An Essay By Gerald Elias
An international concert tour’s main ingredient is, of course, music making. But as I wait at crowded Takadanobaba subway station in central Tokyo, I reflect there’s also a large dollop of goodwill cultural ambassador. And, looking ahead to my evening’s destination, a dash of culinary adventure thrown in.
A cheerily Smurflike tune signals my train’s arrival. Every Tokyo station has its own unique eight-second jingle—it’s a stretch to even call it music. Perhaps the reason for them is so that blind riders—or hung-over businessmen—can tell at which station they’re arriving. Just a theory.
I am on my way to join decades-old Tokyo friends who are treating me to a gourmet kaiseki dinner in the upscale Yoyogi Uehara neighborhood to celebrate the successful conclusion of the Boston Symphony’s smoothly planned and executed autumn 2017 concert tour. Its only hiccup— other than when I drank too much sake—was when the cargo truck from Tokyo carrying our string basses and all of our music arrived in Nagoya four hours late, delaying and abbreviating our first rehearsal. (The audience never knew the difference.)
For the dinner, my friend, Tetsuro, has brought along a buddy of his, a Japanese violinist named Kiichi Watanabe. As the first courses are served, Watanabe tells me in admirable English he had played for a time in the New Japan Philharmonic, on occasion with my old boss, Seiji Ozawa, the longtime music director of the Boston Symphony whose tenure with the orchestra ended in 2002. I mentioned that though I had performed with the Boston Symphony on the just completed tour, I had in fact left my full-time position with the orchestra years ago to become associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony.
“Joseph Silverstein!” Watanabe says, his eyes lighting up. “He conducted in Utah. Did you know him?” The answer was yes, and in many capacities. Before becoming the music director of the Utah Symphony he had been a renowned concertmaster of the Boston Symphony when I was a full-time member there. Before that, he had been my violin teacher at Yale University.
Thus began a long evening of “who do you know.” It was fortunate the dinner had so many courses because the connections were extensive. Watanabe had studied at Indiana, one of the foremost conservatories in the US, and in the early ‘90s was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center at the same time I was performing with the BSO, and where his chamber music coach was the eminent violinist and pedagogue, Louis Krasner (who, like Joey, had been one of my former teachers). Watanabe had revered both, calling Silverstein “a genius.” Not unusual among musicians, shared experiences had formed deep, enduring bonds that transcended cultural and national boundaries. When Tetsuro asked me whether a few weeks had been enough time for me to practice the music for the concerts, Mr. Watanabe burst out laughing even before I did, replying, “Of course. He’s a professional musician!” The fraternity is universal.
How the broader relationship between Americans and the Japanese has mended in the past seventy years is close to miraculous. A mere two generations ago, members of Tetsuro’s family were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Now, Tetsuro’s seven-year old son calls me Uncle Jerry.
That’s not to say there aren’t reminders of the former divide. Arriving in Nagoya after a seemingly endless flight over the Pacific, I regained the use of my legs on the orchestra’s free day, exploring Nagoya’s modern, attractive downtown, rebuilt upon war-charred ruins. My destination was Nagoya Castle, the city’s prominent historic landmark, where today children romp in the surrounding gardens, and tourists like me lick green tea ice cream cones and take too many snapshots.
Adjacent to the fortress is the ancient palace, which was totally destroyed in the war. Currently in the final stages of painstaking reconstruction, using the same materials and exact design as the original, every detail down to the color of the tiger’s eyes in the silk screen murals has been lovingly recreated. It’s a spectacular achievement, a tribute to the stunning artistry and architecture of old Japan and the patient dedication of new Japan to throw substantial financial and artistic resources into reproducing it. The imposing castle fortress, with its massive stone works, is a reconstruction too, but was rebuilt back in 1959 with modern concrete and steel simply to provide the appearance of the original exterior. The inside, of modern design and functioning as an exhibit space, contains a gut-wrenching photo display of the wartime strafing of the city and castle.
