Worlds brought more closely together – the Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio

Chamber Music NZ and the New Zealand Festival present:
Music from Japan and New Zealand

Mayumi Miyata (shō)
Nanae Yoshimura (koto)
Tosiya Suzuki (recorder)

OSAMU KAWAKAMI – Phoenix Chicken
TOSHIO HOSOKAWA – Bird Fragments 111b

TRADITIONAL – Banshiki no Choshi (for shō)
Tsuru no Sugomori (Nesting of Cranes – solo recorder)
Chidori no Kyoku (for koto and voice)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 28th February, 2016

For a time it seemed as though the world had realigned its meridian intersects and taken St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace and its occupants north of the equator to somewhere in Japan. Woven into this enchanted web of things were a trio of musicians, a clutch of composers and a spell-bound audience, united for a brief time to wondrous and magical effect by means of exotic strains and realizations, wrought by the performers. The latter were inspired by both traditional work and present-day creativity, performing a programme of music with age-old folk-music presented side-by-side with new compositions from both Japanese and New Zealand composers.

Not for these musicians a performing world of merely antiquities, featuring only museum pieces or cultural artifacts from bygone ages – the trio has encouraged living composers to write for their instrumental combinations as well as for the solo instruments – a glance at a list of composers who have worked with these musicians indicates their involvement in music-making as a living and creative tradition, besides paying homage to the great works of the past.

All of this would be of specialist interest only, were not the actual sounds created by the instruments in this ensemble of such beauty, poignancy and atmosphere. Whether playing together or individually, the sounds and timbres brought with them such strongly-flavoured and sharply-focused evocations as to hold our attentions in thrall for timeless durations. The concert’s opening took us straight to such a sound-world, by way of Mayumai Miyata’s playing of the shō, a traditional Japanese mouth-organ, the musician giving us a traditional work, Banshiki no Chosi.

I found the listening experience arresting, if at first a little disconcerting through not being able to clearly see the player’s face (I can’t think of another instrument that’s similarly designed – the mouthpiece is at the bottom, so that the instrument’s “body”, when held up to play, almost completely obscures the player’s facial expression and any movement associated with the physical act of breathing. Still the strains made by the instrument are so ethereal and unworldly, that this “disembodied” effect given by the player isn’t inappropriate. The timbres were not unlike the highest notes of an organ played softly and sustained for great, long-breathed periods of utter calm and serenity.

Chris Gendall’s piece Choruses, which followed, was anything but serene, resembling choruses of  wild things uttering long-drawn cries, punctuated by excitable flurries of energy. The shō player.Mayumai Miyata had exchanged her instrument for a lighter, wood-grained affair, though I couldn’t discern a difference in sound-quality to that of the previous item – the instrument exhibited the same kinds of ethereal ambiences, with many variations of intensity.  I had difficulty observing the recorder-player, Tosiya Suzuki, as the composer, (Chris Gendall, who was conducting) kept getting in the way, though the sounds made by the player via his instrument certainly had a mournful and volatile impact upon the whole.

No such impediment obscured my view of the koto player, Nanae Yoshimura, who coaxed from her instrument a range and depth of expression which I found remarkable, not only in the music’s more forceful sequences, but in the sustaining resonance of the lower timbres. The music seemed to me to set different time-frames together, as if they were warring relativities – as with peace and war, calm and tumult, chaos and clarity, we experienced through the music a series of “altered states” which left its impression upon us long after the sounds had ceased. Each of the instruments contributed to the contrasting effect of these opposing realities, a point from a different view, or state of mind, one that left this listener more-than-usually sensitized to disruptive potentialities!

The trio again took the stage to perform Osamu Kawakami’s somewhat disconcertingly titled work Phoenix Chicken – the only clue to this mystery was the equally enigmatic comment in the composer’s printed biographical note: – “Kawakami is deeply interested in living creatures, and many of his works (including Phoenix Chicken) have been titled after them”. Tosiya Suzuki had exchanged his flute-like recorder for one of the largest I had ever encountered – whether a great bass, or sub-great-bass, contra bass, or sub-contra bass I didn’t know, but it impressed with its looks alone, and it made a splendid noise!

