Jakub Hrůša's reflections #7

Wishing you a beautiful autumn, here I am again with my commentaries on concert tours, above all with respect to Martinů’s music. I must confess that originally I wanted to write something in July and August but, as you may have noticed, I did not. My mind was focused on life’s other nooks. Hence, with all the greater delight do I address you after a two-month break.           

            With your kind permission, today I will share my thoughts with you in the form of daily notes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I once again have found the greatest inner peace and professional distance, which make it possible for me to formulate a few observations from the everyday musical struggle, in my beloved Japan...   


A few years ago, I suggested to “my” Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra that they undertake the “unknown” composer Bohuslav Martinů at one of our concerts. I told them that my favourite Symphony No. 3 was by and large not frequently performed. At my request, in 2010 the Japanese partners included it in our regular subscription concert at the Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo, even in its second, more important half (alongside Liszt and Chopin works). Up until the evening of the performance, I had certain doubts as to whether it was not too venturous. During the rehearsals, the musicians acquainted themselves with an unknown musical language, struggled with it and, now and then, shook their heads above the sheer intricacy of the omnipresent syncopation. Yet owing to their far-famed preciseness, they mastered the piece to the full. The soft ending of the work notwithstanding, the audience gave rapturous applause.

            I struck while the iron was hot, so we immediately got down to drawing up one of my next programmes, one ingeniously combining Martinů’s Fantaisies symphoniques and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The audacious idea was enthusiastically accepted, even though we took the risk that with respect to the absence of a soloist (and despite the Japanese’s growing awareness of my name) the concert tickets would not sell well.         

            When, months later, the orchestra and I got down to exploring the opus, I was surprised by how much more flexibly they responded right at the very first rehearsal (and later on, by the open response on the part of the audience at the concert). Unlike the Third, the Sixth (as the Fantaisies symphoniques is often referred to) did not sound as though the orchestra had never played it before. I was beside myself with joy to see that the Japanese were able to read faithfully the composer’s notation as regards all its phrasing, dynamic nuances and tempo audacity. Already in the middle of the rehearsal process, I had the feeling that we could easily and proudly present the result to the audience.            

            And again I struck while the iron was hot. One of the orchestra’s subscription series is “Portraits of Composers”, whereby music by a selected composer is performed within a single evening. When I suggested Martinů, my proposal was unanimously accepted. So I voiced my wish to present other than symphonic works by my beloved creator (another choice, this time of the orchestra themselves, or their management, was the relatively popular and ardent Fourth), mentioning the cantatas, particularly the Bouquet of Flowers (which I love and have performed on several occasions) and Gilgamesh (which I love and, regrettably, have never performed, owing in part to my respect for the amazing deliveries by other conductors, above all, Jiří Bělohlávek). A few days later, I received the answer: the orchestra had opted for the Bouquet and agreed that I bring over “our singers”. The institution, on the other hand, vouched for the utmost quality of the Japanese (mixed and children’s) choirs. This time, professionals were chosen. I was glad, although after my experience with the Glagolitic Mass (2010) and Dvořák’s Stabat Mater (2011) I know that enthusiastic amateurs in Japan too can do an excellent job (albeit to lesser acclaim).          

            In the meantime, the iron did not cool down. Following a short hesitation on the part of the new management and upon pressure on the part of the orchestra, my contract was prolonged and Martinů (alongside Suk) became a “project”. Until the end of my tenure as permanent guest conductor (to all appearances, in 2018), I will be able to perform many a thing from Suk’s pivotal symphonic oeuvre and, perhaps, all six Martinů symphonies as well. In combination with gradually taking on all (four) Brahms symphonies, I would be hard pressed to imagine a more beautiful workload during my visits to this professionally blessed country...         

