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BBC Phil Japan tour ... sadness and stoicism

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Julian Gregory Julian Gregory | 12:39 UK Time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

Photo of a BBC Philharmonic rehearsal in Hiroshima's Bunka Koryu Kaikan hall, Japan


The Japan earthquake forced the BBC Philharmonic to abandon a tour. Here Julian Gregory (First Violin) reports on the dramatic events. Photos by Andy Price (First Violin).

Occasionally, there is a moment which defines a point in our lives. Either side of it, life is different. Our moment occurred on the Yokohama Bay Bridge, twenty miles south of Tokyo, at 2.46pm on Friday 11 March.

Before the convoy of coaches reached the bridge, we had been enjoying a remarkably successful tour of Japan, with five excellent concerts already done. The partnership with conductor Yutaka Sado and soloist Nobuyuki Tsujii (below, right) was spectacular, the halls were sold out, the logistics ran as smoothly as a bullet train. The band had flown out to Japan in two groups - carnivores via Paris and vegetarians via Amsterdam: the Dutch serve better veggie in-flight meals.

Our first destination was Hiroshima. This is where you begin to get the first taste of a foreign tour; gathering a snack for the train journey from a Japanese station involves some bravery, as nothing is explained in English and there's a bewildering array of unidentifiable delicacies. It's pot luck, resulting in food envy when you see that your colleagues are unwrapping something delicious as you stare bemused at the oddly shaped thing you still can't identify... You know you're on tour.

Photo of pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii

A free day in Hiroshima helped to smooth off the jetlag. Acclimatisation before the work begins is important; fighting to stay awake onstage isn't great for our performances. Many visited the Peace Park and Museum, created as a tribute to those who lost their lives and futures in the atomic bomb in 1945. This was a profoundly moving experience, and unknown to us, a premonition of the way in which the Japanese people cope with dreadful adversity. The concert on the following day set the standard; Nobu's Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto leaving us and the audience spellbound, and Yutaka's poise and enthusiasm inspiring the band to play to our very best. We knew this was set to be a great tour.

The concerts that followed were equally successful; the hotels, the travel, and the helpful generosity of our tour agents and the Japanese people - all were as good as it gets. Although the food, the sightseeing and the socialising are an integral and enjoyable part of touring, it's the concerts that define the way we feel; and we felt good.

Concerts followed in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Matsumoto. We ate strange things. We travelled at nearly 200 miles per hour on trains. Our luggage was magically transported from place to place, the instruments were always there, ready for us at the venue.

There were two splendid receptions put on by our hosts, the second of which was provided by Yutaka, our conductor. A couple of orchestral instruments came out for a few Irish jigs, to entertain the hosts, and it turned into a freestyle jam session - with our esteemed conductor unexpectedly whipping two recorders out of his case and playing both at the same time; even our soloist got up to dance. All was well; half way through, and next stop Yokohama. A day later we set off in convoy for the 25-mile trip to our sixth concert, just the other side of Yokohama Bay bridge.

Picture of Yokohama Bay Bridge

Yokohama Bay Bridge

This is where we became a small part of a world-changing moment. Many of us have tried to describe the feeling of being bounced around as the coaches stopped on the bridge, but it's hard to explain. The feeling was surreal; something was happening that none of us had experienced, and that was the point at which the tour changed. The most powerful earthquake to hit Japan since records began became its defining moment.

It took a little while to realise the enormity of the event. We even rehearsed the programme in the hall, having made it intact across the bridge. Our tour agents, led by the calm and supremely efficient Kazu, grasped the situation. Possible tsunami; we are at sea level... on the coast. The concert is off. The team packed up the instruments, and we launched into the gridlock to arrive at the Tokyo Dome Hotel nine hours later. Nine hours on the orchestra bus, and not a peep of complaint.

The hotel swayed and creaked throughout the night. Everyone had their own experience; some were calm and bemused, but most were worried. Thirty floors up in your room, the substantial aftershocks were magnified, and so it was downstairs to the lobby for many. It was difficult to get messages back to friends and family, as the mobile phone networks were jammed, and as the news became clear of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, the sense of unease grew. Tokyo was unusually quiet, the people appeared calm and stoical, but you could see that they were shaken by more than just the earth.

This was now a different tour. The BBC decided quickly that we should come home, and new flights were arranged with impressive speed and efficiency. We met in the lobby of the hotel with Yutaka; a sad moment for everyone as we said goodbye - for now. We were to move south to Osaka, stay one night, and return home.

The orchestra was safe, but our thoughts were constantly with the people whose lives had been ended or changed forever by the tsunami that hit northern Japan that day. Their stories will continue; every lost soul is grieved by the people they knew, thousands of lives were lost, and many more thousands changed forever. The whole orchestra and its management feel a bond with the Japanese people after a very special concert tour that was marked by friendliness, generosity and the highest standards, and which ended with so much sadness. We resolved to return, to finish the the tour, to take our music back and rejoin the artists we'd grown to like and admire so much. There will be a time when we can return, and fulfil our promise.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for a thoughtful article and the great photos. It is truly unfortunate that such a meticulously planned tour could not be consummated. I was lucky to be among the sell-out crowd in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, when the orchestra, Yutaka Sado and Nobuyuki Tsujii gave a rousing performance this past February. It saddens me that many in Japan have been deprived of the enjoyment of this performance.
    It is now April 13 and Nobuyuki Tsujii has been touring in my country, the U.S. Mr. Tsujii has dedicated each of his recitals to the people of Japan, and has composed a moving piece to commemorate the victims of the disaster in his homeland.
    I do hope that the Philharmonic will have an opportunity to return to Japan one day to complete the tour.


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