2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

A look back: reports from the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony’s tour of Japan

Published: June 26, 2014, 2:27 am, by David Sckolnik

 

I had the oportunity this past June 4-18 to be part of an extraordinary experience. In my capacity as a marketing and program consultant for the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony Association, I got to accompany the organization’s top ensemble- the Youth Symphony Orchestra, on its musical and cultural tour of Japan.

One of my responsibilities was to send daily reports back to the family and friends of these young musicians here in the U.S. I think they paint a good portrait of what it was like.

With but a few grammatical edits and some photos inserted to add some “color,” by Linda Van Noordt and yours truly) here is what I posted- usually written between 4:30 and 6 a.m. in the morning; sometimes on deadlines as small at 15 minutes and once as my laptop’s battery was all but used up.

 IMG_2386

Report No. 1

Welcome to the daily update from the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony’s 2014 Japan trip. There will be times because of travel or internet issues that we will not be able to post, but we’ll always try to get something to you.

First and most important, everyone is healthy and finally recovering from the epic 34 hour journey to our first destination: Wajima City. We all have been able to finally get some real sleep. Our musicians are on the first night of their first homestay and we expect some great stories from their first immersion into Japanese family life.

IMG_2405

After arriving in Narita and concluding the air travel portion of our journey, we loaded into three buses- two with the kids and one of just companions- and began our 10 hour ride to Wajima City on the Noto Peninsula surrounded by the water of the Sea of Japan. We arrived at 7 am on Thursday (we did manage to lose most of Wednesday due to the International Line- leaving cellist Beatrice Hall with only a few hours with which to celebrate her June 4 birthday!)

Real sleep would have to wait for the evening, but our first official stop could not have been more perfect. A delicious breakfast buffet awaited followed by our first experience in communal bathing (not to worry- boys on one side, girls on the other)- a wash up seated shower followed by a soak in hot water pools inside and out. The setting was green, lush and blessed with a gorgeous view of the sea. Yes, everyone was still sleep-deprived but wonderfully refreshed.

Now the day began! With an official ceremony and exchange of gifts (these will happen often) we were welcomed by the elected officials of Wajima City at their Cultural Hall at 10:30 am. Time to get to work!

A five minute walk and we were at Wajima High School basketball court/assembly hall and rehearsing for an afternoon “Welcome party and mini-concert” with their students. Youth Symphony settled into a productive rehearsal with Gary Nicholson who was in a particularly patient mood.

From the brief brushes we already had with school’s students, it was obvious to everyone that we were in a for a special experience. The local high schoolers were ecstatic to see us!

Giving up the rehearsal space to the high school’s own band, we recessed into a small gymnasium for a light lunch. Time for the show!

10352760_10152489254930970_1933083608919798669_n

You had to be there! The school’s students performed for us in grand style: exciting music, dance, singing; followed by demonstrations and samples of Japanese culture and food. These kids were incredible! Then it was our turn.

We played the John Williams “American Fanfare” and “Duel of the Fates” from “Star Wars,” and the last movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony. The blindfolded Nicolo Betoni wowed everyone with his solo for the Kabalevsky “Comedians” excerpt Gary and the orchestra delighted and shocked everyone when they repeated the piece all blindfolded. Then a special encore- the Wajima High band joined Youth Symphony’s brass, winds and percussion for a joint performance of the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss. Standing ovations were the order of the afternoon! Gifts had been exchanged, of course, and Gary presented oboist Morrigane Dowler with one of the flower bouquets he and concertmaster Bryant So were given. Bryant presented his to his homestay family.

Next chapter: homestays. Back at the Cultural Center our kids paired off and left for the experiences we’ll hear about later today as we get ready for a full concert and the world premiere of Eric Ewazen’s “Fantasy for Taiko Drums and Orchestra” featuring Wajima City’s own Toransuke Drummers.

Finally, we would be sadly remiss not to make mention of our fabulous travel hosts- Sanahe, Yoshiko and Takahashi of the Starting Place for International Exchange. Their generosity of spirit, knowledge and tireless efforts on our behalf make this all so easy. And the topper- they are volunteering their time during our entire stay here. Japan, in so many ways, has already shown itself to truly be a world of wonders.

10389076_10152524836330970_5137002860340643169_n

 

Report no. 2

Let the host family stays begin!

IMG_2511

Worlds collided in WajimaCity on Friday night when the musicians of Youth Symphony spent the night in Japanese homes.

Moira Conley and Jessica Hild were at the Kagawas – mother, father 13-year-old daughter and three sons ages 11, 14 and 2. Prepared for and expecting a traditional Japanese home, they were surprised by the contemporary styled 2-story brick home they visited and the bunk beds they slept in.

“I came to try new things,” said Jessica. She did get to eat little squids brought home by the father who is a fisherman. “It tasted like chicken.”

“They were fascinated that my dad is in the air force,” said Moira who was able to communicate well with the family thanks to a translator app.

Emily Huntsman couldn’t get over her host family’s rice paper walls. But even more fascinating to her was that four generations of her adopted family were living under the same roof. “There was the great grandpa all the way down to a two-year-old baby.”

