I recently heard Seoul described as ‘Tokyo’s wild younger brother’ and it certainly has that feel – it’s warm, engaging and fast-moving, a kind of frontier town with a slightly dangerous edge…
Our first day was a busy one, with different musicians playing very different gigs.
First, a quartet played for the children of the Give out Love orphanage. This is an orphanage sponsored by the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Seoul and it caters for disabled children, from tiny babies to much older children. The orphanage is controversial – its Pastor is currrently engaged in a series of lawsuits, including one involving his ‘baby box’ He keeps a box outside his Church, into which unwanted babies are deposited. There have been objections to this, on the grounds that it makes it easy for people to throw away their babies but the argument against that seems obvious – what would happen to those babies if the box wasn’t there?
Anyway, we’d been told that the children would be around 5 – 10 years old so it was a bit of a surprise when a number of volunteers arrived pushing prams and carrying toddlers, as well as holding the hands of much older, severely disabled children. Steve, Melissa, Maddy and Bec played a lovely concert for the kids, who behaved beautifully and it was a wonderful experience for all concerned. It was the first ACO private concert that I recall attending with a tiny baby in my arms and certainly one we’ll all remember for a long time to come.
After the performance, Maddy and I were interviewed by a number of reporters. The first question they asked us (I gather this is common in Korea) was ‘are you married’? Maddy laughed and blushed and said no but she hoped to, one day. I considered saying ‘no but I do have a child’ but given the audience, decided against it!
The following evening was our main public concert in Seoul, at the Seoul Arts Center, featuring our Korean harp soloist, Hyun-Sun Na. The concert was presented by the Korean International Festival of Music in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Australian-Korean friendship. The concert hall there is large and well appointed and the program, which included all of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, was extremely enthusiastically received – the audience cheered and stamped its feet and the ACO was brought back to play three encores! One interesting feature which purists might hate but most audience members seem to appreciate, is a big screen behind the musicians, which identifies each movement being played. Following the performance the Australian Ambassador to Korea, Mr Sam Gerovich, kindly hosted a post-concert reception for the Orchestra and Korean and Australian dignitaries, VIPs and tour sponsors.
Then it was off to Japan with a bus the next morning at 6 am and then a flight to Kanazawa.
Kanazawa, on the coast of Japan, is a delightful place – warm and sunny with quiet, wide streets and a beautiful concert hall. Most of us had a delicious lunch at the local fish markets – I was taken there by Cindy Lineburg of Austrade in Osaka, who has lived in Japan for 14 years and speaks fluent Japanese. Cindy organised the concert for us with Mr Hori in Kanazawa and it was a delight for the Orchestra to play there, as it has been in all of the concert halls here so far. The audience was quieter than our Korean audience, but just as enthusiastic and the concert was extremely well attended.
Fukuoka was next, with a very different feel. It’s a big city on a river and again, it has a very good concert hall. This was our first concert with the superb Japanese harp soloist, Naoko Yoshino and on our first day, Aiko took Naoko and some of us to a most unusual restaurant. It specialises in seafood which arrives at the table still living and some of it is eaten while it’s still breathing, or just after it’s breathed its last. Some prawns arrived, for example, thrashing around in a bowl of sake and then as they subsided into their last alcoholic bath, an elegant, elderly lady wearing a kimono very efficiently decapitated them and shelled them. We ate them immediately, raw and their heads were returned to us later, deliciously deep fried and also eaten whole. I drew the line at the abalone, which were still moving in their shells but we were fascinated by the squid, which reddened as you drew your chopsticks over each section of its sectioned but still living, body. Then we walked along the river and ate delicious bowls of ramen noodles at a crowded riverside stall with plum wine and beer, finishing the evening watching live eels killed and eaten on the spot.
The concert in Fukuoka was great, at the lovely Hibiki Hall in Kita-Kyushu – Naoko was truly wonderful to listen to and the Orchestra played a beautiful program, again very well received. Japanese audiences are the best behaved audiences I’ve ever experienced – there is almost no coughing and no talking – my kind of place.
In Tokyo we played two concerts at the exquisite Hakuju Hall in Tokyo. Aiko’s gorgeous parents (and several cousins) arrived bearing boxes of chocolates and cookies for us all – they took some of us out of tea between the two concerts. Having Aiko with us has been wonderful – she sends us all texts about the right places to shop, she looks after us all beautifully and she translates Richard after each concert – she has also encouraged her entire family and all their friends to come to the concerts.
The final concert at Kioi Hall in Tokyo was followed by a reception at the venue, hosted by Mr Miller, Australian Ambassador to Japan. The Australia Japan Foundation’s support for the Tour was gratefully acknowledged, along with the support of each guest present at the Reception. Richard took the opportunity to pay tribute to each member of the Orchestra and the Tour ended with a very late night supper followed by a visit to a karaoke bar until the wee hours…who knew that Eriikka could sing so beautifully or that Chris could do a near perfect imitation of Sir Les Paterson. Back to Australia tomorrow, both glad to be going home and sorry to be leaving this enchanted, slightly other worldly existence.
Being on this Tour has been a wonderful experience for me, both professionally and personally – I have loved every concert and have also greatly enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with the musicians, on buses, planes and in Alice’s case, three early morning runs. It is a great honour to work for this organisation and I felt that very keenly during the concerts in particular, watching the thrilled responses of audiences everywhere we played. We are extremely grateful for the support of the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australia-Korea Foundation for their support of our tour. The Orchestra is firmly committed to a regular presence in both Korea and Japan and we hope to return to both countries, at the earliest possible opportunity.
Finally, I want to make special mention of Erin McNamara, our extraordinary Tour Manager. She is incredibly well organised and always several steps ahead of all of us – she holds the whole Tour together and the musicians and I marvel continuously at her ability to set up the concerts, deal with the constant stream of questions and requests from all of us, both tiny and huge and all with the same unfailing patience, efficiency, courtesy and sense of humour – she can even speak several phrases in Japanese. She is amazing and I hope she knows just how much we value her!
Bravo to Richard and the whole Orchestra, on a truly memorable Tour!
Jessica Block, ACO Deputy General Manager