© Julie Boyd
The boys were the first in. They tumbled in like otters at a fancy dress party. Resplendent in their leather jackets, coloured scarves and tee shirts they swaggered and preened before seating themselves in the front few rows.
As we’d followed them along the lilac-strewn path, the good-humoured pushing and shoving reminded me more of the carefree teenagers from my childhood, than the surly creatures I see these days who seem to be looking for something to damage rather than enjoy.
The architect-designed exterior of the building was untouched by graffiti, despite vast walls that would have been irresistible to the angry kids who patrol our streets on weekend nights. Massive glass walls, perfectly cleaned and designed to reflect the surrounding gardens, let the lights inside dance like fireflies as we approached.
Girls fluttered around in groups, giggling behind raised hands and dressed surprisingly conservatively. I glanced down, almost expecting to see bobby socks and flat shoes.
At 8pm precisely the lights dimmed. I had no idea what to expect and was still reeling from seeing so many teenagers coming in. It was a classical concert, but I’d not been given any more information.
The stage lights came up illuminating a magnificent pipe organ at the rear of the elegant, hand-carved wooden stage. For a moment I was taken back to visits to the famous Mormon choir in the Salt Lake City tabernacle, arranged by people I was working with who thought I might enjoy the experience. I did, but was a little freaked out at the time to be welcomed by numerous people who not only knew my name, but where I lived, and were intent on discovering whether I knew an uncle or a cousin who was based in my city. Then, I was flooded with reservations, this time, anticipation.
A curtain was raised revealing a full orchestra, and the conductor strode forward, resplendent in his tails to take the first of numerous bows to thunderous applause. The boys in the front rows applauded as if their favourite rock star had just appeared.
From stage left a crocodile trail of women appeared. Some in suits, others in school uniform, and others clearly in their Sunday best. ‘What is this?’ I whispered to my daughter-in-law. Her voice was very low in reproach as she said, ‘School concert’. Suddenly it all made sense – sort of. I couldn’t wait for a break so that I could ask her more questions. Why the different outfits, why school uniforms – were they pandering to the older men in the audience with a penchant for that sort of thing? Why on earth were the boys so well behaved?
The hall filled with magnificent music. The choir’s voices soared to dance on top of the pipe organ where a ‘Notre Dame’ type figure hunched over, barely visible. Singers effortlessly switched until it seemed that everyone in the choir had sung at least a few seconds of a solo.
A break, an intermission of sorts, but my opportunity to ask more questions was cut short by another young man striding onto the stage, again resplendent in full formal dress. He seated himself with a theatrical flick of his tails at a white grand piano which had mysteriously appeared on centre stage. A young girl dressed to the nines, followed him, and stood beside his chair. With a dramatic swish of paper and an imperious nod to the conductor, then the pianist, she signalled her readiness for them to begin. Her hands flew as she kept up perfectly with the pianist. One slight hesitation earned him the merest hint of an additional flick to the sheet music she was managing. Had I not been staring I would never have noticed.
It wasn’t until the concert reached the grand finale and the sounds of ‘the hilllls are aliiiiiive with the sound of muuuuuusic’ started to grate, ever harmoniously, in my ears and the conductor turned to where we were sitting in the audience for his first final bow, that I realised that the last song was for our benefit. The only westerners in the audience, we were accorded special visitor courtesy.
The conductor bowed, the young pianist stood up to take his bow and his assistant led him forward to take hers as well. It was at that moment that I noticed she had Down’s syndrome.
The concert was a local high school concert and everyone had a special role. The girls in suits were former students who continue to sing and play many years after they become alumni. They also act as mentors. The conductor was the junior maths teacher, and the young pianist was a year 8 student.
The concert was held in the Sapporo Concert Hall, the Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido’s equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It would not have been out of place at the Opera House. As for the young men, they applauded enthusiastically, moved respectfully outside, some bowing to us as we passed. I noticed a couple hop into one of the ubiquitous black BMW’s which cruise the streets of Japanese cities to show the presence of the Yakuza. The others vanished into the night as we walked home through metre-high snow drifts under sparkling street lights, humming that damn ‘hills are alive’ song.