Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Walking Looking Up

明けましておめでとうございます (Happy New Year!)

新春を迎え皆様の御健康と御多幸をお祈り申し上げます (Praying for everyone’s health and happiness as we welcome the coming Spring)

It’s Wednesday, not Friday, but today is the day I feel like writing. It’s been awhile; I’ve been lazing about in the kotatsu following Christmas craziness, and the last couple of days I’ve been making Osechi. I’ll probably post pictures later of all of that stuff.

It’s already New Year’s Day in Japan. As I was looking out the window this morning at a beautiful sunrise, thinking about my hopes for the new year, I remembered the first line of a song I like: 上を向いて歩こう(Ue o muite arukou—I’ll walk looking up). In the context of the song, “looking up” is intended to hide one’s tears and act strong, but for me, “walking looking up” would mean something more like not getting buried in my own fears and stress but rather keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus. Maybe at first I’ll be trying to hide my tears, but there’s no need to act strong, since Jesus is the source of my strength. There’s lots of things I’m hoping for the new year, but I think that one is the most important.

Off I go to pack things into Osechi boxes. I got too tired last night.

... and done!

Top layer: 黒豆 (black beans), 栗きんとん (mashed sweet potato with chestnuts), かまぼこ (fish cake), 岩石卵 ("rock" eggs), だて巻き (spiral eggs), 田作り (stewed tiny fish)

Middle layer: ごぼうの肉巻き (Burdock root wrapped in beef), なます (pickled daikon and carrot--from our garden!), 鶏の松かさ焼き (chicken dumplings), ぶりの若葉焼き (Grilled buri fish with daikon greens), あけぼのりんごかん (Apple jelly), 菊花かぶ (Chrysanthemum turnips)

Bottom layer: 昆布巻き (salmon wrapped in kombu seaweed), 煮物 (stewed vegetables, tofu, and konnyaku)

Friday, December 13, 2013

On choosing music for concerts

Today’s coffees: Kona, Ethiopia (Tokumitsu is busy today!)

It seems the snow is finally going to stay. Maybe. Warmer temperatures predicted for next week, though. I’m getting a little tired of all the snowing and melting but Keith doesn’t mind; less snow shoveling for him.

I’ve been doing a lot of concert planning recently. Shino and I have a concert December 22 at my church for which planning is more or less complete, and a couple of concerts in January that we’ve just started to think about. I also planned my first worship service in Japanese: the youth group will be having a very informal Lessons and Carols service as part of their Christmas party on Sunday night. I will also be leading the service—I’m hoping to say anything I need to say off the cuff from notes. Hopefully there won’t be too much to say, just a few comments about the flow of the readings and carols to help everyone follow the overall flow of the story.

Playing in Abashiri with Shino
All of this brings to mind some things I wrestled with as I studied at Regent and wrote my arts thesis: how to balance elements of practicality and aesthetics and welcoming newcomers and glorifying God when planning a concert or worship service. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve taken a turn for the practical as I left Regent and started working.

Shino and I send a questionnaire to churches who request concerts; we give the church the option to request a short devotion or testimony as well as to request specific pieces of music. As we read through the questionnaire for our January concerts, surprise! We looked at each other and laughed. The same two hymns we played at our last concert were requested. Well, really it’s not a surprise. We get the same requests for almost every concert: Amazing Grace, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, The Swan, Bach’s 1st unaccompanied cello suite, and Fauré’s Après un rêve (After a Dream). If it’s Christmas, add Joy to the World and Silent Night.

Most of the pieces I’ve listed here are also popular in the US, but I really can’t figure out Après un rêve. It’s a beautiful piece, but not all that well known in the US, I think. As for the hymns: most Japanese have very little exposure to Christianity, but most will recognize those four hymns. I suppose it would be easy to just play concert after concert with the same repertoire, and the audience would love it. There’s comfort in the familiar; hearing favourite pieces can be very moving, especially for those hearing them live for the first time. Having studied music, I forget sometimes that there are people who didn’t grow up going to concerts and hearing friends’ recitals and such. I can’t even remember the first time I heard the Bach Suites performed, but some of the people who attended our concert in Abashiri (a small city in eastern Hokkaido) in September said that it was their first time hearing a cello performed live.