Erin Maloy claimed she went homestaying without expectations. She was surprised by how wild the four children were. “They were just so full of energy.” She communicated thanks to the simple one word vocabulary list all the Youth Symphony musicians had memorized and through hand gestures.

6 foot 2 inch Paul Hammes has some explaining to do to the top of his head which took a bit of a beating on the low set Japanese doorways of his host family’s house. “The layout was so different than what I am used to,” he said. “No dry wall, just rice paper walls.” His explanation of why he hit his head four times: “I forgot to duck!”

Finally with some real sleep on board, the orchestra was headed toward a major concert at the WajimaCityCulturalCenter. This was an event in the region billed as the “International Youth Music Festival in Okunoto.” The Youth Symphony performed in the first half and Wajima Cty’s own Toranosuke Taiko Drummers played in the second half.

The 1200-seat concert hall was packed- mostly with local students of the middle school age. But there were plenty of adults in the audience as well.

By the time the orchestra got to play the complete Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, the hall was very warm (air conditioning is a hit and miss thing in Japan it seems) and the kids started nodding off through the more gentle moments of the work.

Not to worry! When maestro Gary Nicholson gave the downbeat for the raucous final movement all were awakened and the kids were overwhelmed by the excitement of the moment – one which they’ll likely never forget. It was a stunning performance!

No such problem existed in the Taiko. The young Japanese, as well as our own kids and adult companions were fascinated by the sounds and visual spectacle this ensemble produced. On stage were performers from 5 to 50 and they all brought an unrelenting intensity to their performance. And, yes: all visitors from Colorado will never forget this percussion spectacular.

10390437_10152491918275970_709619667510699667_n

Then- the world premiere. After a short pause, the Youth Symphony was back on stage with Taiko drums and six drummers in front of them. Maestro Nicholson was adorned in his Taiko robe presented to him earlier by Toranosuke.

Instead of a clash of cultures, all performers melded into a single musical experience and Eric Ewazen’s sweeping “Fantasia for Orchestra and Taiko” was launched into the world. Everyone in the hall knew they were privy to a little bit of history making.

For an encore, orchestra and drummers played the work that had gotten this collaboration started four years ago in Colorado when Toranosuke visited Colorado Springs – “The Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars. The concert ended in a joyous frenzy.

The Youth Symphony members were totally “pumped up” and perfectly baked by the hot lights on stage after the concert but calmed down and cooled off just a bit before it was off to their second night with their host families.

Now after a final morning together, it’s back on the bus and across the Noto Peninsula for some sightseeing and the next destination to conquer with our music: SuzuCity.

Report No. 3

The final count is in. On Saturday we received four flourishes of group hand waving. Three times it was for farewells. Once it was for a hello. We are now in Suzu City.

The overall impact on all- our timeline is next to impossible to track. Friday’s concert in Wajima City seems like it was at least two weeks ago; the miraculous host families from that city have been logged into memory- they have been superseded by an all new experience.

The farewell ceremony in front of the Wajima City Cultural Center was powerful and touching. More than just the beginning of new relationships, it felt like part of us was left forever in this beautiful city. Not one of our musicians seemed eager to leave their new families. Like it or not, we were whisked away on busses toward an entirely new experience.

We had one very fascinating stop along the way to Suzu City. Senmaida is a UN Heritage site and affords an opportunity to see the method in which rice has been grown in Japan for thousands of years… and it is set on a descending hill interrupted only by the Sea of Japan.

Cameras were going crazy, but it was particularly interesting to watch budding photographic talents like Victoria Martinez-Vivot and Austen Jankowski reveling in the photo ops. They almost had to be dragged onto the bus.

IMG_2563

40 minutes later: Suzu City. A sea of blue-clad children were waving furiously at us parked a half a block away. To thunderous applause and with our “children”without their instruments, we were all together. Yes… another ceremony- here in the city’s beautiful art center with swirling architecture. Your kids were once again temporarily adopted-some in groups of two; some in groups of four.

There was great joy and good humor. Everyone was mightily honored and each Youth Symphony musician was treated like a visiting dignitary. Cade Cannon and Mark Ivlev were received with a look of awe by their new family who were pleasantly shocked with how tall they are. And they’re not even the tallest of our players!

Next up: Sunday’s “Children’s Music Festival Concert.” A special treat will happen here. It was decided over a dinner between the leaders of the Toranosuke Taiko Drummers and Gary on Friday night that the drummers would come to Suzu and perform again on the concert. Now if we can only convince them to come back with us to Colorado Springs!

Report No. 4

The Suzu Spectacular

There was no way to concieve of just how large and exciting the second concert of the International Youth Music Festival in Okunoto would be on Sunday.

By now concert #1 is history. Youth Symphony and the Toranosuke Taiko Drummers tore up the grand hall of the Wajima Cultural Center only two days ago. But what would be the outcome if our kids were finally fully-rested and were placed in a truly fine sounding concert hall?