Though the destruction of all that exquisite beauty was tragic and perhaps unnecessary, what must also be considered is the castle’s original politico-military purpose: to effectively unleash its own dogs of war when deemed necessary, inflicting untold casualties and death upon the enemies of the military rulers of the day. Indomitable for centuries, Nagoya castle finally succumbed in 1945, as all castles—real or metaphorical—inevitably do. Poetic justice? Perhaps not, but in one form or another, Nagoya Castle bears witness to the seemingly endless human cycle of brutality and reconciliation.
After spending four comfortable days in Nagoya—performing once there, followed by a run-out back and forth to Osaka, then by a concert in Kawasaki en route to Tokyo—the positive swing of history’s cycle could not have been more powerfully demonstrated than at the Boston Symphony’s concert in the embracing acoustics of Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on November 7. The featured work on the program was the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, entitled “The Year 1905.”
Like many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the eleventh is a musically graphic depiction of historic Russian events, in this case the Revolution of 1905. More specifically, it portrays the tragedy that triggered it: the massacre of innocent, peaceful petitioners—men, women, and children— mercilessly shot to death by the Tsar’s military forces on January 22, 1905 in front of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Depending on which source one believes, anywhere from ninety-six to four-thousand people were killed. In the symphony we hear prayers, we hear armies marching, we hear the shooting, we hear the death and mourning. Finally, we hear the overpowering warning bell, called the tocsin. Shostakovich intended it as a warning not only in the historical context of the piece; it also tolls for the audience itself to beware! Beware of liberty deprived. Beware of the forces of despotism and militarism.
In the audience of the Tokyo performance on November 7 were two special guests: Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako, a couple beloved by the Japanese and respected around the world. As we played the Shostakovich, I couldn’t help but wonder what might be going through their minds, and from time to time I looked up at them—they were sitting in the first balcony in a direct line cross-stage from me—to see if I could read their faces. I was curious because here was the son of the emperor of Japan, the royal equivalent of the Tsar of Russia, whose grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, approved the order to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Yes, music is to be enjoyed, just like the art at Nagoya Castle. But for Shostakovich there was much more at stake. Music was his power: the power to inform and, in the process, to teach, to foment, and to heal. (Being true to royal form, the Prince and Princess betrayed no other sentiment than to appear to greatly enjoy the performance.)
What a mysterious phenomenon music is! A select group of people spend their lifetimes learning to blow air through tubes, scrape with horsehair on strings pulled taut over a wooden box, and bang on stretched skins with sticks, all to create uniquely complex sets of vibrations, the instructions for which appear as black dots on paper, many of them centuries old. This group of blowers, scrapers, and bangers then travels around the world where thousands of people with a different culture and history, who have worked many hours in order earn enough money to pay for the opportunity to gather en masse in a big room, absorb those vibrations into their bodies. When it’s over, the listeners slap their hands together and go home. Somehow, miraculously, even when the vibrations are about strife, the strife is gone.
Maybe that’s why it will be music that saves humanity from the wanton cruelty we seem determined to inflict upon each other. Maybe that’s why the goodwill component of tours such as the Boston Symphony’s to Japan is more critical than we ever imagined. As I say good-bye to my friends after our big dinner on the town, I recall a written sign at Takadanobaba station as the train arrived and I heard that innocuous little jingle. At first I merely took the sign’s meaning at face value. Now, upon reflection, it carries the same portentous weight of Shostakovich’s tocsin. The sign read, “Doors close soon after the melody ends.”
About Gerald Elias
Gerald Elias’ essay War and Peace. And Music. won first place in the Nonfiction Creative Essay Original Writers Competition hosted by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. Most of Utah Global Diplomacy’s community knows Gerald as the music director of Vivaldi by Candlelight since 2004, and he is a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony. He is the author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery series, and his short stories and essays have been published in distinguished journals and anthologies.