Playing the same pieces over and over can be helpful and fruitful, as with the Bach Suites, but I can’t say I am quite as excited about repeat performances of certain other pieces. I confess if I never had to play The Swan again, I would not be sorry. (And yet it’s on the program for December 22, since there’s a certain person whom we like at our church who would really like to hear it.) I used to love Silent Night—it was my grandmother’s favourite—but singing and playing it 20-30 times every December has made me lose my taste for it.

Without a fresh challenge, I lack the motivation to practice and my skill level goes down; by continually challenging myself with new pieces, even the pieces I’m bored of start to sound better. This became clear to me when Shino chose the Schubert "Arpeggione" sonata for us to play last Christmas. I’d been wanted to play it for some time, but I was put off by the difficulty. It was the first piece Shino specifically asked to play, so I accepted the challenge.

Progress was very slow. I was trying to balance language study and concert preparation, after all. I didn’t think I would make it in time for the first performance. Thankfully I realized at the last minute that my bridge was too high; some simple adjustments to my instrument would boost my confidence and make the sonata much easier to play. As I practiced the "Arpeggione" sonata for hours and hours, I started noticing that even the other pieces I wasn’t practicing as much sounded much better than before.

In terms of practicality, of course it makes sense to play music that people want to hear and that I’ve learned to play well—the benefit of having a repertoire of pieces is that it’s easy to throw together a concert with very little effort. If people come to my concerts and somehow make good and lasting connections with the host churches, of course I am pleased.

On the other hand, I really don't see "entertainment" as the primary role of my concerts. I want the audience to think about and engage with what I'm playing. The list of commonly requested pieces represents a very narrow range of style and expression: mostly slow moving and major key, with the exception of Après un rêve and Minuet II from the Bach first suite. If I want to choose pieces to accompany my testimony, or to tell the story of Christmas or Easter, the range of expression here is far too narrow. What about the challenges Mary and Joseph experienced as they journeyed to Bethlehem and prepared to be parents for their Saviour? What about their joy and fears as he was born? What about the pain of the cross? If I’m telling my own story, what about the loneliness I experienced as a teenager? These emotions require a broader repertoire.

As a teenager and fledgling cellist, I struggled to find ways of expressing my emotions in ways that were church-approved. Members of my church loved my cello and encouraged me to use it in worship—with some significant limits. I found the music I played in youth symphony and school orchestra to be a much more honest expression of my own emotions that the music I was allowed to play at church.

It’s Advent: this is the time of year when we wait and listen and look. God is speaking and working, but often I find that he is at work in the painful and uncomfortable. Sometimes that which appears to be joy is actually a mask for suffering; I don’t want that kind of joy. I want the joy the starts in the midst of suffering and wells up to be an unstoppable, overflowing stream. That is the message of Christmas: the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. Captive Israel welcomes their Messiah. I want to play music that reflects this amazing transformation from darkness into light.

This is why we try to mix a little of the unfamiliar and challenging in with the comfortable when we’re choosing music to perform at our concerts. If you’re interested in inviting Shino and me to play at your church, we’re working on sonatas by Mendelssohn and Chopin. They’re really great pieces with a lot of depth—I highly recommend them. We’re thinking of doing Brahms and Debussy next. Our first performance of the Mendelssohn sonata is December 22, 1:30, Wakaba Church! Off I go to the practice room…

I think there's a bit more edge than usual in this week’s post... but it's not my intention to antagonize or offend. I'm sorry if I've rubbed you the wrong way. However, if you want to argue, please do it in person, and be nice with your comments. :)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Advent of a different sort

Today’s coffee: Tokumitsu Christmas blend…

…but it’s not Christmas yet. It’s advent. Good coffee though.