Overture (the librarian)

While, a year prior to plunging into work on the Bouquet and Symphony No. 4, I was grappling in Tokyo with Suk’s Asrael, I was approached by the local archivist (a truly exemplary worker), who raised the “routine” question of the materials used and exact data pertaining to the score. The Fourth was no problem, whereas the situation with the Bouquet was somewhat more complicated. I was flabbergasted by the professionalism manifested by this department (as has been the case of all the other departments). With the distance of time, I still find our tackling of the details fascinating indeed. Six months later, when I was preparing Le Sacre du printemps and Suk’s A Summer’s Tale, the archivist (a beautiful woman, by the way) handed me a several-page list of errors she had detected in the score and parts of the Bouquet and asked me to comment on them – whether we would correct them or not. I was truly taken aback by the fact that none of those who had previously performed the Bouquet from these hire materials had found such a quantity of errors. Admittedly, some of them are disputable (conductors and non-performing experts differ in their opinions of many questions of Martinů’s harmony), while others are not. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that when half a year later I would arrive in Tokyo so as to rehearse the work we would have no troubles. That is, besides the purely artistic, musical ones...  

Day One, or Japan’s Czech studies

The rehearsals with a mixed and, subsequently, children’s choir (New National Theatre Choir & The Little Singers of Tokyo) were scheduled for the evening. Prior to the first, two-hour, one, I met the choir master (as would later come to light, he is one year older than me). He informed me that there would be 49 singers. I got a little bit frightened, since previously only large choirs had performed with us in Japan, and yet there was never really enough sound. I entered the rehearsal room and saw the winsome faces of the members of the relatively young-looking ensemble. Some of them were indistinctive, yet some of them were “more expressive” individuals. The overwhelming majority of the singers were nicely dressed, some of the ladies had beautiful haircuts, and most of them had on high-heeled shoes, hence having an upright posture. During the first few minutes of the rehearsal I found out that the choir speak very good English (as compared with the Japanese in general), which I also ascribe to their frequent performances in opera and their young average age. We started to rehearse the Sister Poisoner, the first vocal part of the Bouquet. The choir sang with flawless rhythm and intonation, and when I listened to the Czech, which until then was my greatest question mark, I found that I understood every single word – I even experimentally closed my eyes, and the clarity was hard to believe. Until that time, I had only performed with Japanese choirs music to German, Old Slavonic and Latin texts. Only a while did it take us to improve some of the vowels (all of them sounded “more closed”) and even fewer consonants (too much focus on their clusters and occasional aspirations), including corrections. I explained and “sang” (in this case, the inverted commas are entirely fitting!) the phrasing of some of the a cappella passages (Beloved Dearer than Family) and encouraged the choir to be more expressive and cantabile (I did not have to attend to the rhythm, they perfectly chimed). I saw (and heard) that they knew the text’s sense and story to the full. I only told them to deliver some of the words with a greater emotional charge, but again I felt slightly embarrassed to have to urge the choir to be more “sluggish” and “offhand”. Well, this we were not taught at school...                   

We finished the rehearsal at least half an hour ahead of schedule, and since the evening was nigh, I asked whether the children could start sooner. The answer was: Yes, they are ready. Seeing the choir master assuaged my doubts as to whether we would have to work in a “childish” manner. As it soon became clear, she treats the kids, aged between approximately five and thirteen (most of them girls), kindly, but deals with them as though they were adults. Nothing like “dumbing down” the musical tasks and requirements into the infantile register – the choir master communicated with the children using “normal” musical terms (now and then, I myself unduly underestimated the “other party” – yet it was not necessary to explain that they should sing as “if caressing the melody”, it was enough to say “cantabile”; it was not necessary to repeatedly sing to them that in the phrase “jabko okusili” the second “o” should be pronounced too, it was enough for the choir master to say: “No elision!” and that was it). When I entered the rehearsal room for the second time that evening, the lined-up children got up upon command and greeted me. Yes, sure, like in the classroom, but I did not see any sign of reluctance on any of their faces. My more “corrupted I” almost wished that at least these kids would prove that Czech is a language “impossible to sing” (how many times have I heard this being claimed by world-renowned opera stars!). This time, however, I had nothing more to correct – I only pointed out the “elision” (and that even feeling slightly guilty, as I know how many Czech “pros” do not take its being impossible to implement at all). I was intrigued by yet another detail. When the seasoned choir master spoke to her children, she required an answer to each of her remarks – and since she spoke to a choir it had to be in chorus (of course!). Japanese choirs (and orchestras too) also customarily reply to the conductor’s greeting – after all, it is only decent. I have not experienced tapping on music stands as an expression of satisfaction (even though I know we love each other), but every morning there is a bidirectional greeting (in Japanese).         

