With this year marking the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation between Australia and Japan, the just-completed Sydney Symphony concert tour perhaps best exemplifies the new-found harmony between these two once warring nations. Invited by Asia Orchestra Week as "a glory of the Southern Hemisphere," the Australian orchestra's bass-heavy Sydney sound was let loose in the more rarefied acoustics of halls in Tokyo and Osaka. "The technique in Japan is really polished, highly trained, actually perfect—no mistakes," says Tokyo-raised, Sydney-based contrabassoonist Noriko Shimada. "I like the SSO because you do play out."
Play out they did, and those who wondered what an Australian orchestra could possibly offer the Japanese, famously finicky in their classical music appreciation, were immediately answered in the cross-cultural fanfare of Brisbane composer Liza Lim's Flying Banner (after Wang To). And upon completion of their spectacular rendition of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the orchestra received the kind of review money couldn't buy. Attending the opening concert in Tokyo was Crown Prince Naruhito, himself an accomplished viola player. At a supper afterwards, he sipped Australian wine while chatting with a small group of musicians. "He said that the whole program was very fine and he enjoyed it all," recalls concertmaster Dene Olding. As a boy, the Japanese prince was sent on holiday to Victoria's Port Phillip Bay because the imperial household considered Australia "in many ways the opposite of Japan." And 32 years later, music has brought the two cultures together again. "If you want to impress him," says SSO artistic operations director Wolfgang Fink, "bring music. He's certainly not so interested in Australian Rules."
If the 2006 Australia-Japan Year of Exchange proves anything, it's that with a foundation of mutual curiosity, exchange can be as meaningful one-on-one as it is between 90 musicians and 1,700 audience members in an Osaka concert hall. And it's even more thrilling to watch the process in its chrysalis phase. In this respect, the masterclass between five Sydney Symphony woodwind players and 100 budding band members at an Osaka high school was the high point of the tour. The stage was a plastic-covered gymnasium floor, with headmaster Yoshio Shinohara's office standing in as green room. "I feel Australia is very close to my heart," says Shinohara, pointing out a Melbourne tea towel, kangaroo ashtray and koala-adorned sheepskin cushion—legacies of previous student exchanges.
But the best present for Ichioka High School's 800 students is the presence of Sydney Symphony's principal tubist, Steve Rosse, out on the gym floor. With the Australian musicians joining ranks with the school band, blond-haired Rosse is conducting the Chaconne from Holst's Suite No. 1 in E-flat. But on its first run through, the rousing march is deemed too restrained. "Lawrence, have you got some advice for the clarinets here?" Rosse calls out to the Sydney Symphony principal. Rosse is even more assertive when it comes to the tuba section. "I want them to pronounce 'toe' as in Tokyo," he says, blowing out across a sea of demure, nodding heads. As it happens, Rosse has a Japanese wife back home in Australia, but today he relies largely on body language. Soon he has the hundred band members on their feet doing breathing exercises, which loosens them for their final, near-flawless run-through. "Breathing is basic," band leader Hiroaki Shiomi says afterward over green tea and wagashi bean cakes, "but the students are so busy following the music that they easily forget. They learned a lot."
For the Sydney Symphony, the lessons have been as much cultural as musical. Before taking off to Japan, orchestra members were briefed by a former Australian consul-general in Osaka, John Montgomery, and a booklet was prepared, subtitled "Food and the Getting of It" and setting out such cultural niceties as the proper pronunciation of Kyoto (kyo-to not ki-yo-too) and how to order up big in a noodle bar: ramen oh-mori! The most important phrase? "Probably onegaishimasu," says tour manager John Glenn. "Please can you help me. And just being able to say thank you, arrigato. Or arrigato gozaimasu, thank you very much." In a society as formal as Japan's, knowing the difference can be crucial, and it put the orchestra in good stead when it came to the Crown Prince's visit on Oct. 2. "It made the night quite difficult," admits Glenn, "because we had three buses waiting after the performance, but the lifts got locked down at the venue until the Crown Prince and his entire entourage had left. You can't leave until he leaves."
Royal protocol aside, the 2006 Japan tour might be remembered as the year the Sydney Symphony got its ears back. In the six years since its last overseas tour, the orchestra has been largely confined to the acoustically murky Sydney Opera House. By contrast, "Japan is full of fine concert halls," says violinist Dene Olding. "They make quite a science of the acoustics." Indeed, baritone soloist José Carbo says he has never sung on a better stage than Tokyo's. "It was such a crisp, true rebound," he raves. With singing, he explains, "it's the monitoring of what you're hearing that molds what's coming out of your mouth. In halls where you're not getting anything back, you rely solely on technique and out goes the feeling."
Which is the difference between a great hall and the Sydney Symphony's home stage. Speaking of which, the tour has reaffirmed artistic administrator Wolfgang Fink's commitment to improving the acoustics of the Opera House concert hall, now in its feasibility-study stage. In the meantime, he says, the best way of tweaking the orchestra's sound is by more touring, for which Japan is a natural destination. "It is the closest, most interesting marketplace for Australia," says Fink.
And getting closer all the time. Or so it appears from five floors up a tiny lift at Diva, a karaoke bar in central Osaka that seems little bigger than a shoebox. It's way past midnight following the orchestra's final concert, and the beer is flowing—as is Carbo's voice: "My, my, my, Delilah!" The reverb might be less than crystal-clear tonight, but that doesn't stop the high emotion from bouncing back. Yet even though the room is filled with musicians and an opera star, two gatecrashers steal the show. A platinum-haired English teacher and her friend from Melbourne, arms akimbo, launch into a rendition of early David Bowie: "There's a starman waiting in the sky/ He'd like to come and meet us/ But he thinks he'd blow our minds…" Surreal but pitch-perfect, their performance is not unlike the orchestra tour itself—and nothing gets lost in translation.