Chamber Music Feature Print



The Borromeo String Quartet on Tour in Japan

September 28, 2001 - Tokyo & elsewhere, Japan:


Beauty and trust are essential parts of human life. My recent tour of Japan with the Borromeo Quartet, of which the first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, and the cellist, Yeesun Kim, are members of my family, underlined that statement. The ensemble is in residence at the New England Conservatory and tours widely. This was its third visit to Asia and its first tour of Japan; the ensemble had previously performed in Tokyo and, with pianist Gary Graffman, in Seoul. We started out in Tenri, Japan, the home of Mai Motobuchi, the quartet's violist. Will Fedkenheuer of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is the other violinist of the Borromeo. 

Tenrikyo is a city founded by an institute dedicated to the religion of Tenrikyo. We stayed as personal guests of the President, in his guesthouse. The quartet was asked to do a service for the former President, a service which musicians all over the world do for their friends: play for a memorial for the former President's wife, Mai's mentor, who had passed on two weeks before. As we knelt on tatami mats, the slow movement of Mozart's Quartet in G, K.387, brought us all closer to her spirit and to each other. 

While the quartet rehearsed its usual two to three hours a day, I wandered parts of Tenri's ancient paths that lead to other cities. I visited Horuji with Mai's father and brother-in-law. Horuji is the oldest surviving wooden shrine in the world. A statue of Kannen, changer of dreams, said to be 1300 years old, touched me deeply. The next day, the quartet and I took time to go to the ancient temple of Nara, where deer roam the city and the temple holds the largest Buddha in Japan. There is a humorous hole in one of the wooden columns said to be the size of one of Buddha's nostrils. 

The first large concert was held in Tenri City Hall on the evening of September 7. It was attended by 900 people from cities all around the region. Quartets by Mozart, Debussy and Beethoven received overwhelming response. To the delight of the audience, Mai and Yeesun changed costumes at intermission. The clapping, unusual in this provincial area, faded and then magnified like an ocean wave when the performers came back to the stage. The audience indicated its wish for encores by European (or Japanese) rhythmic clapping. Two encores, both from Dvorak's American Quartet, were demanded, after which the performers stood in the front vestibule to greet their guests. The recording engineer said the sound range went from softest to loudest of his audiometer and he was amazed. 

The next day we headed for the northern port town of Shimminato, where the local Junior Chamber of Commerce was celebrating its 30th anniversary by having invited guests from the international world of music play and entertain. Some 500 people attended a concert and banquet on a luxury liner, the Fuji Maru. The young businessmen heard Beethoven; after what appeared to me, in my language-deaf state, to be the usual convention noise, smoking, and agitation, they quieted and joined the magic of the sound. The rousing finale of Beethoven's Op. 59/3 brought rhythmic clapping, and the longing dialog of the slow movement of the Dvorak American, the encore, again brought a sense of quiet and contemplative peace to the audience. A Korean delegation requested permission to greet Yeesun as a fellow countryman. 

After morning rehearsals in the hotel by the individual quartet members, during which two sick children were brought to hear the music as a form of healing, we drove to the base of Kurobe Gorge, where an electric railroad took us to our next break stop, a small cabin near hot springs. There, thousands of feet high, we bathed in the pools of the river, far above its three dams, and set off fireworks in the rain. We had left our luggage and the Quartet, their instruments, in the base city, a place our own President, Jimmy Carter, had visited. It wasn't just a rainstorm, however, but the forewarning of two typhoons predicted to hit on Monday, just as we were to enter Tokyo. 

Next morning, instead of hiking down the mountain in the rain, a National Park guide with a Range Rover took the older members of our party (Mai's parents, another couple, and me) down to the station. The Quartet and Michi, our guide, walked until the car could get back to them on the trail and bring the rest of the group to the train station. In the station, the other couple, upon being told who the Borromeo were and what they were doing in Japan, insisted on autographs and photos. Amazingly, with the typhoon on its way, as we journeyed down, we passed many more people coming up. 

Our trip to Tokyo was wet, and instead of our taking the bullet train, Michi drove us all the way into the city. The typhoon rains had already raised many of the river levels under the bridges we crossed, and trees showed only their topmost branches. Our Japanese hosts explained to us that this was the 15th typhoon of the season, that Japan had a system for dealing with them, and that we were OK to go--unless of course the next bridge was flooded! Michi delivered us to a Tokyo elevated stop at about 3:30 p.m. and headed back to Tenri. We went on to see Sumo wrestling; thanks to the former President of Tenrikyo, we had ringside seats, and were afterwards treated to a dinner in the home of a Sumo Master who trained seven students. Watching the top young man run his hand and forearm into a solid cedar tree to illustrate his training made all the musicians look at him with wide eyes. 

For the Borromeo, the next day was all rehearsals, typhoon or not, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Most of Tokyo was shut down for the typhoon, so I watched rain drops the size of marbles from my hotel room and did a bit of reconnoitering in the mall connected to our hotel in the Shibuya district. The Quartet returned a bit early, and that evening at 8:45 as we watched CNN on bilingual TV the World Trade Center was hit. No one slept that night. At breakfast the next morning we were joined by former Duke University String School student Stephen Kraines, now a professor at Tokyo University. Our conversation reflected our common horror and puzzlement and the Japanese spoke to us of their sorrow, offering condolences. 

