatas in shifting formations in the ‘Baroque Building’, temporarily thus named because the harpsichord brought by one of the members had been set up there. The players who weren’t needed listened or chatted over cups of tea and coffee in the adjoining kitchen. As I read through one of the pieces, I again found myself applying my newly-raised awareness and registering key changes, phrasings, the way parts interacted with each other and notes led to each other. Suddenly I thought, maybe this is what one needs to do to truly grasp the European chamber music tradition. Not read clever books or listen to profound expositions by clever teachers. Just read one’s way through a pile of trio sonatas and pay attention to what is going on.

After lunch came the course concert. Some of the play-with-a-pro ensembles were from the start intended to perform at this. For me, the highlight was a movement from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Souvenir de Florence’, the pro being the cellist from the Hymnus Quartet. This may in part be because it was performed the last of the amateur groups. Or, because I had only heard the piece once before; when Sarah Chang performed it in Copenhagen with leading local musicians. Obviously Kawaguchiko lineup could not compete with these players, but their rendering of the work had the advantage of being more credible as a chamber music performance.

To round off the concert, the Hymnus Quartet treated us to Bartok No.4 (Sz 91) I have to say I’ve never been a fan of Bartok and was not converted. Nevertheless, I did enjoy it; the Hymnus really gave it their all and made it very exciting. Truly a fit offering to God (or the gods) that did justice to the quartet’s name (explained to us the night before)!

Settling down to another do-it-yourself quartet session after listening to the pros can be daunting. But I was looking forward to Beethoven’s Op. 132, my first foray into the composer’s late quartets. The first violinist was another type I recognized; note-perfect in her fiendishly difficult part, but apparently appalled at her own daring in requesting such a challenging work. Fortunate is the timid first violinist who is ably seconded by someone both confident and supportive. I tried to pretend I was confident and to give her all the support I could, but unfortunately I had difficulty in getting the hang of some of the rhythms, not to mention all the tempo changes. Luckily we were saved by another familiar type, one of my favourites; the well-seasoned cellist who’s been there, played that countless times, yet still remembers what it is like to be less experienced will patiently and kindly guide novices through the challenges of a difficult work. I owe at least as much to this type of amateur player as I do to the excellent professional teachers I have benefited from over the years.

Last Eve Haydn Gypsy

Actually, I remember distinctly listening to one or both of my mother’s amateur string quartets playing Op. 132 in our living room when I was at school. It occurs to me that my ineptitude was another illustration of my pet theory that written music ruins rhythm. Obviously most of us would not venture to learn a complex work like Op. 132 purely by ear, but I now wish I had tried to do this for the sections where the written rhythm boggled me.

A sumptuous supper was followed by Mendelssohn Op. 44.3, requested by the cellist who demonstrated his devotion to the composer by wearing a T-shirt bought in Leipzig with the inscription ‘Felix macht glücklich’ (Felix makes you happy – felix, of course, being the Latin word for ‘happy’ or ‘lucky’, if you didn’t do Latin or read Harry Potter 6). I think we were all approaching exhaustion by this point and I certainly found it increasingly difficult to get my fingers round the runs of the first violin part, which I had not quite managed to practise well enough to feel comfortable with it. Still, we played the entire work and I think we all had a good time in the process.

More Mendelssohn followed on Monday morning after a very short night’s sleep at the end of our last drinking party; the Mendelssohn Octet. I have played this in ad hoc sessions several times, both in England and in Denmark, and all 4 violin parts. These performances soon began to resemble a shipwreck with everyone scrambling for the shore. This time, however, we all came prepared (more or less) and, I believe, all having played the work before. The first violinist, who had requested the piece, gave a brief speech and proposed a round of introductions. This seemed overly formal to me at this stage of the weekend, but afterwards I wondered whether it wasn’t in fact an important part of fostering group awareness and coherence.

We then followed the first violinist’s very sensible suggestion to play at a steady tempo the first time and then take it faster the second time. The welcome result was that we all had time to take notice of each other. We did actually play through the whole piece twice in the two-hour slot with only a moderate amount of stopping and starting. It was a hugely satisfying experience to be part of a performance of the Mendelssohn Octet actually held together a lot of the time and a great finish to a wonderful weekend.

So what did I take away from this feast of concentrated chamber music at the foot of a newly-designated world heritage site? Renewed enthusiasm, certainly. I’d been thinking I’d gone off chamber music marathons. Also renewed appreciation of the European chamber music heritage, which has long become truly world heritage – a heritage, which (unlike Mt Fuji) can travel and therefore can be claimed by people anywhere. Not where you were born, but the effort you choose to invest determines how well you master that heritage (the right balance of natural aptitudes helps, of course). I’m sure my fellow-players quickly realized, if they didn’t already know, that being raised near Bonn doesn’t necessarily mean that this violinist can keep a secure second violin part going through the tricky rhythms and tempo changes in Beethoven’s Op. 132, and that having family in Leipzig doesn’t guarantee that she knows just how to play every phrase in Bach’s Double Concerto - which, if the truth be told, she first studied and learnt to appreciate with a teacher from Japan anyway.

Whether from Japan or Germany, we all felt woefully inadequate at times in the face of such challenging music. In the end, however, none of this mattered compared to the joys of trying - and of getting a taste of heaven already here on earth.

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From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 23, 2013 at 5:18 PM
Some of my happiest memories include playing chamber music in Japan with the amateur chamber music association. The quality ranged from superb to just short of awful but I always had fun.

Thanks for the picture. Fuji is the most beautiful mountain in the world.

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