For the first time since 2004, the Emerson String Quartet is visiting the Far East, with stops in Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. Read David’s city-by-city blog below for updates posted direct from the tour.
in David’s words…
It was a thrill to board Delta flight 0027 in Detroit on June 2nd for the Emerson’s first visit to the Far East in many seasons. Flying directly to Hong Kong on Delta’s inaugural flight for this route, I dove into Chinese culture as quickly as possible with a fantastic late-night meal.
We returned to the Town Hall concert hall where we had performed in 2004, for a program of Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet, Dvorak’s “American”, and the Shostakovich 9. The public was the kind that makes classical musicians so happy to perform in Asia: many young people and a kind of enthusiasm that makes you feel they are anxious to hear you and grateful that you came.
The impression was borne out by the very demonstrative response from the full house, and by the enormous line in the lobby for autographs. We were gratified to see so many had brought our CDs that they had previously bought for us to sign, many of these listeners seeming to be connoisseurs of chamber music, and knowledgeable regarding our entire catalog.
Friend from California Victor Woo, Gene Drucker, Ray Wang
After the concert we were treated to a late dinner by local cellist Ray Wang and violinist and Michael Ma, who provided not only dinner but fancy wines and much fun. Our hosts’ choice of restaurant “Under the Bridge Spicy Crab” is apparently famous, and justly so. The specialty is crabs from Vietnam, with giant claws like those of a lobster, buried in fried garlic.
In the morning I heard Ray’s excellent student Xiong Lin play Ligeti, Bach and Dvorak before departing for the monstrous Hong Kong airport and the flight to Seoul.
Saturday-Sunday: Extraordinary Seoul
We have also not been in Korea as a quartet since 2004. Larry has been coming for family reasons and to perform in Hyo Kang’s summer festival, and I as well to teach and play for the LG/CMS Chamber Music School. Yet, for the quartet to arrive here and take on the daunting, sprawling, teeming city of Seoul evoked only distant memories of our two previous visits.
As is the custom in Asia, the hospitality of the presenters goes unmatched. We are usually met at the airport at the gate, by special envoys that receive security clearance, and escorted through immigration and customs. If I did not insist on carrying my own bags, and cello, I would never have to touch them. Luxurious buses, large enough for a small chamber orchestra, take us from airports to hotels to concert halls. And then, there are those who have become special friends for various reasons over the years.
My first encounter in Seoul was with my good friend of many years Masami Shigeta, the Japanese businessman and entrepreneur who created the Aspen/Japan tours in the 1990’s which brought musicians from the Aspen Music Festival and School to perform and teach all over the country. More recently, Masami acquired a prestigious management agency in Japan, turning it into a cutting-edge organization called Aspen, and he is now managing our coming tour of the country. Masami made the journey to Seoul specially to see us amidst many other professional obligations, including an appearance as keynote speaker, as Chairperson of the Japan Association of Classical Music Presenters, at an international classical music conference this week in Singapore.
A Korean friend who is playing an important role in my Far East musical life is Jeehyun Kim, whose ingenuity, tenacity and irresistible charisma led to the creation and successful execution (twice) of the LG/CMS Chamber Music Festival. Sponsored by the LG Corporation and organized locally by Jeehyun, the program recruits deserving young talent from across the country to study and perform under the direction of CMS faculty in a week-long workshop (see the two previous blog reports: August 12-18: CMS in Korea, and April 6-11: CMS Returns to Korea).
Our concert day included afternoon master classes at Hanyang University, organized by long-time friend, violinist Joe Kim, who, along with Gene and Phil, was a student of Oscar Shumsky at the Juilliard School.
Joe seems ably cared for by his assistants.
While Phil and Larry worked with quartets, I spent two-and-a-half hours in a hot room (the AC is turned off on Sundays!) with three cellists, and heard the Schumann Concerto, Valentini Sonata and Brahms F major, all well-played.
We remembered the audiences in Korea as full and demonstrative, but what we experienced last night was on another level. Not only had every seat in the large LG Concert Hall been sold for quite some time, but the reaction from our listeners – including a huge percentage of young people – honestly made us feel like rock stars. By the time we had reached the lobby for CD signing, the line waiting to greet us stretched far into the distance and disappeared up the stairs to the balcony. It was, without a doubt, the largest post-concert crowd in the quartet’s history.