10388198_10152496433470970_3913168680046230540_n

10409161_10152496432575970_2537385183998930130_n

 

We would have to wait a while to find out. This was an event worthy of its lofty title. Four groups performed on the concert’s first half. The Midorigaoka Junior high Brass Band were young and largely inexperienced. No matter. They were disciplined and musical. Lida’s High School Brass Band took it up a notch and played the stage with bright sounds and a miniature march. After a charming series of simple dances mostly in the ancient Japanese tradition, Toranosuke took the stage.

10429266_10152496436450970_840159486529042305_n

It was a powerful and unforgettable experience to see and hear our now good friends literally “tear up” the hall. They rocked the joint! Suza’s La Porte concert hall seated less than half as many as the hall in Wajima. But the Youth Symphony heard what was possible. They had the chance to do a bit of musical magic themselves.

Part two began in awesome fashion thanks to the stage-filling precision and beauty of the Yugakkan High School Brass Band. This group regularly sweeps all the regional competitions and it was easy to hear why. Imagine if our children spent 3 hours every school day working in their musical ensembles. That begins to explain why these Japanese kids are so focused and excellent as what they do. Those of us who witnessed this excellent group couldn’t wait to hear how our hard working kids from Colorado Springs would fare.

One word: wow! The music started with a Brahms Hungarian dance put together at the last minute so nine young string players from the Ishikowa Junior Orchestra could experience a true symphonic orchestral experience. The collaboration proved to be a success.

10247366_10152496452225970_3265229811381589548_n

The small stage now belonged to Youth Symphony and they were not going to give it up. “Liberty Fanfare” heralded a great set of music. Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” came off better here than it had at the farewell concert at the Broadmoor Community Church (was that really just one week ago?)

If the finale from Tchaikovsky’s “4th Symphony” was performed correctly it could produce a frenzy in the hall. That’s just what happened. The Youth Symphony was its best yet on the tour. The applause went on for what seemed an eternity. The Japanese knew that something very special was going on.

“Orange Blossom Special” had them stomping in their chairs as the Bryant So lead first violins grabbed the spotlight. Collin Leonard was the blindfolded victim for the xylophone solo in the “Gallop from the Comedians.” The audience, now in the palm of conductor Gary Nicholson loved it and the hilarious set up the our maestro put forth. And when the entire orchestra repeated the piece also blindfolded, the packed house could not contain their glee.

10380922_10152496459515970_2395211215478530229_n

With Toranosuke in front on the floor on the left, the orchestra and six young Taiko drummers had the chance to perform Ewazen’s “Fantasia” for a second time. This was very good as the drums could play louder and the orchestra was much more on the money then they had been in Wajima. No one can wait for our next go at it in Fujiyoshida in a week, but it’s hard to think that far into the future… that’s how intense this trip has been.

Then, a finale that brought tears to the eyes. With the Lida Brass filling the small choir loft above the stage, the entire company of the concert’s musicians filled the aisles of the concert hall for a grand rendition of “Furusato” (“Hometown”), a beautiful century-old nationally beloved song that was supported superbly by Youth Symphony. We adult Americans sat in awe and silence as the entire hall sang along. These are special people.

How good was this concert? When the music was all over no one wanted to leave! Gary-san had to sheepishly wave goodbye to the audience to let them know it was time to go.

Seen around Suza…

Suza resides on a gorgeous part of the world. Sunday morning afforded some free time for our kids and their host families to see some breathtaking sites.

Rokouzaki sports a lighthouse constructed in 1883 on the northern-most point of the Noto Peninsula. John Fouts and Chad were there romping about with their host family – Yuna, Sheho, Shiho and Yoka. They were surprised that meals in their house were served at a table and chairs in this otherwise very traditional Japanese home.

10438510_10152496407835970_2298339428556542196_n

Benjamin Bontrager and Austin Jankowski were there with brother and sister Makoto and Lika and father Hiroyuki. They couldn’t stop raving about where their new family had their home: 200 rice-paddy-field feet from the sea!

At the original host family ceremony, the introduction of Nicolo Betoni and Sean Jones to their new family brought buckets of laughter. The four children of Kousuke are tiny and terrific and two attached themselves to our boys- one by leg and one by arm lift and embrace. Here they were at Mitsukejima – Battleship Island – a remarkable huge vessel-shaped rock with a bird-filled forest on top. John and Chad showed up again as well.

Monday morning- Canoeing at the Noto Nature Center and a mini-concert at the Lida High School followed by Youth Symphony’s last night with their Suzu host families.

Report No. 5

Once, maybe twice, and for a lucky few even more than that, an experience takes place that changes one’s view of being alive.

The musicians, friends and staff of the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony who are on tour in Japan have surely have had one of these transformational experiences in this past week. Further travels to Tokyo, Kyoto and Fujiyoshida will no doubt be packed with wonders and accomplishments. But our time on the Noto Peninsula will no doubt stand apart.

