7 February 2013

Thursday saw the first concert of the tour in Tokyo, which was great for two reasons; there was no travelling during the day, which meant time for some sightseeing; and the hall we were playing in that evening was one of the most amazing structures I've ever seen.

In the morning, not long after waking from a strange dream about Arsène Wenger, I met Gijs and Dalia, the lovely young Finnish assistant conductor on this trip, in the hotel lobby; we headed off to see Sensõ-ji, a temple in Asakusa, about half an hour away on the tube. Tokyo's underground system is a bit like London's, a mass of weaving, colourful lines connecting at stations like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimbasi, Suidobashi... You have to concentrate pretty hard not to get completely lost. There's a station called Akasaka which is nowhere near Asakusa. Tricky.

Anyway, we made it to the right place, and soon found ourselves admiring the huge Kaminarimon - the Thunder Gate. This large red entrance with giant lanterns is guarded by FŠ«jin and Raijin, gods of wind and thunder respectively. Evidently the locals had been praying hard because it was a nice sunny day.

Nearby is a big metal cauldron with a funky little roof filled with incense sticks, which waft dense clouds of pleasant-smelling smoke everywhere. Excited school children were getting as close as possible, as inhaling the smoke is supposed to bring good luck and fortune. The little white masks many of them were wearing seemed a tad redundant. One lady even picked up her dog and plonked it on the rim, making sure it got a faceful. I'm not sure it was overly impressed.

We climbed some stairs to the narthex of a shrine containing an impressive golden altar. Nearby, if you so desired, you could have your fortune told. You shook a slender, baton-like stick from a metal container through a little hole, and then matched a series of Japanese characters on it (I guess a number) to one of dozens of neat little wooden draws in a cabinet. This part took a while. Then you opened the drawer to find a piece of paper on which was printed your fortune. Mine effectively suggested making a bee-line back to the smoky cauldron for more inhalation practice, otherwise fiscal doom and poor intonation would follow me for the rest of my life. Maybe there was more to this than met the eye - how else could it tell I was a viola player?! Happily, however, I was told by a concerned-looking lady that if you tie your disturbing news paper onto a metal framework-thing, you leave the bad luck behind. So that's what I did. Better safe than sorry. My intonation can use all the help it can get.

After a mooch around a market, we had some sushi and headed back to the hotel. The Tokyo Opera City Hall is about a 12-minute walk away but, as we were a little pushed for time, four of us jumped in a cab. Eleven minutes later we arrived, and swiftly went on stage for the rehearsal.

The hall is extraordinary. Imagine a garden shed. Now put a wooden spire on it. No, not a pointy roof, an actual spire. Now make the whole thing so big you can fit the Philharmonia orchestra in one end and 1600 people in the other, and Abracadabra!, you have Tokyo Opera City Hall. The acoustic is bright and bouncy, and we had to work hard not to overpower, well, everyone.

We began the concert with LutosŠ‚awski's Fourth Symphony, his last. In one movement, about twenty two minutes in length, it begins with an almost spiritual, pulsating low E minor chord. The harmonies develop and grow more complex, before a plaintive solo clarinet soars across the orchestra. There are some savage climaxes, and then towards the end, solo violins cry out in anguished pain. It's amazingly powerful stuff, depicting the horrors his family suffered during the wars of the 20th Century. Do have a listen. And if you think you might not like it because it's plinky plonky, listen anyway, because you will.

Beethoven 7 nearly took the roof, sorry, spire off. The thought did cross my mind that if they had left the top of the spire open people on passing planes could probably have heard us! Again, it was a fantastic concert, and the capacity audience cheered and clapped in a most enthusiastic manner. I find Japanese people to be so respectful and courteous most of the time, it's wonderful when music knocks their socks off and they react so enthusiastically.

Afterwards, some of us found a lovely little yakitori restaurant which looked like a garden shed, normal size, normal roof. They kept bringing out dozens of the little skewers of meat and vegetables, and a couple of hours later we waddled back to the hotel for a well-deserved sleep.