Like our listeners in Hong Kong, many had brought their collections of Emerson CD’s from home for us to sign. The recordings available in the lobby sold out quickly, and people brought us programs, photos, ticket stubs, and posters to sign. In addition, our fans were obsessed with taking our photos while we gave autographs, using everything from cell phones to monstrous video cameras. It was quite something.
A fresh and pleasing element of this tour so far is the widely and creatively used photos of us by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco. A resident of Montauk, NY, she prefers to photograph in the spectacular landscapes near her home, and her photos of us on the beach are appearing everywhere, including the cover of our latest multi-CD release of Dvorak. The photos, which have a fresh look unlike anything we’ve ever had, give us a certain sensation of a makeover and something of a fresh start. Lisa-Marie became known to me initially through the CMS clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester, whose innovative web site (www.josefranchballester.com, including her photos) helped inspire the new site for me and Wu Han.
Ju-Young Baek, Masami Shigeta, Jeehyun Kim
After the warm reception in the LG Concert Hall lobby we were transported to a nearby restaurant, where we were treated to Korean barbecue and an international selection of fine wines. The quartet, along with Jeehyun Kim, Masami Shigeta and violinist Ju-Young Baek, was graciously hosted by LG vice presidents, and classical music enthusiasts, Paul Chung and Sunghyun Kim.
with Paul Chung and Larry Dutton
It has been eleven years since the Emerson Quartet played in Japan, and not by our own choice. We have been told that the Japanese economy became weak enough that it could not support our tours. We had previously made several enjoyable tours, visiting many cities great and small with much success.
From another perspective, I heard that since the economic turn down a decade ago, that presenters in Japan simply turned to presenting pop concerts and other forms of entertainment that produced significant revenue. In the opinion of our current tour manager, Masami Shigeta, the real crisis here is a dearth of committed and serious presenters who have the artistic vision necessary to promote classical music successfully. Apparently, in Japan (which is the size of California) there are around three thousand halls, twelve-hundred of them built exclusively for classical music. As Masami puts it, very clearly, the country possesses the hardware but not the software.
We are hoping that our visit, with its accompanying publicity (including an NHK television broadcast of our second Tokyo concert) will jump start our lapsed relationship with this fantastic country, enabling the many dedicated chamber music lovers, and Emerson Quartet fans, to hear us live on a regular basis.
During our first concert in the Oji Hall, which is in the fashionable Ginza district, we quickly became aware again that we were in a different society and situation than either Korea or Hong Kong. The hall is intimate, only about 3-400 seats. This audience was decidedly older. And, what at first came as a shock was the reserved quality of the response, especially as compared to Korea. But artists have to remember that different societies (and even different audiences within the same society) react in different ways and degrees in response to music. This audience, I would say, liked the concerts no less than our listeners in Korea and Hong Kong; they simply show their appreciation in other ways. There was quiet but very persistent applause at the end, requiring an encore (we could have easily squeezed out two but didn’t want to over stay our welcome) and the line of autograph seekers was long and patient, greeting us with the utmost respect and gratitude for our visit. It’s all just done with great reserve and politeness. It’s just very Japanese.
[I’m not sure that the Japanese really like to applaud at all, perhaps finding it rude. When we came off stage, the six or seven backstage attendants greeted us with applause that literally made no sound. Somehow, they found a way to clap silently, perhaps to be polite. But wait, isn’t the point of it….?]
As I mentioned, our second concert was recorded for television by the NHK. Previously the NHK had filmed a Mozart concert for us which sits in some archive somewhere awaiting its day on YouTube. The NHK people – there were many of them – came with mountains of equipment including five cameras, with operators who dutifully sat behind them for our entire rehearsal. Interestingly, since we are paid for this broadcast (something which rarely happens in the US) we were not afforded the customary right of refusal. As an insurance policy, however, they agreed to tape the rehearsal for patch material. We spent a good tortuous two hours (after having done two hours of interviews already) trying to figure out what might not go well, and do it perfectly for the recording. Because of the microphone placement, this meant the guys had to stand up the whole rehearsal, something we never do. On top of it the hall was stuffy and hot. It was not fun and left us all wondering whether it had been a good idea to do this. We then had to wait a whole hour for the concert to begin.
There is a famous story about Heifetz wishing someone a bad rehearsal. When asked to explain, he simply said that usually if you have a bad rehearsal you will have a good concert. And I guess that’s what happened to us on this night. It happens frequently for our quartet: often the rehearsal is the absolute low point of the day, in every way. But perhaps, something that has kept us successful and together so long is that under difficult circumstances, the Emerson Quartet has usually managed to pull off the unexpected and out-do even its own expectations. The concert for the NHK was one of the best I can recall playing. Everyone played their absolute best (even me) and I was immensely proud of the group that night. I am looking forward to getting a copy of the recording, hopefully it will sound as good as I remember, and we will be able to share it with our friends, somehow.
