The Song Remains the Same

By | March 9, 2013 at 4:11 am | 2 comments | Korea & Japan Feb & Mar 2013, LSO On Tour | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In Japan, things aren’t always exactly what they seem. The cake at the bakery which reveals its secret red bean paste filling, the colourful appetisers with the unfamiliar texture or the chicken teriyaki which turns out to be a more adventurous part of the chicken’s anatomy. But it’s not only the experience which create a subtle shift in perspective, it is the fabric of the place too. Buildings come and go between visits, ancient temples and shrines are replaced with the same design but newer materials; often what appears old is brand new and unexpected. A constant state or renewal.

As I confidently led a mixed bag of colleagues on a Karaoke expedition with dinner on the way, I found myself disorientated.

“Do you know somewhere for Karaoke nearby Gareth?”

Blogging in the Tokyo Sun (Thanks Claire Parfitt for the photo!)

Not only did I know the best place for Karaoke in Tokyo (with unlimited tambourines and maracas) I boasted, but I knew some great little restaurants where we could get a bite to eat first. I have perfected the art of looking confident despite inner doubt after 13 years in the LSO and so they followed me as we walked across the multi level highway near the hotel and down in to the winding streets where the promised eateries awaited. In New York City, it’s almost impossible to get lost with the grid system of streets; you’d think that despite the more windy nature of many areas of Tokyo, years of wandering around London would have given me an advantage at navigation. But, it was dark and the pressure of colleagues requiring the first beer after Bruckner 9 was on my shoulders. I have a pretty good sense of direction, but it’s always good when you recognise a building or a shop to confirm that you are on the right track.

As I chatted, I lost concentration slightly and the bar which I was using as a mental checkpoint never quite seemed to appear. I paused. My colleagues looked suspiciously at each other as I suddenly veered to the left, spotting a familiar looking street. In a navigational sense, the glowing neon signage of Tokyo’s numerous side streets are completely useless to non native speakers. They all look very nice even though they are adverts, but as helpful aide memoire – useless. As we progressed up the street, it began to look less familiar. It was at this point that I realised that the bar and cake shop, (I know my priorities) that I had visited on the previous visit in 2010 had been bulldozed and a fancy new cake shop and cafe had been put in it’s place. At least, I think so. I carried on down the street and thought I recognised an Indian place from a visit many years earlier, but I was getting mixed up with another one when we stayed at a different hotel. At least, I think so. I stopped and told my friends what they already suspected.

“Look. The place I was looking for seems to have moved and…well…I’m not sure where we are. I mean, I know where the Karaoke place is (it’s on the main road) but I can’t find the restaurant I’m looking for.”

They looked sympathetic and so we all piled into a place on the third floor which specialised in fish heads. Seriously.
We did eventually find the Karaoke place which was where I remembered but not before another landmark building I was searching for looked out of the Tokyo night, covered in scaffolding. Nothing ever stays the same for long in Japan.

I was asked on this blog earlier on in the week by a reader if I found playing Bruckner 9 emotionally draining. I said that it wasn’t as bad as 4 or 7 for me – it is quite physically demanding for the strings in particular as they spend long periods playing tremolo. Bernard’s Bruckner for me is less about emotional intensity and more about the vast emotional sweep. Yes it is certainly an emotional experience but not an emotional roller coaster. Rather than the fast, excitable and short lived experience, he gives a deeper, longer lasting, slower burning journey – experience and pacing. But, we are in Japan. Nothing ever stays the same for long.

At the spectacular Suntory Hall with an acoustic I would love to bottle and take home, the rehearsal is as usual; a bit of the scherzo, a slow passage for the brass section and some of the opening crescendo to check the balance.

“Brass. I can no longer hear the strings. I think in here, you can ease off yes?”

They nod, we repeat and the music glows. Bernard smiles and the rehearsal ends.

Bernard rehearses in Suntory Hall

As he enters the hall, the applause doubles in volume and doubles again as he steps onto the podium. He turns swiftly to face us and the applause ceases abruptly, almost as if they have been rehearsing. The familiar check around the orchestra and then with minimal fuss the tremolo begins. Bernard smiles at the sumptuous sound and as the crescendo begins I can feel the sound vibrate around the hall as I play. He looks across to the brass as we reach the tip of the crescendo – they hold back from their maximum and the sound of the orchestra blends perfectly in the hall. Bernard smiles and his left hand moulds and shapes in a way that normally doesn’t happen until much later in the piece. The sound increases and a shiver travels up my spine as the horns emerge from the texture, Bernard moving around on the podium more than normal. I don’t know why, I cannot explain why but tonight in Suntory Hall, something happens; the long cathedral like phrases are there, the pacing is there but somehow, without interrupting the overall architecture of the piece, Bernard injects some of the exciting short lived moments. The Haitink I have seen up until now, the quiet, understated grand maestro has had an injection of fire and the orchestra is responding to his every gesture. As the closing section of the last movement arrives, the sound is all enveloping and comforting and as I sit, my part all played out, I listen and thoughts of home invade my head; I can feel home calling. The answer about Bruckner 9 being emotionally exhausting I gave earlier this week seems inadequate. I am deeply moved.

After the orchestra has left the stage aware that something special has occurred, the audience is still applauding wildly. As I put my flute back in its box I hear an enormous cheer. I look at the monitor backstage and see the solitary figure of Bernard Haitink, back on his podium, turning slowly to acknowledge the applause all around the hall. It is deafening. And that is one of the highlights of my job. Just when you think you’ve played enough Bruckner, just when you think you know what the conductor or your colleagues are going to do, there is a renewal, there is something fresh in the old notes and nobody can say what it is – but you recognise it when you hear it.

In Japan, things aren’t always exactly what they seem. The expected becomes the unexpected, the points of reference shift, the great becomes greater. Especially Bernard Haitink.

The queue for Bernard to sign programmes after Bruckner 9. I walked past unmolested.


  1. Patrick Buckingham (2 years ago)

    Thanks Gareth. Attending last night’s Barbican concert prompted me to look at your blog to see if you’d posted anything recently. I’m now glad I looked! Your response to Bruckner 9 in Tokyo wasn’t far off how I felt as a punter at the first Barbican concert. Deeply moved but certainly a little battered because of having been through an emotional wringer of sorts. Bruckner 9 + Haitink + LSO get me three quarters of the way to feeling this way but I need to be in a particular mindset to find that final quarter. I think we both found it across different concerts.

  2. Rudi Affolter (1 year ago)

    Great. Just great. Both the LSO and Sir Bernard have been sources of inspiration to me for about the last 45 years.


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