Depending on the group of teen-agers, a weeklong visit to Japan might evoke thoughts of video games yet to reach American shores, a McDonald's in downtown Tokyo, snowcapped Mount Fuji or endless haiku readings. But for members of the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra, soon to tour Japan, playing good music is the first thing on their minds.
Under the artistic direction of Jason Love, the orchestra will spend a week in Japan starting Tuesday, and will perform three concerts with young Japanese musicians.
The orchestra, composed primarily of high school students from the Baltimore area, will visit Yokohama, Kamakura, Hakore and Odawara, all cities in the Kanagawa Prefecture, Maryland's sister state.
"We are there during the rainy season. That's the bad news," Love said. "The good news is that we're not there during the typhoon season."
Love, a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory and a cellist, is in his fourth season as the orchestra's artistic director. Working closely with Frances Belcher, who recently resigned as orchestra manager, Love has exhausted himself putting this trip together.
"All Frances and I have done for the past eight months is work on this Japan trip," he said. "And that's OK if you're a 30-year-old pathetic guy with nothing better to do."
It's not as if Love wants to do anything else; music is his life.
"I know this is going to be a fantastic trip," Love boomed at a recent meeting of the orchestra to discuss details of the trip.
Smiles, laughter, schoolyard chatter and impromptu musical demonstrations made the meeting at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex a symphony of excitement.
For many of the 57 musicians, such as cellist Cameo Rowe, 15, a 10th-grader at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, it will be their first time leaving the country. Rowe, like his fellow musicians, was excited.
Sports, not strings, was on one musician's mind: "Can I bring a basketball?" asked Keith Fine, 14, a cellist who attends Harford Technical High School.
Parents had more serious concerns. Japan's communal baths, for instance, didn't appeal to either the students or their parents, so Love assured them that communal bathing will neither be encouraged nor required. Communications from Japan to the United States and currency-related matters were discussed.
"The language difference may be a problem," said Lonnie Butler, father of 17-year-old Hereford High School senior Ashleigh Butler, an oboe player for four years with the orchestra. Butler didn't seem too worried, though. "I will be missing a good trip," the father said, smiling.
Asked whether he had bought a Japanese phrase book, Stephen Belcher, 16, a harpist who attends the School for the Arts in Baltimore, said, "I am considering it."
Only Carl Oswald, an oboe player, is studying Japanese in school. Oswald, 15, a freshman at Catonsville High School, will take the Level-4 Japanese exams this week; he's been studying Japanese since sixth grade. Many of the orchestra's Japanese hosts speak English, Love said. The musicians, who range in age from 13 to 20, will be sleeping in youth hostels, and their parents in nearby hotels.
The trip to Japan will be the first time abroad for many of the current musicians, but the orchestra, now in its 24th season, has traveled extensively in the United States and to Canada, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and most recently, Austria.
The orchestra has been dedicated to providing talented young musicians with rehearsals and concerts, as well as instruction by local professionals, many of whom perform in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Acceptance into the youth orchestra is based on auditions, and a tuition fee is charged.
The trip to Japan, which will cost the performers and their parents $810 each, has been arranged through the Maryland Sister State Program, which often sponsors cultural exchanges. Maryland has sister states in China, Mexico, France and Brazil, among other countries.
"I know our students will be fantastic ambassadors for Maryland," Love said. "They're amazing musicians, but they're also amazing people."