Boston Pops In Japan: Good, Loud and Popular

TOKYO — The Japanese love American Pop culture, and John Williams and the Boston Pops are as American as baseball. The first four Pops concerts, in Tokyo’s Orchard Hall and Suntory Hall, have been met with increasing enthusiasm as Japanese audiences have dropped their collective guard.

Audience responses have ranged from finger-tapping to Ravel’s “Pavanne for a Dead Princess” (the unintended programming irony during the week of the Royal wedding politely overlooked), to feet stomping to William’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” to rhythmic clapping and balloons tossing during “Stars and Stripes Forever,” to hoots and whistles to bring John Williams back on stage for more encores.

According to Annabelle Okada, an American Japanese doctor who was a classmate of Masako Owada’s at Harvard and who attended one of the Pops concerts, “Japanese audiences are typically much more reserved than this.”

Both the audience and the orchestra have loosened up with successive concerts. As red, white and blue balloons drop from the ceiling during “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Japanese audience members grab them and toss them back into the air. Some of the balloons make it onstage where members of the string section bat them back to the audience with their hands. The noise of balloons popping is loud enough to rival July Fourth concerts on the Esplanade, and some of the orchestra musicians have taken to wearing earplugs.

John Williams is best-known in Japan for his Steven Spielberg film scores. Young Japanese women have surrounded him after concerts, asking for autographs. Posters for “Jurassic Park” can be seen in most of the subway stations, and one of the first questions put to Williams by a Japanese reporter at the press conference was “What did you and Mr. Spielberg talk about when you composed the music for Jurassic Park?” Williams said, “This is the 13th film I’ve done with Mr. Spielberg.” He went on to describe the range of musical expression available as a result of watching the dinosaurs. The Japanese audience is well-acquainted with the other 12 films Williams has scored, and during the performance of “Adventures on Earth” (from E.T.), heads swayed as if they’re watching E.T. take flight on the big screen.

Yoshito Yamazaki, the Kyodo-Tokyo concert promoter and producer who brought Madonna and Michael Jackson to Japan, has recreated Symphony Hall’s Pops sets in astonishing detail. The backdrops on stage are almost identical to those used during Pops concerts in Symphony Hall, only in Tokyo’s Orchard Hall the six suspended green rectangles look almost like giant Shoji screens with twinkling Christmas lights, and the giant bouquet hanging above them may be a reflection of Japanese flower arranging, but on a grand American scale. When the balloons failed to drop from the ceiling during the third concert, Yamazaki or “Yama-san” as he is called here, had the technical crew at Suntory Hall rehearse the balloon drop 15 times to make sure they got it right for Sunday’s concert. The half-deflated balloons fell on cue, but dropped straight down, scaring some bewildered Japanese out of their seats.

There have been some memorable solos by members of the Boston Pops orchestra: Tamara Smirnova-Saijfar’s violin solo in “When you Wish Upon a Star,” Ann Hobson Pilot, harp, Laurence Thorstenberg, English horn, and Fenwick Smith, flute, in the reprise, Martha Babcock, cello, in “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and Timothy Morrison, trumpet, in “Chim-Chim-Chiree” all from “The Magic of Disney.” Tokyo has a Disneyworld of its own now, and ”The Magic of Disney” was definitely a hit with the Japanese. There has been a wonderful solo from Fenwick Smith in Williams’ “Theme from Sugarland Express,” some great clarient playing from Thomas Ferrante in “Begin the Beguine” and Fred Buda has had his night on the drums in “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Finally, percussionist, J. William Hudgins, with his Groucho Marks glasses, mustache and cigar drew huge applause for his comic antics in Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter,” though he never actually “played” a note.

The Royal Wedding has lent an almost fairytale like quality to the Boston Pops tour. Each concert begins with Williams’ fanfare for the Crowned Prince and Princess, “Sound the Bells” (the temporary title given until the name offered by Japanese audience members is chosen). During the press conference, Japanese reporters were curious to know how Williams felt about the princess. ”We feel a great sense of pride that this lady spent so much time in Boston,” he said. When asked what impressed him most about the wedding, Williams replied, “the absence of music — though the quietude was a kind of music in and of itself.”

The quiet of the solemn Shinto wedding ceremony contrasted with the clanging bells and ringing trumpets of Williams’ fanfare for the Crowned Prince and Princess is perhaps the best metaphor for the clash of American and Japanese culture evident on the Pops tour. Williams’ remark about the fanfare, “I hope it’s good, but I’m sure it’s loud,” drew a round of laughter from the Japanese press. The same may be said of the Boston Pops concerts so far in Tokyo — they are good, and they are loud. And Japanese audiences, trained in obedience, but brought up on the Beatles, baseball, and Steven Spielberg, love the noise.

The archived image of this article is available here.

Content © Linda K. Cutting 2020 | Background photo: Unsplash | Site design: Minh-Anh Day

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