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Classical Notes

Classical Notes: July 27, 2005 Archive

Choirs in Kyoto

Posted at 5:17 PM on July 27, 2005 by Brian Newhouse

Between the front door of the Kyoto Concert Hall and my seat in the auditorium, I overheard snatches of Finnish, Dutch, Aussie English, Spanish, a Canadian "eh?" and German—all of it laid on a bed of Japanese-like birthday sprinkles tossed on a kid's cake. The Symposium is the U.N. General Assembly of music. But if the reach of this event is global, the work of putting it on is intensely local. So the 2005 Symposium opened today with a concert that celebrated Japanese choral traditions.

Seven choirs from across this country of islands sang for the roughly 1,800 in the hall. Some of the choirs were backed by the traditional multi-stringed koto, while gongs, reedy flutes and drums paced the others. A quintet of chanting monks, heads shaven, processed through the audience flinging handfuls of confetti on our heads. The music—strong, somber, and ceremonial—was a little stiff for my taste but mother's milk to the Japanese here.

Then suddenly a bright blue ball bounced onstage, chased by a little Japanese girl. She caught the ball but started bouncing it centerstage and singing a folk tune, then another ball and child came on, then another, and within seconds there were probably 80 kids all with balls bouncing in perfect rhythm and singing four-part harmony. Then somebody pulled out a badminton racquet and started thwacking a birdie across the stage to a new song. More rackets came out and the ball song morphed into a badminton song. Then it was a game of jacks and another song—on and on, a new game producing a new song. A playground in fabulous, slightly harmonized cacophony, the conductor standing in the middle of it as calm as a turtle, only raising his nose now and then to signal the next game. When the last ball got bounced offstage by that girl with the beautiful shining black hair, the place went nuts. Not a bad way to start WCS 2005.