Monday began with a trip to the Noto Nature Center, a gorgeous facility set on a shallow inlet of the Sea of Japan. Here we learned the techniques to sail large modern canoes- eight of us to a boat. Our trip leader, Gary Nicholson, made it clear what was in background – the opportunity to listen to and execute detailed instructions. What we would find out that perhaps is even more important: how to work as a team to reach a shared goal. In my canoe, this 59 year-old was humbled by the actions of a teeenager.

As the rudder wielder, Ethan Blake was in command of the vessel and, despite our collected confusion, guided us perfectly to a somewhat distance destination. In her more subtle way, Maddie Oetting was no less a significant force for our team. She was in the front position of our paddled canoe and quietly made sure that we stayed on course. This was despite the confusion caused by some loud adults aboard. You may be able to guess to whom I am referring. In this case it was “the children who did lead them.”

After being in the water, all were able to relax and reflect upon our time so far in Japan. Jorrin Powell admitted that she was in the midst of “culture shock. They (her host families) give me stuff before I even ask for it. Everyone is so friendly.” At 6’ 7”, Will Van Noordt is the tallest member of the Youth Symphony on this tour. This is a genuine problem in a nation whose facilities our intended for those of shorter stature. “I hit my head on everything and then got used to it,” he said. “I get stared at a lot. They (the Japanese) are shocked at first but when I begin to duck they giggle.”

Andrew Ferguson has a very different issue to contend. From his Scottish father and Korean mother he has inherited what his recent host family called “a Japanese face!” He has enjoyed Japanese food and the meals at his first two evenings have been incredible. He admits though that he is “dying for American food: Pizza pretzels- oh my god!”

For Rebecca Mijares this is “such a great experience. I am tired but it’s worth it. You get to live where they live. They are so kind.” John Williams is a tall, handsome African American and says that the Japanese are “always staring at me and always want pictures. I think it’s fun. My host families are always thinking about us. It’s very different from American families.”

Relaxed and well fed, the entire entourage made way for Iida High School (note the corrected spelling from report #4). A new audience and new performing space. Your kids are getting better and better at being on the road. This is the world in which they now reside: travel, cultural ambassadors, first time experiences and road band. They brought fine music and profound connection to the large gymnasium packed with uniform-clad high school students. After all of the Taiko we had heard in the past week it was a delight to hear our five-man percussion section strutt their stuff in a section solo. “Duel of the Fates” sounded its best yet.

All were directed to participate in the school’s club activities and were further immersed in the culture of their Japanese counterparts.

10312735_10152496408195970_8012617078524402613_n

The host families awaited for what should have been a bittersweet final night on the Noto Peninsula for we leave by bus for a day long trip to Tokyo on Tuesday. There there will be no concerts- but the time spent promises to be fascinating and fun.

A final note: the adults on this journey were feted in high Japanese formal fashion last night at our hotel. The food and its presentation were remarkable but this was not what was the true impact. With many of the dignitaries and artists who made our trips to Wajima and Suzu possible in attendance, relationships were galvanized as never before. There will be many future events in the relationship between this special region and the people of Colorado Springs… count on it.

Report No. 6

To Tokyo (and beyond!)

After an absence of 4 days, we’re back on the blog. Hard to believe in a megalopolis of 40 million, but internet access was not really a possibility at the Olympic Village.

Our dorm-style accommodations were clean and comfortable- if a bit cramped. Most of our Tokyo meals took place on the campus along with hundreds of young Japanese visitors. By this point, the native cuisine was no challenge to anyone.

Wednesday was all about the Mouse. Cross Tokyo was a rather conspicuous American colony – Tokyo Disneyland. Think of a direct transport of the Anaheim edition and you’ve got the idea… except almost all the cartoon characters and animated 3D figures spoke Japanese (Jack Sparrow did not “climb aboard”). The language suited Mickey just fine- but the Donald Duck of the far east was most effective.

1260875_10152508397010970_1782108441761612355_n

We spent almost 12 hours walking, riding, watching, splashing, screaming, laughing, playing, shopping and perfecting our Japanese language skills.

The park should have been a tough experience for the kids. But this group is battle tested. The relentless rain hardly dampened their spirits during almost 12 straight hours of food, fun and frolick. “Rain made the lines smaller,” said Annie Zhang. “I had my hair in buns and there were no mosquitoes.”

What were we to do? Now in total darkness, the spectacle of Tokyo DisneyLand was still running through the minds of everyone packed on the two buses ( we are used to three) on our return trip to the Olympic Village. Bus #2 had the perfect remedy: the unheralded singing duo “Stephanie and Annie.” Ward and Zhang, respectively, treated us all to unison covers of the “Best of Taylor Swift” circa 2010. Small surprise these soon-to-be high school seniors blended their voices so well. Seems they have been doing almost everything together for years.

On a scale of “1-10” the girls rated Tokyo Disney a “12.” “I really don’t miss my violin and it’s nice to have a break,” said Stephanie. “But I do miss my host families.” Including Tuesday’s travel day from Suzu to Tokyo, the kids will have 5 days without rehearsals or concerts.