            The rehearsal with the children’s choir (planned to last an hour) was over in twenty (possibly even fewer) minutes. Though their performance in the Martinů piece is short (only the Carol), I remember very well how in the case of some of the previous preparations dozens of minutes were not enough...   

Day Two, or An orchestra on waves of (not only)

Martinů The next afternoon, I was scheduled to rehearse with the orchestra. We started with the symphony. For a while, the unceasing syncopation caused a minor problem – in the Fourth it is a really tough nut to crack, particularly in the first movement and the trio of the second. At the relatively resonating hall on the periphery of Tokyo (how grateful we would be for such a space anywhere in the Czech Republic!), where the rehearsal was taking place since the Bunka Kaikan was undergoing repairs, I kept referring to the quality of the lower level of dynamics, especially owing to the fact that when they carry it out gladly upon request, it is not as fabulously expressive as the power from mf up. A short while later (virtually every time right after having it played twice), the syncopes settled down and the rhythms radiated with purity. Now the more difficult task ensued – to breathe life into them. But that went smoothly too. Explanation was not very helpful but singing (or rather mumbling) was. Perhaps the most frequently used word at rehearsals here is “line”, or “cantabile”, and only scarcely have I had to say anything pertaining to interplay. – As for the scherzo, a small celebration of motorics, they could have played from the sheet at a concert without rehearsing. The orchestra have never vacillated when it comes to “holding something firmly set previously”. I also understood the inner voices and “ancillary” rhythms, again inwardly bowing before the orchestra. When the trio – one cantabile syncope after another – ensued, I realised that which Martinů meant as a rest and intermezzo paradoxically represented the greatest challenge for the Tokyo orchestra. After dozens of minutes of wrestling with it, however, I could already hear how they were able to “caress” the rhythmic hirsuteness (the strings with their right hands). – As regards the slow movement (Largo), I appreciated their ability to concentrate and be comprehensible even where the current is “stagnant” and flows leisurely. – And as for the finale, I praised the balance (true, at about the third attempt) and the breathtaking virtuosity (at the first attempt).         

            And then we plunged into reading the Bouquet – that day without the singing. I tried to explain what those wonderful folk songs are about and, frankly speaking, I failed in this respect, since the suggestive and simple folk wisdoms only sound good when told in a prosaic manner and everyday language. And it is not easy to capture their spirit when not told in their mother tongue – neither for a Japanese nor for a Czech. I tried twice – and I myself was surprised by how drastically the Bouquet stories came across. But then my colleagues totally disarmed me: after a break, I looked around and saw that a large proportion of the orchestra members were holding in their hands copies of literal Japanese translations of the Czech texts. Later on, when choirs will sing and some of the players will have “tacet”, I will notice them following every single word of the stories.           

            Now for a short digression pertaining to this phenomenon, a small complaint actually. In the West (and in the Czech Republic in particular), it is common at rehearsals that the orchestra players, when they have nothing to do but count pauses, hold their mobiles and surf the internet or write emails or text messages. Sometimes I resist my reluctance to make a fuss (thereby creating an oppressive atmosphere) and “pacifying” my colleagues like at school and get to voice my dislike of this habit. But I have no illusions – a mobile put on the music stand on the side not facing the conductor is, of course, not seen. (By the way, in the past, before the advent of mobiles, this role was played by magazines and newspapers.) I have often sadly brooded over and arrived at the conclusion that it certainly is no fun for any orchestra member to wait and “do nothing” repeatedly. In fact, I even sympathise with those players who have to endure the extensive pauses (and several times a day at that!), even though in terms of the work engagement as such it is actually an absurdity. Especially when such a “sinner” subsequently takes hold of his/her instrument and plays it splendidly, wonderfully. Yet the situation is different when such browsing results in the respective person being entirely carried away and when asked for collaboration it takes dozens of seconds before realising it and responding, to say nothing of the mood into which the musician should get, which is actually of the greatest importance (precious few are capable of doing it with a mobile in their hand, or on their stand). Yet I have never experienced such a situation with any of the Japanese orchestras I have had the honour to work with (even if it has occurred, without my knowing, it has never had a negative impact on our work together).

