The BSO breaks new ground in Niigata

Playing's not lost in the translation

Bso In Japan

October 04, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NIIGATA, Japan - The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra occasionally gets lost in the translation.

Yesterday, musicians couldn't help but chuckle over boarding passes for the flight from Osaka to this industrial port city on the Sea of Japan. They were all identified as members of "Borutemoa Party," the closest, apparently, that airline agents could get to spelling Baltimore.

Of course, considering how few Americans can speak Japanese, and how badly they mangle the few words they do attempt, no one would think of casting aspersions. Not with all the hospitality being bestowed on the orchestra, from hotel staffers bowing and waving as the musicians head off for the next plane or train, to audiences that hang on every note.

This is the first time the BSO has visited Niigata, home of Japan's finest sake. But that wasn't the only noteworthy thing about the one-nighter.

"This is the first American orchestra to appear here," said Masaaki Komagata, general manager of the 5-year-old Niigata City Performing Arts Center. "And I am quite happy with the Baltimore Symphony and its very attractive sound."

The three-hall complex - a huge oval, glass-walled structure that resembles a giant sports arena on the outside - boasts a large garden on top and a very respectable concert venue inside. The center is but one example of how this modest-sized city has apparently gone from backwater to up-market in recent years. Not that it doesn't still have vestiges of its past.

Upon arrival at the quiet airport yesterday afternoon, only one other plane was at a gate, and it was from Vladivostok Air. The sights seen on the ride into town suggested more of China than Japan, with low-rise, nondescript or ailing buildings, decidedly humble housing and lots of grain elevators.

The Niigata Center's 1,890-seat concert hall shares some of the sleek, rich-wood elegance of halls in Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka that the orchestra has visited, as well as a large pipe organ dramatically integrated into the space. And it boasts vibrant, if somewhat unrefined, acoustics.

Given the day of travel and settling into yet another hotel (two, actually, since enough rooms weren't available in one), the orchestra seemed a bit weary at first. But the playing steadily intensified and meshed, reaching a bracing charge in Brahms' Symphony No. 4. The performance had granitic strength, supported by Yuri Temirkanov's incisive molding of phrases and the ensemble's deep commitment.

"Given the quality of the halls in this country," bassist Owen Cummings said, "it's fun to be able to dig in and crank it out."

That digging and cranking made quite an effect in the hall.

"I was very moved by the Brahms," Komagata said.

He wasn't alone. The large crowd expressed what seemed like genuine gratitude for the orchestra's efforts; there was a particularly warm reaction to the Japanese song played as an encore on nearly every stop of the tour.

"It's very, very important that touring not be just about going to world capitals," BSO president John Gidwitz said. "There's a wonderful, long tradition of artists and orchestras traveling to big cities and small. People here in Niigata are important. They have as much need and value for great music as anywhere else."

The hearty applause of the Niigata audience was on the order of that heard the night before in Osaka, where the BSO really hit its stride.

"The wildest thing I've done on this tour is play that concert," trombonist Christopher Dudley said yesterday, while waiting at the Osaka airport for the short flight to Niigata. "That's what we're here for - to feel the synergy of the audience and the hall, the total concentration of the audience and the orchestra. I felt very blessed."

Then, spotting Temirkanov standing across the crowded lounge, Dudley turned to trumpeter Andrew Balio and said: "Hey, man, wanna go hang with the maestro?"

The two decided against it, not that Temirkanov would have minded. He has been far more approachable on this tour, right from the start, than he was during much of last year's European tour, his first with the BSO. He and his musicians have come a long way together since then. The Japan visit should help cement that association further.

In another corner, percussionist John Jocke was reliving his post-concert experience of the night before.

He and his colleagues from the percussion section caught up with Schinobu Yamamoto, timpanist of the Osaka Orchestra, one of seven symphonic ensembles in the city; they had all met during the BSO's previous visits to Japan. Yamamoto invited them all to a restaurant.

"Schinobu told us he wanted to treat us to a special local dish," Locke said. "It turned out to be chicken sashimi. Raw chicken, all the parts - breast, heart, liver, beautifully sliced and presented.

"He assured us that it was OK, because the chef had a contract with a farmer to get only the best chickens. But that was definitely the strangest meal I've had in three trips to Japan, both in taste and texture. We tried to be polite, and somehow ate quite a lot of it. But we had to wash it down with a lot of beer."

Not to worry. Harry Walen, the tour physician, said that symptoms of salmonella don't show up for three days. The tour's finale won't be in jeopardy.

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