5 August 2019

Five days into the summer holiday a large group of 68 boys and 7 teachers returned from an epic and hugely successful concert and cultural tour of the Far East. The group, comprising the School’s Senior Orchestra and Big Band had set off some five days before the end of term, flying to Tokyo via Hong Kong to give an opening concert with the British School, Tokyo, who, in celebration of their 30th anniversary of foundation, wished to have a gala, promenade style atmosphere for an end of year event. The subsequent arrangements saw us hosted and a concert with Toho High School in Nagoya (a bullet train ride away), a big band gig in Kyoto and the fourth leg of the tour in Hong Kong where we linked with the Abingdon family at a prestigious reception in the iconic HSBC building, followed by the final concert at St John’s Cathedral.

We set off for Gatwick at 6.30am on Sunday 30 June. The tour had been long in the planning, preparation and fund-raising, so it was particularly gratifying that our arrangements for travel, hosting and concerts worked smoothly and that members of the party were able to enjoy an extremely memorable tour full of new experiences, new perspectives and new friendships.

The long flight, including a stopover in Hong Kong, saw the group meeting our excellent bilingual tour guides, Patrick Jackson and Simon Doherty, and our Japanese courier, Sayaka, and checking into the hotel and a hearty and sociable dinner in an Italian restaurant just a short walk away. Day 3 started with a morning walk in cool but humid conditions and an opportunity for an opening briefing from Simon. The photos show our striking tour backpacks in vivid cerise, which made our group distinctive and easy to spot from a distance – very helpful for the supervising staff!

Having packed the instrument vans in the morning, they were delivered to us soon after arriving at the Hitomi Hall, the venue for the first concert later that day. The concert was preceded by some rehearsal, including a number of musicians from BST. It was a bonus for the boys to see and be photographed with the actual trophy of the Rugby World Cup which happened to be on a pre-tournament tour of Japan and was passing through BST. Much excitement for our rugby players!

The concert enabled our pupils to both perform themselves (Elgar, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 2 – soloist Didier Delgorge etc) and to see others perform, too. Particularly striking was the flamboyant spectacle of a large traditional taiko drumming ensemble, where we marvelled at the discipline of synchronised playing in quite a long programme played from memory.

Day 4 saw us being lifted to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Sky Tree, at 634 metres, the world’s second highest structure – a marvel of engineering, especially in an earthquake prone region. We visited a Buddhist temple complex, enjoyed a bento-box lunch on a river cruise, a walk through an ancient hunting park with traditional timber tea houses and a precisely 103-minute sinkansen bullet train ride to the city of Nagoya, where all 68 boys were met by host families.

This part of the tour was, perhaps, the most extraordinary and memorable. The kindness and generosity of the host families – and a willingness to share their home lives – made a big impression on many of the boys. Lasting friendships were made, gifts exchanged and much use made of Google Translate with ice-breaking subsequent hilarity.

Day 5 saw the boys welcomed by the Principal and quickly engaged in a host of activities with the Japanese pupils – cooking, calligraphy, origami and dressing up in Kimonos – both boys and staff, facilitated by a small army of diminutive Japanese mothers and grandmothers. The afternoon rehearsal, social event and evening concert was extraordinary. We marvelled at the discipline and skill of the famous 65 strong Toho Marching Band, who performed and danced in an extraordinarily well choreographed, memorised and executed performance – seeing is believing…  – and then joined us in our performances of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, creating a now 132-strong ensemble – watch here.

Day 6 saw us take our leave of our Nagoya hosts, with more than a tear shed on both sides. The coaches took us to Kyoto via the amazing Toyota Motor Museum, with its large international collection of motor vehicles, many of them including iconic British cars such as a Bentley in racing green livery. On the way we stopped for a stroll at the Great Buddha in Nara Park and the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji. Our hotel, run by Buddhist monks, had a serene atmosphere and the boys were welcomed with a special evening meal for which they wore the kimonos supplied in their rooms.

Day 7 started for some with a very early walk to the Buddhist temples nearby to take part in prayers and another fascinating insight, before another action-packed day got underway. This included a walking tour of the entertainment district of Old Kyoto, led by Peter McIntosh, an ex-pat Canadian impresario, well known to many in the Geisha/Geiko community. The musical focus was a big band gig in the chapel of Doshisha University, kindly organised there by an EFL teacher, Felicity Greenland.

In the evening we walked back for a restaurant supper at which we were incredibly privileged to enjoy a traditional dancing and singing performance from a Geiko in traditional kimono – with the unexpected added benefit of discovering that she spoke fluent English, having spent formative years as a teenager living in New Zealand. The boys were delighted to be able to ask searching questions and she seemed equally pleased to answer them.

The next day, following a very early start from the hotel (the boys were by now impressively disciplined in meeting deadlines) we flew from Osaka to Hong Kong. After hotel check-in, we had a brief bus tour of Central, enjoying a cool, rainy trip to Victoria Peak and dramatic views over Hong Kong. Due to the rainfall, we avoided the potentially hazardous walk back through the botanical gardens. Before supper we were able to have some brief practice at the cathedral since our Beethoven soloists had had no time to play and building renovations precluded a full pre-concert rehearsal the following day.

Day 9 was the Hong Kong Cathedral concert day. The boys enjoyed a sight-seeing tour of the many attractions – Repulse Bay, Deep Water Bay and Stanley Market – before transferring to the cathedral for our rehearsal and concert. The reception at the HSBC building was a real highlight for the boys and the staff, several of whom were able to reconnect with past pupils, many now with their own families. We enjoyed a good audience for our final concert, which provided a final showcase to celebrate the musical end to an extraordinary journey. Particularly memorable was the outstanding playing of our three piano soloists in Beethoven’s 3rd concerto – Alvin Tam, David Bicarregui and Ashwin Tennant – who received a well-deserved standing ovation.

The final morning saw us check out of the hotel for a more relaxed day at Ocean Park (think giant pandas, an aquarium and bare-knuckle rides) a return to the hotel for another feast of wonderful Cantonese cuisine and to collect instruments and luggage, before the trip to the airport and our long flight home to Abingdon, where we arrived early the next day.

This was no ordinary tour, but an amazing, memorable learning experience of international travel, concert giving, cultural exchange and friendship. All 75 in our party were in some way changed by the experience and many have forged insights and friendships which will sustain them and be sustained for years to come. These tours provide a unique opportunity to excite and inspire our young musicians who work so hard to develop their musicianship and to attain the highest standards possible.

We must thank all those many individuals and organisations who have helped us, either financially or through encouragement or shared experience. I want to thank my superb colleagues who accompanied us, and those, including the head, who willingly supported such an ambitious and challenging endeavour. In particular, I want to thank the outstanding pupils who perform with our senior ensembles, whose musicianship, enthusiasm and loyalty enable us to be ambitious and who are rewarded from time to time with the life-enhancing experiences that these tours provide.

Michael Stinton, Director of Music

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