Rehearsals were set for 9 a.m., however, and the concert was Friday, so work continued. The event was a performance during the Daikanyama Hillside Terrace Music Festival. Many participants were American--from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and, of course, the Borromeo. The Director of the Festival, Keisuke Wasao, is a Japanese artist who lives in America and plays with the BSO. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music under Joseph Robinson, originally from Lenoir, NC, and now first oboist of the NY Philharmonic. 

The first program was the Mozart Oboe Quartet, with all the Borromeo except Will, the Debussy Quartet, and then the Beethoven Septet, with the Borromeo (minus Will), a Japanese bassist and clarinetist, and a BSO horn player and bassoonist. I had attended the Wednesday night rehearsal in the Hillside Terrace Hall since I expected to leave the next day. 

The Hall, an architectural marvel with a staircase spiraling like the Guggenheim's and perfect acoustics, is relatively small. Tickets were sold out for the trio of three debut concerts. When the American disaster hit, I was unable to return home and thus stayed to hear the Friday concert. The sponsors of the series placed a seat for me in the aisle. I was privileged to hear one of the liveliest, most sensitive, joyfully impeccable concerts of my life. Keiske plays the oboe like the spirit of music itself, with love and nuance and enormous energy. He and Nicholas "conversed" nearly face to face throughout the entire work; as a result, their phrasing matched but was also individual and ever fresh. In the Debussy, the Borromeo Quartet filled the room with sounds of such shimmering beauty that the audience and the players seemed surrounded, as if by the delicate, bright and life-giving light of a Monet painting. The energy and joy of the bouncing reading of the Beethoven Septet had the softest horn playing I have ever heard and so much joie de vivre that the musicians seemed to join the audience in dancing to a classical beat. Cheers and bouquets of flowers celebrated the birth of a new series.

The Borromeo Quartet gave two of the three inaugural concerts in this new series, which was presented in Tokyo's Daikanyama community. The program of their second offering included Françaix's Bassoon Sextet, Brahms' Horn Trio, the Adagio from Bach's Easter Oratorio, the world premiere of an Oboe Sonata by Terashima, and the Prokofiev Quintet.

Japan is full of large orchestras of fine quality, located in Osaka, Kobe and Tokyo to name only three. Even at the Tenrikyo Institute, in a very small town, violinist Yuki Iwatani and her husband are Juilliard-trained. (Indeed, Yuki studied with Josef Fuchs at the same time as Claudia Erdberg-Warburg, formerly a member of the Ciompi Quartet.) The BSO players were staying on for a concert by the Super World Symphony Orchestra, made up of players from America, Japan, France and Germany and conducted by Lorin Maazel, which would take place in Suntory Hall in two weeks.

The Borromeo remained for two more concerts, a private one (common in Japan) in a truly beautiful hall for the 99th Anniversary of the Dai Ichi Semei Insurance Company, which presents many of the major concerts in Japan (and will sponsor the Quartet on one of its Tokyo series next June), and one in the rural sea town of Nagano, where Mai's sister and husband live. Both of these events stemmed from the Borromeo's increasing name recognition and artistic reputation in Japan. Nagano is a small seaside village that, on the surface, bears little resemblance to sophisticated Tokyo, but its people clearly embrace art with equal passion. Presenters there heard about the Borromeo's enthusiastic receptions in Tenri and Shimminato and managed to add the concert at the last minute. It is clear that the Quartet will continue to perform on the other side of the Pacific. The June concert in Tokyo will form the anchor of the Borromeo's next Asian tour, which is expected to include additional performances in Korea and Taiwan. 

In Tenrikyo, classical music and classic traditional Japanese music and instruments are thought to be essential parts of the full development of the human being. I saw young businessmen transfixed by Beethoven and Dvorak in a busy port on the Japanese Sea. I saw priests believing that music could heal the human spirit and perhaps even the human body. I heard the finest in world music, organized by a Japanese musician from America, heard a new world-class chamber music series begin, and saw orchestra members from all over the world not canceling their trips to the Super World SO despite the current horrors in the world. I heard and watched a young American-Korean-Canadian-Japanese quartet, the Borromeo, bring joy to more than a thousand people despite typhoons and terrorism. I felt right at home but more than ready to come back to teach my own young people an art they share with others in this world, where we learn to trust each other's intonation and counting and discipline in order to create beauty, one of the essentials of human life. It made me proud to be a musician, and an American one at that.

Editor's Note: The following article is the first of what we at CVNC hope will be an ongoing series of features and reviews by guests who can offer our readers new and different perspectives on the arts and education. We are pleased to begin with a contribution from Dorothy Kitchen, Director of the Duke University String School, long-time arts educator and patron, and mother of two remarkable children. One of these is Nicholas, whose artistry Dorothy helped develop and foster and whose many musical accomplishments have often been cited in the pages of local, regional, national and international papers.