Thursday was a day/night doubleheader. Special buses arrived to take us on a tour of Tokyo. This sea of endless skyscrapers and asphalt provides clean and austere vistas. Our first stop, the Imperial Palace, was an oasis of trees and ancient structures. Alas, there are only two days every year that the public is allowed entry onto the grounds and into the structures that date back to the times of the Samurais when this “village” was known as Edo.

10372014_10152508403010970_6209621964024821010_n

A spectacular Shinto shrine anchored our next stop- the small and crowded shopping district known as Asakusa. Incredible! In our midst were other non-Japanese. Make no mistake about it- sightings of foreigners are few in “The Land of the Rising Sun.”

A 40-minute boat ride got us to the Aqua Shopping mall and the group made a beeline for the food court and yes- there among a plethora of Asian fast food offerings was a Burger King. Many could not resist the “call of the Whopper.”

Loaded up on food and trinkets, we were whisked back to the Olympic Village to perform a transformation.

Time in the village’s cafeteria afforded opportunity to check in with some musicians.

Jessica Hild has often sat down for dinner at home with her seven siblings and parents. Traveling and eating with almost 100 fellow musicians and adults has been a natural for her. “I’ve gotten to know a lot more people,” she said. “I came in to the orchestra in mid-year so I didn’t get to go to camp. This has made up for that.”

Rebecca Park says that Japan is much different than she expected. “I imagined only big cities and there’s all this nature. I think about home but I’m really happy here. I’m already thinking about the next trip.”

Percussionist Mark Ivlev is loving the tour but missing being in Colorado. But maybe not for the reason you might think. He is in love… with his jazz saxophone. “I’m missing it as much as my family!”

Karl Buvarp is a seasoned world traveler. His perspective is very valuable. “Tokyo feels like America but it’s even more modern.” The real difference for him: “Americans are all about their independence; here there is real community.”

Alex Marsh really gets the difference between the American and Japanese culture. “It would be nice if we were so trustworthy,” she said. “My host family left their car open and running.” Sounding very much like Karl she added that the experience has made her want to be “less closed off. We all focus on ourselves instead of the community.”

For Thursday evening, we would join the classical music connoisseurs of Tokyo at the city’s finest concert venue Suntory Hall for a performance of the Verdi “Requiem.” Our musicians were ready.

It’s hard to describe this impression. After well over a week of seeing only concert garb, travel clothes and casual wear, your kids looked spectacular dressed up and looking more like young adults than adolescents. Their behavior only enhanced this sense. It seems the future of America is very bright.

Armed with translations of the text (sorry, no one can read Japanese… yet!) we were seated in this breathtakingly beautiful hall. lt sounded better than it looked; the performance exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Morrigane Dowler, an oboist herself, found herself impressed by the performances of the double reeds. “I loved the time the four bassoons had their featured moment. It was so much fun. The oboe sound was dark and rich- the sound I want to have. My teachers at home won’t let me do that.”

Principal cellist Robert Widmann was in awe of how the cellos sounded. “They had a solo to open one of the movements. I couldn’t believe how they sounded. It was like listening to one instrument.”

Percussionist Lucas Bruno was stunned by the sound of the bass drum in the famous “Dies Irae” segment of the “Requiem.” “I’m going to find a way to use that in one of my own compositions,” he said. Lucas hopes to have one his works performed by the Youth Symphony next season.

The entire experience left our orchestra searching for words to describe how this Japanese orchestra performed. “Tight” was oft repeated; “incredible” was said by a few; “crisp” was also an adjective many used.

With a 4:30 wake-up time and 6:30 departure, all were forced to turn the page on this thrilling experience and make ready for our morning bus ride to Fujiyoshida,

With the far away mystery of Mount Fuji beckoning in the northern sky, we left Tokyo. In less than an hour all hints of this steel and concrete monster were gone. Beautiful rolling hills were about as the almost cloudless sky afforded the sun the chance to brew up our hottest day yet.

10458660_10152508416540970_5351720807335697880_n

We stopped at one of the food and merchandise-rich rest stops that are all over Japan. Maestro Nicholson was suitably impressed. “They are just incredible,” he said and agreed that a road trip in Japan simply going from rest stop to rest stop would probably make for a great vacation.

The bus arrived at the Fuji Calm Center where we would get our ducks in a row before making our way over to Mt. Fuji. After we entered the conference center all were stunned by what we saw. There, in the bright sun and pure blue sky, rose Mt. Fuji in all her glory. It was as if we could reach out and touch the summit so clear was the view. Immediately cameras were whipped out and a series of group photos, many of you have already seen on our group Facebook page, were grabbed.

DSC_0747

Again, words fall short of expressing how beautiful this part of the world is. It is no doubt one of the most spectacular spots on the planet.

After a “taste” of the mountain, it was time for a host family experience like no other. Our kids met and left with their new families at 6 pm on Friday; we’ll reconvene at 8:45 on Sunday. Worlds will once again be changed.

Report No. 7

All praise Mt. Fuji

Our first full day in Fujiyoshida proved to be very predictable… that’s right- incredible natural beauty, kind and oh-so-accommodating people and gorgeous food. The Youth Symphony kids continued their uninterrupted stay with their home families; the adults got to tour some of the sites.

