Mini-report on the Second Summer Piano Festival in Sano, 1998

This is more or less unedited the post I made to the Piano-L mailing list, plus a footnote in 2002.


From: (chandler)
Date sent: Fri, 7 Aug 1998 01:22:54 +0000
Subject: Amateur fumbles in Sano

I've been subscribing to this list for a month or so, and have found much of interest, not to mention inspiration. Er, me: I had my first piano lesson on 12th January 1956, and last Saturday for (as far as I can remember) the first time in my life I played something in public without any music to look at. Progress! (No, nothing much happened in between.)

A little while back I spotted a poster for the "Sano Summer Piano Festival", something new to me, in which one Tanaka Akane would play the Chopin etudes op. 10, and some other bits, and also anyone living or working in Sano could have a 5-minute slot and play something. Admission free, both to audience and participants. No obvious signs of commercial sponsorship, except that it's a Steinway piano. Sounded fun, so I applied, extremely unsure of quite what to expect. What would the general standard be? I failed, to my regret, to persuade offspring 1 (Ian, 15) to enter, either on his own, or to play our current duet, the Bolero from Moskowski's Spanish Dances op. 12, with me.

Then the programme came back: Part 1 Elementary kids, 18 of them; Part 2 Tanaka Akane; Part 3a Secondary kids, 15 of them, Part 3b Adults, 10 entries. That's a long programme - from 1 o'clock to almost 6 o'clock. I'm down to play three Scriabin preludes from Op. 11, nos. 6, 10 and 11, sandwiched between renderings of Nagisa-no-Aderiinu (sorry don't know English title: Clayderman's[sp?] most famous piece) and "East of Eden". How on earth did they decide the order? Age of performer?

For various reasons, we didn't arrive on the day until the end of Part 1, just in time to hear the end of the last item, a competent Fur Elise. The hall was fairly well sprinkled with a familiar-looking audience, the little children+siblings+parents+grandparents+aunt+ uncles of a happyou-kai ("Music-school-concert"?). The Mayor appeared, and at last explained the raison d'etre for this event. It seems that the venue, Bunka Kaikan, the biggest hall in Sano, possesses a Steinway grand ("this famous German piano" [footnote]) which is, er, more or less never played, so someone had suggested giving the kids a chance to play it. (A very Japanese story, somehow.)

Turns out that Tanaka-san is a pianist from Sano who now lives in Germany. She played the Mozart Rondo, K485, Schubert Impromptus Op 142, Nos. 3 and 4, and the Chopin. Accomplished playing, and yet, I thought, rather too many accidents, all seamlessly patched up by repeating the necessary number of beats, which struck me as rather unmusical. I also thought her selection was a bit dry if it was intended to attract and inspire little kids.

Part 3a, the big kids, was fairly solid classical repertoire, played at highly variable levels of competence. Two highlights: Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wien - I don't know this at all (I have my own personal problems with the Sch_ composers - too many notes, and they sound much easier than they actually are), but it was played well, by the only boy in this part (Problem 1). And the jewel was one Motegi Maki, who played the Chopin G-minor Ballade, beautifully. In between, there were moderately successful bits (Reflets dans l'eau, Aufschwung, Polonaise op. 40-2) and the not so.

Part 3b started with the Motegi-Sekiya cousins (families I know) playing the first movement of Dvorak's piano quintet, Maki (Chopin Ballade) appearing on the viola this time. It was easy to believe the claim they had only found two days to rehearse, and the less said about the intonation the better, but there was musical rhythm, and an element of fun, otherwise sadly lacking (Problem 2). This is the "adult" part of the programme, and the genre shifted decidedly towards the iijii risuningu. And people started disappearing. "Nacht" from Schumann's Op. 12 scratched, the extended families from part 1 had long left; the Mayor was probably on his third following engagement by now. I'd wondered whether all? some? one? of the people playing things like "My Way medley etcetera" (in 3 minutes) would turn out to be bar pianists, who would enchant us with something else you can do with a piano, but no such luck: most were beginner arrangements, and none of the performers was less than 20 years younger than me, blowing my pet theory for the programme order. I ended up following the only remaining "adult" who played a "proper" piece: a music student with a very competent performance of the Beethoven six variations Op. 34.

