New Year's Eve in Japan
Just got back from my 6th and probably most memorable visit to Japan. When I was originally contacted about performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with a large orchestra based in Kobe (site of the infamous earthquake of 10 years ago) on New Year's Eve, I was excited but also not looking forward to being apart from my wife of just two months. When they then suggested that I would need to leave for the rehearsal from NY the day before Christmas, and would return on New Year's Day, I was doubly hesitant. Ultimately, though, I arranged to have my wife come with me, and it became quite an adventure watching her as she visited this magnificent country for the first time, experiencing all of the wonders I had enjoyed on my own for the last few years, from the high-tech to the ancient temples of Kyoto.
We left Christmas Eve and spent Christmas Day essentially on the long flight. The next day I rehearsed with the orchestra in Osaka. Osaka is easily the 2nd most technologically dazzling city next to Tokyo and I was therefore delighted that my wife would get a glimpse of high-tech Japan, especially since Tokyo wasn't on the itinerary this time around.
From the moment of my first arrival for that rehearsal, I was surprised that there were camera crews on hand filming my first meeting with Maestro Sado in which we first reviewed the score, to the rehearsal and post-rehearsal, culminating in the filming of the actual concert a few days later. The conductor himself cut a fascinating figure. A former student of Bernstein apparently for several years, his conducting style still possessed severall Bernsteinian conducting traits, from the way he used (or didn't conventionally use) his arms and hands, to his facial expressions. He had a natural synergy with the orchestra and radiated a certain kind of magnetism that made him a natural leader.
My wife Liz and I spent the next couple of days sightseeing in Osaka and nearby Kyoto, even braving the train systems on our own in order to visit some of the more ancient temples. We then traveled to Wakayama City where I performed at a beautiful little club called Jalan Jalan, one of the typical intimate affairs with an extremely passionate and attentive audience. Finally, we would our way to Kobe for the big performance of the Rhapsody in Blue on New Year's Eve.
Rehearsing Rhapsody in Blue before the orchestra arrives (Kobe, Dec. 31/04)
It was part of a 3 hour-long concert featuring an eclectic mix of programming, from orchestral marches and waltzes by Strauss, to an excerpt from Bernstein's Candide, to a jazzy rendition of a Japanese folk song I participated in, to the Rhapsody itself. The performance went well and was very well received, though as usual I found it much more difficult, really, to prepare for something in which I "in theory" needed to hit all of the right notes, vs. improvising as usual. I had done so much practicing in the few days leading up to the event, in fact, that after the concert every one of my fingers were covered in bandages to protect enumerable broken nails and painful finger-tips.
Also on the program immediately following the Rhapsody was a duo version of my own composition "Hopes and Dreams" from Suite for New York with a great trumpeter from Japan named Tomonao Hara. It was dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and to the survivors and their rebuilding effort; the 10th anniversary of this devastating event, in fact, in many ways dominated the proceedings that night.
When it got near to midnight, we inexplicably played "Auld Lang Syne" not AFTER but before midnight (perhaps something lost in cultural translation?) - Tomonao and I did a gospel version which seemed to rouse the crowd, followed by the inevitable countdown, complete with giant TV screen behind us. After cheering and on-stage celebration, the orchestra followed, again somewhat inexplicably, with a rendition of that Commencement staple, "Pomp and Circumstances", to which we walked off the stage in marching rhythm...
On the whole, it was a memorable few days and a truly unique way to usher in the new year...