At the exact spot we were dropped off in the downtown, a slow processional parade was headed right for us. Men clad in white ceremonial robes led the way and very young Japanese children dressed in stunning colors and textures followed behind with their parents. We had stumbled into a once-every-60-year festival. A new entry arch for the Shinto shrine “Fuji Sengen Jinja” was to be celebrated today.

IMG_2648

Without any prompting, it was obvious that Mt. Fuji has been worshiped as a God, or rather Goddess for time immemorial. After its last eruption in 1707, a style of worship was born that required Pilgrims to summit the dormant volcano as an ultimate gesture to her power. After hooking up with David Ruminski and Kieran Doyle, we toured the ancient “Pilgrim’s Inn- the Togawa Oshi House” where those who would dare to climb would rest upon reaching Fujiyoshida.

David and Kieran still had thoughts about another style of worship – the performance of the Verdi “Requiem” back in Tokyo. Kieran was humbled. “I just switched from euphonium to tuba this past year. I was stunned at how incredible the tuba player was,” he said. “The other kids could appreciate how that orchestra played just one step removed from being able to do the same. I’m so new to my instrument that I’m much further away.” With apologies to Kieran, I respectfully disagree. He is a talented and fine sounding player.

A light flipped on in David’s eyes as he began to recall the performance. “It was totally awesome,” he said. “that’s the place we all want to get to.”

With the boys in tow, we headed off for a special lunch. We knew we were headed for a “roll your own Sushi session.” What we didn’t know was how remarkable the people who would host us, “the Jackson Club,” would be.

Greeting us at yet another ancient structure was the quartet of Katie Hart, Emma Johnson, Elisabeth Buvarp and Abbi Chapman. They were full of enthusiasm. We would soon find out why.

Their host family included a woman known as “the mother of Fujiyoshida.” And yes, her deportment is very warm and maternal. At latest count, she has hosted 200 visitors from other counties in her home. She is also a member of the Jackson Club.

We found Abbi grilling small fish outside the house. Katie couldn’t wait to share what they were up to and Emma and Elisabeth made sure we were properly greeted and seated. The club had brought its “Fire Ceremony” to Jackson, Wyoming some years ago– hence its unusual name for a Japanese club. They traveled to Colorado Springs in 2012 to do the same, but this was right after the Waldo Canyon Fire so plans had to be changed. We made sure they know we want them back at their sister city.

In Fujiyoshida they provide meals for the disabled during the weekdays and open their second home to the hungry and needy on weekends- a perfect description of our entourage. Everyone took turns making Sushi and a fabulous feast ensued.

Once again, the warmth and generosity of the Japanese people amazed us all. But there is something even more special about this city.

As citizens of Colorado Springs we are all family here. We walk down the streets as honored guests. We all are resolved to make sure that when children or adults visit our city we do the same for them.

The entire experience coalesced when we reached the grounds of Shinto shrine. One side of the street was a busy city street filled with automobile exhaust. The other was portal to another time. Ancient towering cedars paved the way to the shrine. The clutter and confusion of the modern world evaporated as we made our way to the opulent temple. A calmness overcame us all.

The Youth Symphony kids get back to work today, Sunday, for an outdoor concert with her, Mt. Fuji, looking on. I doubt we’ll ever have a more important audience.

After our musicians spend the night at a local youth center, we leave very early Monday morning for what all Japanese call a remarkable destination: Kyoto. We’re all excited to experience our first ride on the “bullet train.” After two nights there we are going home!

Report No. 8

One last hurrah in front of Mt. Fuji (and some special goodbyes)

IMG_2703

The Youth Symphony kids had been in rehearsal since 9 am when we arrived at the Kirara Plaza in front of massive Yamanaka Lake. Mt. Fuji itself provided a glorious backdrop behind the open air stage. It is the kind of venue that would be cherished in the Pikes Peak region.

It was still an hour until the 2 pm concert was to begin and there seated and awaiting us was the trio of Meagan Prewitt, Glenna Boggs and Olympia Vida. They had been reunited with their instruments after five days of travel, sightseeing and home stays.

“It was great to get back with Roger,” said Glenna of her beloved bassoon who she has affectionately named. “He played beautifully.” Even still, she was still buzzing about her Fujiyoshida family. “They really shared their culture. I learned how to make Udon noodles.” Get ready folks, Glenna soon will be making these tasty noodles in a kitchen near you!

Meagan knows who she is dealing with. It’s Marie Antoinette, her oboe. “She was playing great right away, but I kept getting water in one hole.” Of her experience in Japan it was her time with her three host families that was most impactful. “I was well prepared for them,” she said. “The biggest thing is how nice the Japanese people are.”

Olympia freely admitted that she was exhausted. “We sang Karaoke and then we had to take our baths and showers (required activity for all in Japan). I didn’t get to be bed until after midnight.” The reunion with her cello was a bit strained. “I haven’t touched her in five days and my bow hold is getting looser. I’m used to practicing every day.”

