Yumiko-sama

When I was in my twenties I sang with a bunch of expatriate Krauts, a group that I gather still meets in a clubroom over the oldest German restaurant in D.C.

The year I joined their alto section, the group had just hired a new director: Yumiko Tanno, who had studied Baroque choral music in Germany, spoke fluent German and broken English, and was at a loose end in the United States for the three years of her husband’s posting with a Japanese bank.

She had founded a Baroque choir in Tokyo after completing her European education and could coach singers like no one’s business — biomechanical, pragmatic, unhindered by confusing metaphor. She adopted one singer from each of the choir’s four standard voices: an alto herself, though cloaked in characteristically Japanese reserve, she somehow managed to tip a wink here and there as if to say: “We are smarter than the sopranos.” Not that she would have ever said that for publication.

She gave me over a year of weekly voice coaching in exchange for meticulous lessons in the enunciation of English: when she returned to Japan, she wanted to present Handel’s “Messiah.” I remembered things I had read of the Suzuki Method, took cues from Yumiko’s own relentlessly specific directions about tone production, and we read Japanese folktales translated to English, stage plays, and a weekly segment of the Messiah scriptures, while I nudged and coaxed her vocal muscles through the businesslike consonants of English and its bizarre (to a speaker of any language but English) flat vowels.

She was the first person to stick her thumb in a muscle and show me what it meant to my whole body to extirpate one knot in my shoulder or back (a high A flat, for one thing). I probably owe her my profession.

I was as helplessly in love with her as any woman who isn’t a lesbian can be with another woman. You read that people inevitably fall in love with voice coaches because singing, if it is worth anything, comes from the deepest spindle of energy in the human frame. I am sure I inconvenienced her with reverent looks and appalled her with graceless American warmth. When her husband’s three year tour with the bank was up, I presented her, having a family connection in the business, with a gold charm of a heart transfixed by an arrow.

I wrote her a poem.

Forget now the profundity of sea
That soon must stretch between us, and invoke
The numenoi of music that shall be
Henceforth companionate to you and me
In place of one another.
Bleak without measure
The stillness where you sang and where you spoke
Already falls like dust upon a room
Abandoned to long solitude and gloom.

O mystery of the heart, great mystery
Of blood and spine and nerves, whereby the soul
Issues not from the lips, but from the whole
Creation, that once through the body goes
And fecundates within it harmony,
Massive as the dark swelling of the sea
That writes in weightless foam upon the shoal
Words of a wordless world’s great mystery.

O love surpassing love, eternal art
composed of God reflected through the heart,
Issue through us once more before we part:
Do you now sing again, and I will sing,
That through your voyage and your homecoming
And all the silence of your absence, song
Shall span the sea between us, and shall bring
To music and to you my whole life long
Love that surpasses love, my spear-shot heart.

Here I am with my cell phone — a prepaid account with a minimum balance I’ll never use up talking — texting $10 donations to the Salvation Army and Mercy Corps and the Red Cross, enter the five digit code and send the message JAPAN.

It’s not much, but it’s what I have.

Heinrich-Schutz Chor Tokyo & Ubiquitos Bach plays J.S.Bach’s BWV147-6. Cond. Yumiko Tanno
At St. Mary’s Cathedral Tokyo, on 2006.3.17

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16 thoughts on “Yumiko-sama

  1. That was a GORGEOUS poem that you wrote and a wonderful tribute. I got choked up at the part where you said you bought her a gold heart charm. The whole thing was just lovely. Thanks for being you.

    • You gonna make me blush, girl.

      I never knew what she thought of getting a heart and a poem (which I knew was in more complex English than she could probably follow); emotional and social cues are so different in the two cultures. As you can imagine, I’ve thought of her often (I kept up with one of her students by mail but lost touch in the old snail mail days). I had searched for her once before online, but the music videos weren’t posted at that time. Hit me right between the eyes. I remember all the little nuances of gesture in her conducting.

  2. Our motto (I think my daughter gets credit) is: Altos: we’re curiously strong.

    Actually, that really works for you. 🙂

    My silliness aside, this is lovely.

    • I salute your daughter’s wit! (I wish my comprimario-bass ex-husband had lived to hear that quip. He always wanted me to sing Katisha or the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe.)

    • It’s dated 2006 so my guess is yes. I think her choir kept her in Tokyo, which is a depressing but not dangerous place at the moment so far as we read. My Googling didn’t cough up any contact information, just the videos.

      When she was teaching me she had two kids ten and seven, and it’s been just about thirty years, so not old.

  3. An old school friend of mine lives in Tokyo with her (Italian) husband and three kids. It was horrifying seeing her facebook status updates while she tried to find out what the heck was going on during the immediate aftermath of the first quake – her husband was stuck in his office hi rise and her two boys were stuck at school, but all made it through safely. She says the authorities and the people of Japan are conducting themselves with dignity, selflessness and resilience, with none of the looting and lawlessness that can so often follow in the wake of a natural disaster.

    The pictures and reports coming out of northern Japan are frankly appalling. No amount of ‘2012’ type movie special effects can prepare you for seeing real destruction on such a scale. What with Christchurch and now Sendai, the Pacific Ring of Fire is certainly living up to its name.

    I hope your old friend and her family are safe.

    • As a USian, remembering Katrina, I am humbled by the way the Japanese people are handling this situation.

      The images of Christchurch Cathedral stayed in my mind for days — more than others, perhaps, because you think of cathedrals as indestructible — and the ones of Sendai don’t even seem real yet, at this distance.

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