            At the rehearsal, I looked at the trombonist, who only had to play a few notes in the entire slow movement, and I saw him carefully listening and nodding when something began turning out well; and when I turned to the trumpet player sitting next to him, the trombonist perceived that which I required – and thus, when the trombonist came across a spot with a similar musical problem it was tackled, since the trombonist had automatically absorbed that which his colleague and I had agreed on a while previously. During the break, such a player (the trombonist was just an example) tells me how beautiful the music we are playing is. Do not get me wrong: There are, of course, such fantastic musicians in the West and the Czech Republic too – plenty of them! But...          

            (To be fair: In Japan, on the other hand, it occasionally happens that an exhausted musician falls asleep during a rehearsal, that is, during those pauses - and the conductor has to wake him/her up. As is generally known, the Japanese are exposed to much greater everyday stress at work and elsewhere.)         

            In the evening, at the piano rehearsal I welcomed “our” singers, whom I had chosen and looked forward to seeing: Yukiko Šrejmová Kinjo, Markéta Cukrová, Peter Berger and Adam Plachetka. Almost all of them had previously sung the Bouquet, and our work went smoothly. I was enthused by how the delicate, folk passages sounded, by the purity and modesty of their delivery of the part titled Kravarky (girls’ whooping across hills), and I felt certain that this cast for the Bouquet would be met by Japanese music-lovers (including the in-house ones) with a positive, perhaps even extraordinary, response.   

Day Three, or An Orchestra full of conductors

In the morning, we worked on the symphony, in the afternoon, on the Bouquet. The rehearsals in Tokyo take place in “doubles” (double frequencies), which is an amazingly efficient and pleasant system. The first rehearsal starts at 10.30 am (!), lasts an hour (i.e. a maximum of an hour), then there is a 15-minute break. At 11.45 we continue for another 45 minutes, afterwards have a lunch break (60 minutes). In the afternoon (starting at 1.30 pm), the same schedule is adhered to. The end is at 3.30 pm. – How many other orchestras would like to have such a brief and clear flowchart! How many would then arrive so perfectly prepared that the rehearsal would only entail “trimming of the interplay” and seeking the right character of expression?          

            Although “my” Japanese orchestra tell me that they prepare so exemplarily “because I conduct them”, I know they are only being polite. And when it comes to questions and remarks regarding this or that, the local musicians deem it embarrassing to annoy their colleagues. Everything, if possible, is resolved individually, and instead of asking they usually look in the score. As I have ascertained over the years, the orchestra follows the routine (no matter who has introduced it) of distributing copies (or even originals) of the conductor’s score among the players, so if any one of them has any major doubts, he/she simply takes a glance at the sheet music. Bows or breathing within individual instrument groups do not represent a problem and do not cause resistance.            

            During the first of the three afternoon rehearsals (if I count the dress rehearsal on the day of the concert at the Suntory Hall) we worked on the Bouquet with the entire orchestra and choirs. (In this connection, I would like to point out that I have never known any of the musicians of the Tokyo Metropolitan to be absent!!) We also trimmed things like placement of instruments (primarily the two vital pianos) on the stage. Everything went smoothly, the choirs (the children in particular) earned (deserved) applause of the orchestra. I asked the musicians to be more sensitive towards the kids with the following sentence: “Let’s play the accompaniment in the Carol sensitively, like chamber music, please.” That sufficed, and everything sounded far more beautiful. At the end of the rehearsal with the children, I voiced my obligatory request for a smile. (If you will, this is perhaps the single “defect” on the part of the Japanese collectives. It is not easy to concentrate and have a “joyful body language”. But in this respect, the children are better that the adults!)   