Andrew Lee was sitting at the back of the covered seating area trying to get his bearings before the concert was to begin. “I’m happy to be back with my trombone,” he said. Before leaving for Japan, he had prepared himself for a new gastronomic experience. “I knew the food was going to be weird, but I’m used to it now. I also found out that you can be late to things in America but not here.”

Concert time. The President of the International Friendship Association who organized the concert and helped with the Youth Symphony’s visit to Fujiyoshida, Jinichin Hosaka, opened the festivities by sharing and highlighting the spirit of cooperation and commitment that made this part of our tour possible. We found out later that Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” was his favorite. He was in for a real treat.

The Fuji Kaen Taiko Drumming Group opened the program with an inspired percussion experience. This group has been to Colorado Springs in 1998 and 2005. Two choirs were next: Fujiyoshida Citizen’s Chorale and Fujiyoshida Shirakaba Choir. Their performances of Japanese literature were tight and tuneful.

The Yoshida High School Brass Band epitomized what we had heard from student ensembles all tour long. Comprised largely of girls they sounded great. Their bright and brilliant sound was distinguished by uncanny accuracy. The rest of the program belonged to Youth Symphony.

How would our kids perform after such a long layoff? The “Egmont Overture” answered the question. It was the best reading of the this powerful gem all tour long. Its revolutionary drama came across with power and potency. During the performance of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, it became apparent why this would be such a special moment of the tour.

These young musicians were realizing that this would be their last chance to make music in this far away land. Extra passion showed up in everything they played.

It was the final chance for the first violins to put it all together for the “Orange Blossom Special.” They had always played the notes just fine when they stood enmass for their section solo at the end of this entertaining piece of Americana. Finally, they hammed it up just right- smiling and moving to the music. The crowd ate it up.

This concert date also matched a musician’s birthday. Yoon Park was pulled from the percussion section and celebrated by everyone on and off the stage. He seemed a bit embarrassed by it all but enjoyed his unexpected spotlight.

There was also another chance to play the Ewazen “Taiko Fantasy” – this time with the resident ensemble. Set against such a glorious backdrop it had more musical impact than ever.

10448768_10152516704355970_3494530828311221185_n

For their shared encore with our orchestra, the two choirs insisted on performing “America the Beautiful.” Remember that its poignant poetry by Kathy Lee Bates was inspired by the view from Pikes Peak- “America’s Mountain.” Fitting it was that is should be the crown on a performance in front of Japan’s mountain by musicians from two sister cities.

10435872_10152516713715970_707569876720626204_n

On the green in front of the stage, it was time for farewells. New families had to be sadly separated yet happiness and joy prevailed. Melissa Miranda and Jenna Vande Brake had obviously forged a lifelong friendship with Rose-Red Reiko and her family. These many connections need to be completed by Japanese visits to Colorado.

The final night in Fujiyoshida was in the Akaiyane Youth Center. As it had all during our visit, the city continued its red carpet treatment of our entire entourage. After this visit, we are all committed to making the annual August visit of high school students from this city to our city more memorable than ever.

At our buffet dinner, Kaylin Jarriel said she was “totally pleased” by what was her final hurrah with the Youth Symphony before she heads off to college. Sisi Peng was able to lift her tired head up off her pillow of a purse long enough to share her electric smile and admit that this had all been well worth it. Reflecting on both this trip and 2012’s Bulgarian expedition, Maddy Oetting realized that even though this tour’s first concert (remember Wajima High School on June 5?) was performed after traveling for over 40 hours it was still superior to the European tour’s opening effort.

Except for the marvelous bluegrass duo of Jory Lane and Ciara McGuire and the string quartet of Matt Grammer, Katie Gardner, Patrick Jones, Joshua Head and Robert Widmann with music by Grieg, the music making is over for Youth Symphony in Japan. Kyoto and its ancient temples beckons along with one last chance for worlds to collide through a last visit with school kids from that city. I think we all know that part of us will forever be left on this island nation.

This is likely our final report here from Japan… you’ll just have to wait for the real thing come Wednesday night.

Report No. 9

10428517_10152524839210970_1454643991493238078_n

Faster than a speeding bullet…

We have made the transition. The all-imposing aura of Mt. Fuji is now a distant memory. We now reside in the ancient Japanese capital- Kyoto. And it was a real “trip” getting here.

We left Fujiyoshida early in the morning, drove in two packed buses south to Mishima and rolled into the bullet train headed west. Two hours later we had buses waiting for us in this ancient city.

With the last leg of our journey underway, it was a good time to reflect on what this trip has meant for our musicians.

Timmy Saffold thinks the Youth Symphony has done well on the tour. “Especially in the Wajima and Suzu area. I bet a lot of people who went to our concerts have never heard classical music- especially in the high schools that we visited. I think people can have their lives changed by classical music because it’s a great thing to listen to and be a part of.”

Timmy has also been studying the Japanese people. “The culture’s much different than western society,” he said. “I experienced more of a perfectionist attitude- the little things have to be perfect. They are more reserved than Americans. We are loud and noisy and outgoing.” He admits that he now prefers the Japanese people but realizes that language is major barrier.

