Inspired in Japan – the 25th Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival

Inspired in Japan – the 25th Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival

I have been to Japan 14 or 15 times in my life; I’ve lost count. I first travelled to the island nation in 1986, on tour with the Boston Symphony and its music director Seiji Ozawa. More Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestra (with John Williams, conducting) tours followed over the years. I have also been to Japan many times to teach and perform at the Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival. I was on the faculty of the first Academy in 1995 and this month, I returned to Hamamatsu for the seventh (or eighth?) time to take part in its 25th anniversary event.

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The Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival has grown to be an event of major importance for wind players. Jointly sponsored by the City of Hamamatsu, the Hamamatsu Cultural Foundation, and YAMAHA Corporation, the Academy and Festival assembles an international faculty of wind instrument teachers and performers. Each teacher chooses a class of eight students from recorded auditions, and students receive four lessons during a week. Lessons are open —they are conducted in large rooms with plenty of seating—and teaching rooms are always full of those who want to learn from the teachers. As such, each lesson is as much a masterclass as it is a private lesson. Before the teaching part of the event begins, the faculty always give an opening concert which, over the years, has taken different forms. Sometimes faculty play solos with piano, sometimes they play chamber music, and sometimes they take part in large ensemble performances.

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I was delighted to be invited to the 2019 Academy and Festival. Of the fifteen faculty members—there were between one and three classes for every wind instrument—there were four Americans: Otis Murphy, saxophone (professor, Indiana University), Chris Martin, trumpet (principal trumpet, New York Philharmonic), Gene Pokorny (principal tuba, Chicago Symphony), and myself. The other brass faculty members were Jeroen Berwaerts, trumpet (professor, Hochschule für Musik in Hannover), Jens Plücker, horn (principal horn, NDF Elbphilharmonie Orchester), and Anthony Caillet, euphonium (international soloist). Apart from Anthony, who I met and worked with for the first time, I knew all of the other brass faculty from our working together at previous Hamamatsu Academies.

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Before the Academy started, several faculty members were invited to visit the YAMAHA Innovation Road Museum. This is new, a telling of the history of YAMAHA Corporation. The museum was fascinating to me, having been involved with YAMAHA since 1986.

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Among the many interesting things about the Innovation Road Museum is that many of its instruments were available for the public to play. While we were visiting, we saw dozens of children playing pianos, guitars, and other instruments. This is a huge commitment on Yamaha’s part, since these instruments get heavy use and eventually need to be replaced. But this “hands-on” aspect of the exhibit showed how YAMAHA is committed to engaging the public with its work. Gene Pokorny (above) had a moment with a Sousaphone and his single note—played with GREAT enthusiasm—got everyone’s attention.

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I learned a lot of the company’s history, including the fact that Torakusu Yamaha, the founder of YAMAHA Corporation, was originally named Torakusu Yamaba. He changed his name to Yamaha because he thought that name would be of greater interest to the export market. I learned many new things!

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This year, the opening concert featured a brass ensemble that performed the world premiere of a newly commissioned work by Eric Ewazen, Hamamatsu Overture. The same ensemble played movements of Hans Werner Henze’s Ragtimes and Habaneras. Originally for brass band, it had been arranged for the Concertgebouw Brass. I had previously conducted this piece with a brass band (at the Boston Symphony’s summer home, Tanglewood, with members of the Boston Symphony, Empire Brass, and students from the Tanglewood Music Center—Henze was also in the audience for the performance) and I found this arrangement to be spectacular, and quite faithful to Henze’s original. It was such a pleasure to play in this brass ensemble. Was playing in a group ever easier or more rewarding than this, with such accomplished (and nice!) players? I don’t think so.

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For the second half of the concert, the Festival had assembled a wind ensemble. The 15 faculty members made up the core of the group while it was filled out with other professional Japanese players. This was, for brasses, mostly a “one-on-a-part” band. I had not played in a band since the summer of 1980 when I played my last concert as a member of the Goldman Band in New York City (I was a member of the Goldman Band from 1977-1980) although I have conducted many bands over the years. The program consisted of several classic works for wind ensemble: the Second Suite of Gustav Holst, Darius Milhaud’s Suite Francaise, an arrangement of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, and John Philip Sousa’s march, The Thunderer. Once again, playing in this band while sitting next to Anthony Caillet and Gene Pokorny was a rare and tremendously satisfying experience. The transparency of playing was notable, and the ensemble came together in a beautiful, rare way.

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I was also very grateful to have been asked to pen a few words of congratulations to the Festival for inclusion in the opening concert program which you can read above.

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We gathered on stage after the concert for a photo of the Academy professors. Two photos actually, each of which tell part of the story of our very enjoyable shared collaboration.