So I walked out to the piano, gazed out on approximately twelve hundred empty seats, just distinguishing my group of supporters at front left, the gang with the last two performers in front, and some scattered remnants at the back, decided there wasn't much to be nervous about, and promptly fell to pieces. Hands collided with each other in a way that's never happened before (or since; is this what "interlocking octaves" means, btw?), and it took the first half of no. 6 to calm down and start thinking about the music. The remaining 3 minutes whatever passed without serious incident, and perhaps wasn't bad. My supporters clapped as I expected them to. I do wonder though: are pianists, unlike singers or instrumentalists, really expected to perform without warming up?

So was it a Good Thing? Will I play again next year? Overall, yes, I think so. Here, though, are few things which seem to me to be problems.

Problem 1: no boys
Ironic, considering the recent discussion about "Women and the Rach3", but in Japan the popular perception is overwhelmingly that the piano is for little girls, and wispy-elbowed ladies.

Problem 2: no fun
I do so wish we'd played that Moskowski. It's not technically difficult (or impressive), but it's a dance, it's got rhythm, and it's fun. Except for the Dvorak, this commodity was otherwise sadly lacking: too many of these girls (see Problem 1) walked on in robot march, bowed, sat, played, stood, bowed, walked off. Next please, and no smiling. Could have been a school exam.

Problem 3: age
What can you say? I suspect the Guest, Tanaka-san was the second oldest performer, and she's a couple of decades behind me. Where do they go? Why do they learn anyway? Well, the answer might be supplied by something I noticed recently in the "My ambition" column in some school paper, where out of a class of about 40: girls wanting to be pianists = zero; girls wanting to be piano teachers = three. So the purpose of having piano teachers is to inspire little girls to want to become piano teachers. Yes, yes, I know: being a piano teacher, just like being a technical translator, except the keyboard's bigger, can be immensely rewarding, but it isn't the sort of reward you would expect small children to appreciate. Sadly, though, I suspect that for many children Piano is just another of those things like English Conversation, that have to be done as a duty to parents. Inevitably there is an overspill from all this of capable women pianists, who are exported to Germany. (This was actually the second Festival: apparently last year's guest was a different pianist born in Sano who lives in Germany.)

I don't want to be too negative: of course there is music appreciation and enthusiastic music making in Japan, and in Sano too. I belong to the "Ninth Choir", which, no, isn't like the "Moscow 26th Elementary School", it's named after its function, which is to sing Beethoven's Ninth at New Year (another story, that), though we get to do something else in the summer. Good fun: oddly I find myself close to the young end of the age range.

If some of my wording seems odd, it may be because (a) I'm English and/or (b) I've lived in Japan for a while. Bits in italics are Japanese, roughly Hepburn romanisation - "Pronounce the consonants as English, the vowels as Italian." The management is not responsible for the eighth bit.

Brian Chandler (
Sano, Tochigi, Japan, Planet 3



We live and learn: "this famous German piano"

I'm fairly sure that when I was at school we had a piano bearing the name "Steinweg". I always assumed that (like most other musical things) it came from Germany, and as it happens, I was right. But it was a long time before I pieced together the story: the school piano was a Grotrian-Steinweg, made by the original Steinweg family firm, later in the hands of a Herr Grotrian, somewhere in north Germany; but most of the family emigrated to America, and anglicised their name to Steinway. So Steinway - spelled like that - is an American company. What I still didn't know, making my jibe at the Mayor rather misplaced, was that the American Steinway also opened a factory in Hamburg, which is where the Sano Steinway was made. It's famous, and it's German, if not quite "this famous German piano."

I spent some rather fruitless time searching on the web, before I realised that of course a complete potted history appears under "Steinway & Sons" in Slonimky's master tome, The Concise Baker's, A biographical dictionary of composers and musicians. More details in my bookshelf: Music

Get the book: (USA) - Amazon UK - Amazon Japan (Japanese: Popup help)