Maddie Oetting loves Japan. “I could spend years here and never learn everything that Japan has to offer. I like the culture a lot and admire the respect they have for other people. I wish I could take that home with me. Unfortunately, I can’t take an entire country back.”

She also thought the Japanese high school ensembles were impressive. “Everything they do is with the utmost care,” she said. “It shows up in their music. The younger bands are just fantastic. I enjoy the Taiko drumming very much- it shows they do have passion.”

Andrew Wireman admits he has three new families in his life. “They (his Japanese host families) all asked me to write all the time and made me promise that I’ll come back to Japan to visit them.” Andrew is poised to experience “reverse culture shock” when he returns to America. “I’m going to think really differently about the Asian culture especially the different stereotypes we have of them in America,” he said. “A lot are pretty wrong. People think Japanese students are more studious than us. I found that to be false when speaking to the English teachers here.”

“We’ve seen a lot of Japan and that’s really cool,” said Emma Reece. “But I feel there’s so much more I want to see. Even though we’re going home in a couple of days, I can’t wait to come back and see the rest of Japan.

“They were very moved by our music,” she added. “ A lot of people came up to us and they were like ‘that was beautiful you guys did amazing.’ It was really touching to see that we connected on that level. Even though our motto is ‘through music we are one’ to see see it at on a first hand basis was really touching.”

“It seems much shorter than the two weeks we’ve been here already,” said Robert Widmann. “Things start to blur together. It almost seems when you look back it’s like a month ago. It’s an amazing experience. How many other groups bring kids, this many kids, to somewhere that’s as foreign as Japan.”

Robert thought the Japanese were going to be really different than Americans. “There’s really correspondences between what we have here and what we have in America,” he said. “They have different customs and habits but it feels natural to be in this country

First stop in Kyoto was in the 1600s at the Kyoto Uzumasa Movie Village – an Edo-era amusement park and studio.The closest thing to it in Colorado in Larkspur’s Renaissance Festival. It was fun, foolish, factual and hot and humid. It was also great to meet up with our tour coordinators Sanae, Yoshiko and Takahashi from “Starting Place” who had passed the baton to the wonderful city staff and a great group of volunteers in Fujiyoshida. That trio will now be with us all the way to airport on Wednesday.

After a taste of the ancient, it was time for the contemporary. The kids were “received” in a ¼ mile line up of the students of Kitasaga High School. It seems they were beyond excited- they had never had a visit from American teenagers.

A great exchange ensued. The kids from Kitasaga were primed and ready to show off their stuff… our kids are still buzzing from it all. The topper? With their instruments now awaitng them at the airport, the brass players were asked to just bring thier mouthpieces. These were mated with borrowed instruments and a wildly inspitational version of “Tequila” resounded on the walls and through the halls of the high school.

Tomorrow, after a day of sightseeing (ancient temples) and culture (Noh theatre), we’ll have an informal mini-concert with the local junior orchestra in the evening. Our return trip will have only one stop; so the “bullet” will be traveling even faster- up to 200 mph. It would take well over seven hours by bus but only 2 and a half hours on these remarkable transportation devices. Would that we had them in the states! From there on a conventional train, it’s another one and half hours to the Narita airport. At that point- we’ll take to the sky.

Report No. 10

10329053_10152522962290970_2273995517330713183_n

Great, fun, informative relaxing day today. Amazing Buddhist temple on gorgeous grounds. We made our own weavings and then were treated to the background and performance of the Noh theatre. Awaiting a small concert to begin at 8 this evening.

Okay parents- a handy guide to keep your kids at home: the food that they want first when they arrive.

Erin Blackley- hamberger

Glenna Boggs- mac and cheese

Mercer Bristol- Pizza

Karl Buvarp- soba noodles

Olwyn Doyle- mashed and seasoned potatoes (done by her dad)

Katie Gardner- Cheesecake

Matt Grammer- pizza

Paul Hammes- hamburger

Jessica Hild- Western style breakfast

Emma Johnson- french fries

Sean Jones- tie: mac and cheese/Taco Bell

Phyllis Kumbera- whatever my mom gives me

Jory Lane- pancakes

Erin Maloy- Japanese food

Ciara McGuire- pancakes

Rebecca Mijares- Pizza

Yoon Park- Korean noodles

David Ruminski- burger

Will Stritzel- Nachos

Will van Nordt- spaghetti

Jenna Vande Brake- chocolate chip cookies

Olympia Vida- mac and cheese

Audrey Viland- steak

Lucas Bruno- lasagna

Josh Head- pancakes

Glenna Boggs- mac and cheese

Beatrice Hall- bagel and butter

Marisa Miranda- pancakes and chocolate milk

Elisabeth Buvarp- Salmon eggs and salmon skin

Robert Widmann- pancakes

Jorrin Powell- pizza

 

Just about out of power-

Thanks to all for keeping up with these reports- I promise- your children did have an experience of a lifetime. They are forever changed and for the better.

10487380_10152524837665970_514866114493198316_n