Day Four, or Smoothing the edges

The day actually ran in the very same manner as the previous one (including the meal during the lunch break; but in the evening we and the Czech-Slovak-Japanese cast did not visit a sushi restaurant but – to their unvoiced disappointment – an Italian). As expected, everything went like clockwork. (In the evening, the singers and I consistently expressed our astonishment at the fact that the rehearsals in Japan can always finish earlier than anywhere else.) We focused on the authenticity of expression – I wished to hear my compatriots say, in addition to remarking that the Japanese had a clear pronunciation and did very well, that they had also managed to express the spirit of the piece. We refined the rhythmic edges of the tenors and basses, and made the sopranos and altos sound softer and express more inwardness. It seemed to me that they really succeeded in this respect – and hoped that it was not just wishful thinking. Only a recording could (as always) “tell the gospel truth”.  


Day Five – the concert, or the Finale

The breaking of bread set in and the actual concert was ahead of us. At the afternoon final rehearsal, we began with the second number, the Bouquet, but virtually played everything. And it proved to be necessary, since at the Suntory Hall the music sounded different compared to how it had in the hall where we had rehearsed previously. Some things were more complicated (when we repeatedly had to deal with the distance between the two pianos, placed behind the first and second violins, respectively, and I again thought of the fortuity of Martinů’s decision to give up the idea of employing three pianos in the Fantaisies symphoniques!), others only began succeeding (the children’s smiles, for instance, and I asked the adults to try to do the same). The dress rehearsal was exactly as it was supposed to be – we worked, with the utmost concentration, we got along, but not as well as we had wished.         

            Following an approximately sixty-minute pause between the final rehearsal and the performance itself, everyone seemed to be fit and ready. Even though we were to open the concert with a piece more demanding for the orchestra, the symphony (with the aim of affording the second half a greater dramaturgic pugnacity, and also owing to the fact that part of the audience had come especially to see those performing in the cantata), I was positively affected by realising that although conducting Martinů always requires great engagement and release, one acquires a peculiar inner peace, since Martinů’s music is of the kind that does not bear being emotionally assaulted...                As 7 PM loomed, I could feel that the orchestra were more focused and responsible than at other times, when they play something they are familiar with. That day, they were to deliver two premieres. I made an emotional analogy with other premieres and thought how beautiful it is to present to both the orchestra and the audience something of the utmost quality which the other party did not know before. The concert went smoothly, the piece “settled”. In the slow movement, I felt a strong desire for a longer arrest, greater heartfeltness; yet I was rewarded in the final movement, which the orchestra played superbly. If I had the mental scope for it, I would have felt strongly curious about how the work would be received, since until then I had only conducted Martinů music in Tokyo at other halls. But the Fourth met my expectations, with its finale being totally engrossing. The audience’s response was fabulous. Even though after the third or fourth call it seemed that the ovation was over, a group of Martinů fans (and fans of our performance) decided that I had to come back again – all of a sudden, the dying away applause reoccurred with full strength.          

            If the walk through the symphony was satisfactory and proficient beyond expectation, in the case of the Bouquet I again felt what it is like when everyone puts everything into something. The four soloists succeeded in everything we had worked on and improved, the children’s choir was kissable, the mixed choir delivered perfectly softened pp and phrased naturally in accordance with the language. The orchestra’s interplay at the packed Suntory Hall even improved, and we heard each other better. Both sides of the stage were equipped with (vertical) surtitle devices, as was the auditorium – so that the people on the gallery could see too. As a result, the orchestra could see as well, and whenever they had a pause they could follow the text, which was great during the a cappella sections.          

            The Bouquet was an even greater success than the symphony. We bowed repeatedly, hearing plenty of bravos. I was grateful to “my Lord” (as was sung previously during the concert), thanking Him for having afforded us the feeling of happiness about such meaningful work...


Tokyo, 9 September 2014

Watch Jakub Hrůša explain more about the Symphony No. 4 and The Bouquet of Flowers.

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