osaka daigaku men’s choir

23Jul05

3 July, 2005

About a month ago one of my first-year students was selling tickets to a few of the other students at the end of class, so I walked over and asked him what kind of event he was selling tickets for. Although the English of the students in this class is generally at a high level, specialized vocabulary can be difficult for students to muster at a moment’s notice, so I was left with the knowledge that my student was a part of a men’s choir, and that they would be singing some kind of “mountain song” at the event that he was selling tickets for. Figuring that I should support the students, and rather curious about what kind of event this actually was, I bought two tickets, hoping to convince my neighbor and colleague Richard Bartholomew to tag along.

Convincing Richard was easy enough and so on Sunday, 3 July, we set out for Namba and walked over to the performance hall. Being unfamiliar with the area we decided to follow the large groups of younger people that seemed to be intently bee-lining for some destination. This tactic proved quite successful and soon we arrived at the very large Waru City performance hall (at least, I think that’s what it’s called). Of course, it turns out that the hordes of hip, semi-gothy younger people that we were following weren’t going to see the “mountain song” performance, but were rather there to see some kind of popular music group. When Richard and I showed our tickets to the ushers in the main lobby they grinned that “you’re certainly in the wrong place, aren’t you?” kind of grin and directed us up a flight of stairs where we joined groups of older people and parents that were filing into a somewhat smaller theatre.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I was hoping for some kind of traditional singing since “mountain song” sounds potentially both regional and religious, but I was prepared for just about anything. As it turns out the performance that Richard and I attended that night was a choral performance that was wholly European in style, though many of the songs were adaptations of what I take to be traditional Japanese compositions, or at least variations on the theme. In fact, the tone of it all reminded me primarily of 1940s American choral music — some of it modern in tone, and some of it sounding almost like show tunes, not quite sure whether or not to present itself as high art or as popular performance.

The introductory performance, which involved all three of the choirs that would be singing that night, presented us with an immense assembly of several hundred students singing simultaneously. The student choirs were distinguishable by their uniforms, which fell into the standardized forms of long dark skirts and white blouses for the women, and red and blue blazers with slacks for the men. The first group to sing was a mixed group, though primarily women. They sang three pieces, one of which was an interesting modern sounding work. They were followed by the OsakaDaigaku Men’s Choir, a huge group that actually had three of my students in it, including one student who sang a lovely and heartful baritone. They sang a suite of five different songs that seemed both comical and sentimental and were clearly all related to a thematics of the family. I found out later that these pieces were based on letter-poems written from a daughter to her mother after the mother had died. The composer was so inspired by these poems that they became the lyrics for this choral suite. Unfortunately the music itself was overly sentimental and melodramatic (and not in the good sense), though the students’ performance was good. The third group to sing was another mixed chorus, theChor Friede. I don’t know why they have a German name (one of the other groups was called the Manner Chor, which also sounds German to me), but I did find out some interesting information about this group from Yokota-sensei, the chair of the Department of Language and Culture at Osaka Daigaku . Apparently this choir used to be intensely political in nature, and very left oriented — especially during the late 60s and early 70s. They would sing the Internationale, the Cuban national anthem, and similar works with a socialist tendency. At around the time of the first Gulf War, however, a decision was made that they would no longer be a political choir in nature (more’s the pity). The pieces they sang were interesting, and definitely the most modern and experimental of the works that we heard (though far fromavant-garde ). Finally, all the choirs converged again in order to perform the nine part “mountain song” that had been promised. I think this may have been based on some traditional Japanese music and/or poetry, though this may have just been a thematic inspiration. In any case the lyrics were clearly centered on the traditional Japanese nature themes of the changing of the seasons. In fact, this suite described one year in the life of the mountain so there was a medley of “hana,” “sakura,” “natsu,” “tsuki,” “yuki,” and the like. A very pretty piece at times, though I wish that it had been a bit more adventurous with its compositional moves. The closing piece was anun -conducted sing-along with several students playing guitar and the entire audience singing along and clapping to a song that clearly everybody knew. A total crowd-pleaser. Richard and I were game and clapped along, but of course we had no idea what the song was.

I can’t quite remember where we ended up after that, but I have a sneaking feeling that dinner might have been involved.

Click here to view Richard’s very smart blog on religion and the media, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion. A genuinely worthwhile resource.

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