Back when we were at Regent College, we took Advent very seriously. We lit our advent wreath every night at supper while singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (except that I used the spelling closed to the Hebrew transliteration: Immanuel); when planning worship services during my internship at First Christian Reformed, I remember arguing with our pastor, a Regent graduate who was himself an advocate of Advent, about whether or not we should sing any Christmas songs before it was actually Christmas. I wanted to drag out the waiting to the last possible second, to make the resolution even more spectacular. Maybe I was a bit over the top, having newly discovered that actually it was okay to express our grief and even our anger before God.

Then I graduated from Regent, and I found that the world is a complicated place full of people who are not Regent graduates. This is of course not a bad thing, but others might not share my views on Advent.

4 ½ years after graduation, here we are in Japan. Our advent wreath is on the table, and we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel every night and read Advent passages from the Bible, but actually we don’t have any candles. We ran out last year, and it’s nearly impossible to get taper candles in Japan… we looked in about 4 different stores on Monday, and all we could find were candles for Buddhist altars. We finally found tea lights at a 100 yen shop. The taper candles we ordered on the internet are scheduled to be delivered sometime in the middle of week 2. We'll try again next year.

If I go on an Advent rant among friends here, they might look at me a bit strangely. They might not know the tune of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” or other songs we sang at Regent. They might think those lengthwise half-sheets of paper with a service order printed on them look a little funny… and actually, printed on A4 rather than Letter sized paper, they do look a little wonky. That last example, unless you actually went to Regent, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about… but yesterday Keith led a worship session for our OMF year-end day of prayer—the Regent-styled half-sheets were nostalgic to us and to the two of our colleagues who are also our senpai from Regent. (And I got my high-church fix. Ahhhh…)

Yes, the world is a complicated place. Let me explain how Christmas works in Japan. I’ve probably written about this before, but I’ll refresh your memory.

Similarly to other places in the world, Christmas decorations show up in stores sometime around the beginning of November. Around the end of November, we start hearing Christmas music. (Somehow the fact that sacred Christmas carols, rather than some pop-star’s recent inventions, are playing IN PUBLIC gives me a bit of a thrill...) Around that time, at our local KFC, the Colonel Sanders statue will be wearing a Santa suit.

At church, we’ve already been planning our Christmas events for months. During December, Japanese people seem to be more interested than usual in Christianity, or at least in Christmas. Some people are curious about traditions in other countries, or perhaps they like the pretty decorations and the music. In any case, the churches in Japan go into overdrive mode. Our church has a total of 6 Christmas events for various groups: women’s wreath-making event, tree decorating and movie for the youth group, children’s and youth parties at church, Christmas meal and concert, and Christmas Eve candlelight service. Of course there are other events going on as various church members hold private celebrations with family and friends.

For non-Christian Japanese, Christmas Eve is the big day. You might spend the evening with friends eating KFC (yes, really) and fluffy cake with strawberries, or you might go on a fabulous date with your lover. By Christmas Day, the decorations are taken down to prepare for Oshougatsu (New Year’s, celebrated with the Western world on January 1), which is possibly the most important holiday in Japan.

The weird thing is, in the middle of all the Christmas decorations and planning and celebrations going on all around, my heart is still in Advent—I’m waiting to celebrate and rest, and I’m waiting to see God work in my life and in the lives of those around me.

Last year at this time, I was struggling to find time for studying, practicing cello, and planning and performing concerts. We put up our very first Christmas tree (plastic, purchased at Costco) in mid-November as a “fun break from studying.” I was desperate to graduate—I bought my graduation hakama (a kind of skirt worn over a kimono for graduation) and put it where I could see it as a reminder that the end of language school was in sight. God would get us through somehow.

I think our Christmas tree and my hakama were important visual reminders of what was to come. After all the concerts were over, I would sit in the kotatsu with a basket of mikan and a mug of hot tea while Keith and I opened our presents together. In February, we would finish language school and move on to the training and work we were eager to do.

This year I’m not nearly as busy, but visual reminders of our anticipation of God’s provision are still helpful: the Christmas tree with presents underneath, the fruit cake in the pantry, even the fat birds eating seeds off the trees in our front yard. God has gotten us through difficult and busy times before, and he will continue to provide for all our needs, including the world’s need for a saviour. He has heard and answered my heart’s desire to be close to him.