Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Japan: Karuizawa International Choral Festival 2013.

"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to
lose sight of the shore for a very long time."
~Andre Gide

Beautiful and serene were our surroundings in Karuizawa. Certainly no doubt in my mind why this town was chosen to host the annual choral festival. The town, in the mountains, has a temperate climate, clean streets, and absolutely beautiful nature.

Almost immediately upon arrival in Karuizawa, we gave a "satellite" concert in this little church, St. Paul's Catholic Church, which was comfortably nestled amid what seemed like a forest of trees.

St. Paul's Catholic Church in Karuizawa, Japan
Photo found here

The inside really felt like a log cabin and didn't leave much room for our choir to stand at the front. Nevertheless, it was a lovely setting and an appreciative audience.

Inside St. Paul's Catholic Church in Karuizawa, Japan
Photo found here
Our green room was a small building off the back side of the church where we first experienced the very Japanese tradition of removing our shoes and wearing indoor slippers instead, in order to even enter the building.

We also ran into Father Carlos who has been with the church for years--I can't remember how many. He speaks perfect English and, I'm guessing, perfect Japanese, as well as Spanish. He was really delightful and so was his church.

Father Carlos and the Bell Tower of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Karuizawa, Japan
Photo by Neil Whitaker

Karuizawa is what appears to be a resort town, much like Park City in Utah but larger with more people, shops, and restaurants. I hear it's a popular tourist spot for people wanting to get out of the city (Tokyo) especially during the summer. Interestingly, the town is the only known town to date to have hosted both Summer and Winter Olympic events: Equestrian events in Summer of 1964 and Curling in Winter of 1998.

As it turned out, we were in Karuizawa on a three-day weekend. The holiday, Health and Sports Day, was established in 1966 to encourage sports and cultivation of a healthy mind and body. Apparently this holiday used to always fall on October 10th, to commemorate the anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, but since Japan instituted The Happy Monday System, it has now celebrated on the second Monday in October. Strange that the 1964 Summer Olympics were held in October, when technically Autumn has begun. The weather was cool when we were there. Not cold, but cool enough to wear a light sweater or jacket. But I guess Tokyo was a lot warmer and more humid, so the actual summer may have been unbearable. And I just read that they chose for it to be so late to avoid Japan's rainy season.

So what is The Happy Monday System, you ask? Well (thanks to Wikipedia) it turns out it is just what it sounds like:
The Happy Monday System (ハッピーマンデー制度 Happī Mandē Seido) refers to a set of modifications to Japanese law in 1998 and 2001 to move a number of public holidays in Japan to Mondays, creating a three-day weekend for those who normally have a five-day work week.
Brings an altogether new meaning to the greeting "Happy Monday!"

By the way, Japan has 15 national/public holidays... I think we need more in The States. Just my plug.

The Karuizawa International Choral Festival's home is Karuizawa Ohga Hall, which is set on a small lake with fabulous ambiance.

The main hall was beautiful in a light honey colored wood with maximum seating capacity of 784, according to their website. No seat was a bad seat due to the layout.

We were warmly welcomed, as the only choir outside of Japan to attend the festival this year.

The festival is an international festival which started in 2005 and the goal, as I understand it, is to facilitate international communication and peace activities by using choral music as the mediator.

Each choir performed one number during the Opening Ceremony of the festival and all the visiting conductors who would be teaching workshops were introduced.

Ko Matsushita, the mastermind behind this festival, first found out about Brady, our conductor, on YouTube. Ko is not only a conductor but a composer also, and one of Brady's other choirs had recorded a piece of Ko's music. The sole purpose of the Salt Lake Vocal Artists' tour to Japan and Hawaii was to fulfill the invitation by Ko to participate the Karuizawa International Choral Festival. He and Brady have become good friends and I think Ko is a gem of a human being.

All weekend, we went back and forth between Ohga Hall to the community center which was just a short walk around the lake. We rehearsed in the community center. We ate lunch in the community center. We napped. You get the idea. Also one of the after parties was at the community center. We had to change into slippers every time we entered the community center. I hate to say it, but they were all too small and really uncomfortable.

And, of course, since regular slippers aren't appropriate for the bathroom, they actually have toilet slippers in many buildings, like these in the community center.

Throughout the weekend, we attended concerts of other choirs and workshops. Brady Allred, our conductor, taught a workshop on singing in English, which as you can imagine, is quite difficult for native Japanese speakers. In English, we have several consonants and vowel diphthongs that are non-existent in Japanese. And though most Japanese people, especially young people, have taken English classes, they have not had much opportunity to actually speak English, let alone sing where proper diction is really important.

The festival was a lot of fun. Singing for such an appreciative and musically-talented audience was exhilarating. And these people love choral singing just as much as we do. They were SO fun. Even though we couldn't speak really well with many of them, their spirits reveal themselves easily. So humble, so teachable, and so fun!

Stay tuned for more on my free time in Karuizawa and then also posts about our satellite concerts in Kawaguchi, Matsumoto, and Nagoya!

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