After the concert we were treated to a great Japanese meal by our long-time friend Koichiro Harada, the original first violinist of the Tokyo Quartet, now a professor at the Toho School, and still an active soloist and conductor.
On our first day off we all went our own ways. It was the right thing to do.
I was lucky enough to hear a fine young quartet called the Verus Quartet, brought to me by Koichiro, and a very talented 14-year-old cellist, Michiako Ueno. With the quartet I went through the Debussy Quartet in detail, even they were already highly accomplished.
The cellist played a very impressive Bach 6th Suite prelude and part of Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso. As those who watch my Cello Talks will know, the best help I could give this terrific young player was to straighten out his sitting position. He currently studies with one of the best cellists I have ever heard, Hakuro Mori, a friend I have not seen in decades.
On our second free day we met to revive the fantastic Berg Op. 3 quartet which we will play on tour in Europe at the end of August. We have not played this piece for decades and it was wonderful to get back into the language of early 20th expressionism. A quick tally of our coming repertoire immediately after vacation prompted a concerned discussion of rehearsal scheduling, as not only the Berg is on the way back, but the daunting Schubert G major, the final Haydn quartet Op. 103, and the Webern Langsamer Satz, all for Oslo on August 26th. There’s nothing quite like a quartet rehearsal in a hotel room, with music propped against violin cases and the TV, and people sitting on beds and arm chairs and pillows, in the strangest configuration. But it’s actually good for us. At least we can order room service.
After the rehearsal I made a traditional trip to Akihabara area, the electronics Mecca of Tokyo. It was even more intense than I remembered. There are big streets with big stores, small streets with small stores, and malls with booths. You can probably buy any piece of electronic equipment you want here, if you have the patience to look for it.
This is one way they get you into the stores. The other way is by having employees yelling at you through PA systems as you pass their storefronts.
My most exciting purchase in Akihabara was my new pair of video sunglasses. Turn it on, put in on your face, and you are taking movies without anyone suspecting it. While the color is good, there’s not enough processing power for the camera to keep up with fast motion. But that feature does provide a kind of appealing chaos, which you can sample on this video which shows what’s possible to see in Akihabara in 1 minute.
Saturday: Travel to Fukushima
Our final concert of the tour took place in the city of Fukushima, a two-hour train ride to the north of Tokyo. We got to ride the Shinkansen train, the world’s first and most famous high speed train. Shinkansen means “new main line”.
Riding the Shinkansen in Japan is always a thrill, with the trains reaching 186 mph. Here’s what you see out the window:
The concert hall, Fukushimashi Ongakudo, is in a non-descript neighborhood outside center of the city. But the hall’s interior immediately impressed us as a major venue. The many photos backstage of world-famous performers confirmed that Fukushima, where we had not yet played, was an important stop on our tour.
The interior of the hall is covered in blue ceramic tile. While it is attractive, it does present an acoustic challenge: the reverberation, while not overly-long, is extremely strong, such that we were convinced that we were being electrically enhanced (some very dead halls have these systems). But we were assured otherwise.
The best news to report about Fukushima is the audience. Our listeners in this thousand-and-two seat venue (I like the “two” part) numbered approximately seven hundred (perhaps 702) and included listeners of all ages, some of them very young. They were extremely enthusiastic, demanded two encores, and it was a pleasure to greet them afterwards in the lobby.
Arriving back at the hotel, there was time for a combination happy hour/instrument adjustment party in my room, after which we were driven to Roppongi for a reunion with our booking agent Masami Shigeta, whom we had not seen since Seoul, and violinist Koichiro Harada.
Masami, ever the gracious host, took us to his favorite yakitori (“grilled chicken”) restaurant, which, owing to his recommendation, is a regular favorite of President Jimmy Carter. The food was exquisite, and we enjoyed a stimulating discussion of classical music in Asia, and began formulating plans for resuming regular visits to Japan. Nothing could make us happier.
At Narita on Sunday morning we bid goodbye to our escort, Shuko Hasegawa of Aspen, Inc., who expertly and graciously shepherded us on our every move during the Japan tour. She deserves both a medal and a vacation.