How helpful the Phoenix Chicken title was for the listener I wouldn’t have liked to have guessed at in general – perhaps some contextual reference of which I remained blissfully aware! To me the piece seemed to deal with different kinds of rhythmic complexities and tensions, building them up through interaction and then dissipating them, the recorder augmenting the textures with various kinds of bird calls, gurgling  and chuckling, as if pursuing a kind of separate internal rhythmic pulse. The koto mused over melodic figures in a cimbalon-like way, varying the figurations beautifully with strummed chords augmented by interjections from the shō, a texture through which the recorder lurched and strutted like some kind of living creature, the music’s last few measures resembling some kind of poultrified climax!

Birds of a different kind of feather then glided gently into our ambient sensibilities with the magically-distanced beginning of the folk-inspired Tsuru no Sugomori (“Nesting of Cranes”), Tosiya Suzuki here exchanging his hookah-like contraption for a recorder about the size of a clarinet. He used this new instrument to convey at once a sense of the spaces into which the birds flew to build their nests, via graceful phrasings and resonant tonguings. The music introduced new calls throughout, including one sounding uncannily to my ears like a quote from Sibelius’s “The Swan of Tuonela”, amid the diametrically different surroundings of the Japanese piece.

A similar kind of spatial experience using a very different harmonic language was provided by Samuel Holloway’s Mono, the music beginning with what seemed like a tentative exploration of a scale and octave, the instruments making their unisons and individual notes like depth-soundings in reverse, pushing gently upwards and outwards as if creating spaces in a void, energizing the inert spaces where there was nothing except the will to receive and to be impregnated with impulses. After establishing some kind of acoustic domain, and pausing to consider how best to proceed, the music then tried some semitone ascents, involving slow repetition of single notes before moving upwards, a fascinating/frustrating/despairing process of laying bare that which silence had hitherto concealed – almost like Michelangelo’s famous slaves slowly emerging from the raw marble, frozen with tremulous wonderment at having been given their freedom in any degree or part.

Toshio Hosokawa used just two instruments to express his work Bird Fragments IIIb, the shō paired with the recorder, enough to evocatively set ground-fowls against a high-fliers! The ethereal tones of the shō at the outset conjured up images of elegance and graceful beauty, until the entry of the recorder’s timbres brought an angular, at times raucous presence to the sound-picture. This intensified with the introduction of a smaller recorder, capable of the most ear-splitting squeals, until the tones of the shō finally prevailed and order of sorts was restored.

With a third traditional piece, Chidori no Kyoku, Nanae Yoshimura demonstrated to us the expressive qualities of the solo koto, a kind of Oriental dulcimer, capable of conveying a vast array of tones, timbres and colours. I was pleasantly surprised to find the piece was actually a song, which Nanae Yoshimura delivered with pleasantly plangent tones, at first activating her instrument with a brief introduction containing a flourish and a short but dignified processional sequence before beginning to sing. The music gave an impression of great depth of melancholy, the player varying the vocal line with the occasional tremolando effect, before breaking into a quicker dance tempo – one might have interpreted the sliding figure at the end as a dry death-rattle or else a strengthening of resolve to dispense with the song and go on throughout life, taking it as it comes.

It was left to Dylan Lardelli and his beautiful work, Retracing, for the ensemble plus a guitar (played by the composer) to conclude the evening’s music. At the beginning the recorder (here, played as if it were a transverse flute) and then the shō breathed on the wind to one another, the guitar adding its voice with a few low notes as the “dialogue of winds”  grew in intensity, before being joined by the softly-strumming koto. Occasionally the recorder and shō made attention-grabbing sounds, goading the guitar and koto into a response, and animating the discourse, a dynamic which all too soon reverted to those half-lit ambiences of the opening. Particularly beautiful were the guitar’s pin-pricks of light gently punctuating the firmament of sound, everything generating a sense of emotion recollected in tranquility.

Was it a kind of re-exploration of youthful impulses? – the gently pulsating sounds seemed to re-evoke memories, but at the same time surrender them to the inexorable tread of time – it was all, at once, beautiful and desolate. Still, one wouldn’t have wanted the afternoon’s music-making to end otherwise, as the musical worlds we were taken into were, for the most part, of such a delicate and fragile nature. In fact they demonstrated something we need to be reminded of occasionally, in this frantic, insistent world we’ve created for ourselves, that simplicity and understatement have a power and resonance all of their own to refresh and renew our human spirits.

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