It’s always the little things on tour that make the difference. The comfortable bed, the unexpected phone call from the family, the free wifi in the hotel, the bus leaving half an hour later in the morning. The list is endless. As we approached the end of the first week away from home we were presented with a free day. No concert. No rehearsal. No travel. Nothing but unscheduled freedom until the next day.
In today’s hectic orchestra schedules, a free day is rarer than a 100% pure beef burger and so much more satisfying. It is not only a welcome rest from working but also an important time away from colleagues who have been constant companions for some time. It’s good to get away. A small group of us decided to go on the train to the beautiful city of Kyōto.
It didn’t begin well as the trains were delayed, most unusually in Japan. The announcement said it was because of ‘human damage’, and as we stood waiting on a crowded platform I looked around and realised that about 90% of the orchestra had had the same idea and were traveling on the same train. So much for time away. Of course, Kyōto is a big city with many temple complexes, and so throughout the day we saw surprisingly little of anyone else as wandered through Zen gardens, golden pagodas and moss gardens. By the end of the free day as we finally reached the hotel at 11pm, my feet were exhausted but my soul refreshed.
We are fortunate to have one of my favourite musicians as soloist, pianist Maria João Pires. She may be small in stature but her presence on stage is enormous. Performing the Mozart concerto last night, she gave a masterclass in musicianship, sparkling articulation and simple melodic phrasing; I’m not sure I could describe it accurately as a ‘less is more’ approach but there is a simplicity in her playing which is deeply felt and beguiling. This concerto has wonderful wind writing and whenever we find ourselves intertwining melodies with the piano, she turns and watches and listens, blurring the boundaries between soloist and chamber musician. It’s a joy to play. As Bernard asked her last night at the pre-concert rehearsal which bits she wanted to play, she shrugged, “Maybe letter O for a few bars?” We played letter O for about 16 bars and then she stopped playing.
“OK?” asked Bernard
“You are so easy!”
That was all we needed to rehearse. Both João and Bernard are always anxious that the orchestra are all right and not too tired, not something every conductor worries about. It was his birthday a few days ago and so he decided to throw a party for the orchestra; despite adding another year to his tally, he is traveling on the same trains as us and so knows only too well the toll traveling can take. One of our violinists is suffering rather badly with sciatica and has found the train and air travel very painful. When we arrived at the airport earlier this week to take an internal flight, he was being wheeled to the gate by a porter. As soon as Bernard and João noticed they came over to ask how he was. It’s always nice when things like that get noticed, but then, seeing how much pain he was in João insisted that they swap seats on the plane. There was no discussion, she had decided. She came and sat in economy with the orchestra and our violinist sat up in business class with extra legroom. It is that generosity of spirit which you can hear in her performance of Mozart.
Last night we played in Fukui in Harmony Hall, an extraordinary building which rises from fields seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We had been given a map which listed a few restaurants but in all honesty, it didn’t look too promising for a nice meal after the concert. As we left the hall and walked into the dark side streets we walked past a small door and decided to chance it. As we entered the sushi bar I could see a counter down the side and the chefs on the other side. There were five of us and only two stools. We had obviously stumbled on a local, very small place. As we were about to head back out, one of the women already eating looked up at us and then proudly produced the programme from the concert and pointed at it and then us. “London Symphony?” “Hai!” They spoke to the chefs and immediately moved the chairs so we were able to all sit down. Nobody else could get in. What followed was one of the most fun evenings I’ve had on tour, everybody laughed and smiled a lot.
They made the finest sushi I have eaten and just kept putting more in front of us. After we had chatted as best we all could, they proceeded to show us how to use chopsticks better (although my technique was very good apparently) and how to eat soup politely. After they had taken pictures they left and we asked for the bill. We had eaten so much that we knew it would most likely be huge; sushi ain’t cheap, even in Japan.
The bill arrived and it was half what we expected, I’m sure they were being kind. As you do in Europe on these occasions, our natural urge was to leave a large tip, they had been so wonderful, however, it isn’t the done thing in Japan. I have more than once been followed out of a restaurant in Tokyo by a waiter because I have left a small amount of change. But Lorenzo tried in his Italian way to leave a tip anyway. He insisted and the waitress kept refusing and for a moment I thought that we were about to cause an international incident. A short conversation followed with the chef and they then thanked us for the tip. I have never seen this before in Japan and was impressed by Lorenzo’s charm. She took the notes and put it in a bottle near the door which we assumed to be the tip jar, but she then explained that it was a collection for victims of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami. It was humbling and an evening of generosity I will never forget.
I awoke early and dialed home just in time to speak to my wife and children and wish them a good night’s sleep. A brief but precious moment. It’s always the little things on tour that make the difference.