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From the opening concert we began our days of teaching. My class had five tenor and three bass trombonists. Five women and three men. Over the years, I have had many different kinds of students. There is no age limit for the Academy, so in the past I have had both young players and professionals. This year, all of my students were young. One was 17, others were in college/university, and a few had recently graduated from college. But, wow, they had such talent! It was a joy to work with them; they were all eager to try, learn, experiment. I chose three phrases as the motto for our class:

Pay attention.

Try everything.

Chase greatness.

If we pay attention to everything around us—not just other trombone players—there is much we can bring to our artistic/musical expression. If we try every option for every decision we face as musicians—where to breathe, what slide position to use, etc.—we can benefit from the improvement we make each day and not become fossilized with ideas that we implemented when we first laid our eyes on a piece of music. And from the Chicago Bears, I brought “chase greatness.” You must first know what greatness IS and when you see it, run after it, hunt it down, embrace it, and make it yours. My students bought into this and worked very hard. All of them —ALL of them!—had major breakthroughs in their playing at each lesson. I cannot remember ever seeing this happen. But this class was special. Very, very special.

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Another nice aspect of this event was the fact that my translator was Nozomi Kasano (on the right in the photo above). I  first met Nozomi at the 10th Hamamatsu Academy and Festival in 2005. She subsequently came to Boston to study with me at New England Conservatory of Music where she earned a graduate diploma and Master’s degree. The then returned to Japan where she won the position of bass trombonist with the Japan Century Orchestra in Osaka. I am so proud of her. This was the third time Nozomi had been my translator in Japan (she did this six years ago at the 20th Academy, and two years ago when I was the guest artist at the Nagoya Trombone Festival). She knows me so well, and translates more than just my words—she translates ME. Also, our class pianist was Hitomi Takara (in the middle in the photo above), a superb artist with whom I had worked with at the Academy in the past. She was my accompanist five years ago at the 21st Academy, both for my class and for me when I gave a recital at the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments. Having them with me again made the trombone class room a very, very happy place.

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Speaking of the Musical Instrument Museum, I enjoyed another visit before the Academy started. I was surprised and delighted to find video screens installed throughout the museum where visitors can both hear and see several instruments being played. This is a great addition to the musical instrument museum, and my surprise was even greater when I went to look at the museum’s serpent collection and found a video there of me playing serpent during my recital.

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The Academy also features a concert of student performers. Each class holds an audition of all of its students and one player from each studio is chosen by the professor to represent the class on the student concert. The winner that I chose to represent the trombone class on the concert was Miho Ogose, a University senior. She played the first movement of Eric Ewazen’s Concerto for Bass Trombone. Like all of my students, she played with exceptional musicality. All of us in the trombone class were so proud of her and her performance was absolutely great. Look at the photo above, taken right after the concert. The look on Miho’s face—surrounded by other trombone players from our class who were congratulating her on her performance—reflects the joy of music and music making. It was a special moment for all of us.

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The Academy and Festival concluded with a farewell party at Mein Schloss, a German beer hall near the ACT City Hamamatsu complex where all of our concerts and teaching took place (we also stayed at the Okura Hotel ACT City). This is always a fun event, with plenty of food and drink, and performances by each class. Some are silly, some are more serious, and when we drew lots to determine the order in which classes would play at the party, the trombone class drew last! So we wrapped up the festivities with performances of my friend Stephen Bulla’s arrangement of Londonderry Air and an arrangement of 76 Trombones that I commissioned from my friend Ken Amis, tubist of the Empire Brass. Fun times.

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As my plane took off from Tokyo and I watched the Pacific Ocean come into view, I reflected on my days in Japan. I have so many memories from my trips to that fascinating country. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with so many Japanese students over the years. I have friendships with many players and teachers, as well as many employees of YAMAHA Corporation, with whom I have collaborated for many years to make the bass trombone (YBL822G) and mouthpiece (Douglas Yeo Signature Series Mouthpiece) that I have played for so long. Wonderful food, interesting experiences, deep friendships, students who are eager to learn. It all combined to make for an especially satisfying trip. While it is true that “there’s no place like home,” traveling around the world has opened my eyes to many things and has made a deep imprint on how I think and live. Thank you, Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival, its organizers (especially Naoki Suzuki of YAMAHA), faculty, translators, pianists, and students. All of you are a big part of my life. Thank you for this time we shared together. I hope to see all of you again soon.

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[Photo above: Sunset at 38,000 feet, above the clouds, over the Pacific Ocean. August 11, 2019.]

[Featured photo at the top of this article: Several faculty members of the 25th Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival after the Opening Concert. Left to right: Otis Murphy, Jean-Yves Fourmeau, Nobuya Sugawa, Anthony Caillet, Gene Pokorny, Douglas Yeo.]