Largely successful Japanese chamber music concert at St Mary of the Angels

New Zealand Festival
Chamber Music Series

Dylan Lardelli (conductor and guitar); Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio(sho, koto, recorder); soloists from Ensemble Musikfabrik (Peter Veale – oboe, Hannah Weirich – violin, Makiko Goto – bass koto); Yuriko Sakamoto (shamisen)

Music by Chris Gendall, Dieter Mack, Keiko Harada, Kikuoka Kengyo, Rebecca Saunders, Dylan Lardelli, Samuel Holloway

St Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street

Friday 9 March 2018, 6 pm

There are, inevitably, concerts where a critic feels out of his depth; music that is almost of the future, or from a sophisticated culture that one has little experience of. One often approaches them with trepidation, fearing that it will be music that is so remote in spirit and language from familiar Western music that one has no touchstone by which to assess it fairly, certainly with any sense of authority.

So it didn’t help when a young man came out after the stage had been arranged, seats and music stands, to tell us something about changes to the programme. He was on the right; I was seated on the far left; clearly he had little experience in projecting the voice, unamplified, into a big space and I caught about one word in 10.

However, it emerged that two items had been deleted – by Takemitsu  and a recorder fantasie by Telemann, and a couple of others had their order reversed.

What remained as a challenge was simply the style of much of the music from the Gagaku, ancient Japanese court music, from around the 8th century. Though I have heard this music in various contexts over the years, I don’t recall a concert where such refined and sophisticated examples dominated most of the programme. Unfortunately I was not at Chamber Music New Zealand’s concert by this Japanese trio in February 2016 (you’ll find the review by Peter Mechen in Middle C) which would have somewhat acclimatised me to the sounds here.

The remoteness of the music was compounded by the appearance of the word ‘extended’ in the programme note, a word that usually implies that the musicians are taking liberties with the traditional performance styles by exploiting extremes of pitch range or articulation to produce multiphonics (two or more notes simultaneously) on a wind instruments.

One was launched unceremoniously into one of the most refined and attenuated pieces of the evening with an anonymous, traditional piece, Hyojo No Choshi (described as ‘an extremely elegant performance ritual’), played by Mayumi Miyata on the sho. It is a Japanese reed instrument where a bundle of reeds are tied together vertically, and held in front of the face. The sound might be compared to a very high reed stop on the organ, though it struck me that the bamboo reeds produced a hint of string sound as well.

The music evolved with extreme slowness, two or more notes sounding simultaneously – multiphonics, some a semitone apart thus producing what to most ears would be discords. The visual effect too was very striking: Mayumi Miyata in white stood behind the altar, freshly painted in white or similar colour under very bright light. Behind her was the beautifully carved reredos.

Two or three minutes were spent between most pieces to rearrange seats, music stands and to bring in or take out various instruments – the most conspicuous being the 13-stringed koto and the even bigger bass koto (I assume also having 13 strings), which could be likened to a lute, zither or cimbalom, though played by plucking rather than using mallets.

Gendall: music and joinery
Both were brought out next, played by Nanae Yoshimura and Makiko Goto. The piece was by Chris Gendall: Reverse Assembly, which the notes described as “a rather adorable internet-search translation of a type of interlocking Japanese joinery”. One had to assume that Gendall had managed to create a piece, regardless of its recondite inspiration, that measured up to the Gagaku aesthetic tradition. Four other players, including two New Zealanders: oboist Peter Veale and guitarist Dylan Lardelli, handled sho and recorder (Tosiya Suzuki) and violin (Hannah Weirich). While the six players indeed created an singular, alien sound, and the inspiration of Japanese joinery quite escaped me, I confess to falling under the spell – eventually.

Dieter Mack: a trio with koto
Next was a piece by German composer Dieter Mack, with a more familiar title: ‘Trio VII for oboe, violin and bass koto’ (commissioned by the German element in the group, Musikfabrik). My notes included words like ‘squeaks’ and ‘screeching’ (violin harmonics) but later my response to Veale’s alternating oboe and cor anglais, the emphatic, low notes on the kotoa, hints of melody, indicated a degree of curious appreciation.

Keiko Harada
The fourth piece was a quartet from a Japanese composer, Keiko Harada: a ‘quartet for sho, recorder, guitar and bass koto’ composed specifically for these players. Suzuki used three recorders: one, the biggest I’ve ever seen, standing more than two metres high with a long mouth-piece that extended, unlike the bassoon, to the top of the instrument; the other two, conventional. Clearly a most serious intention underlay the ensemble of sounds, often most arresting, occasionally evocative even if at the end my notes recorded a degree of mystification: I could only feel that its real secrets rather eluded me.

The shamisen arrives 
Kikuoka Kengyo’s Iso Chdori (Beach plover) brought out Yuriko Sakamoto’s shamisen, a mandolin shaped three-stringed instrument, with a very long neck with a febrile, delicate sound. The other plucked instrument, filling the lower register was the koto whose player, Yoshimura, also gave voice occasionally. This struck me as more evocative of a traditional Japanese idiom, with subtle, coherent tunes, derived from real musical impulse rather than an urge to experiment.

Glance back to Europe with Saunders
Next, a piece the composer Rebeca Saunders attributed to inspiration by lines from a poem by Samuel Beckett: To and Fro, for oboe and violin. Opening with slow warm notes on the G string, some multiphonics from the oboe. Though no Japanese instruments were employed, nor overt references to Japanese music, her obscure, perhaps pretentious inspiration could well have derived from an ultra-refined eastern culture; this listener felt that occasional arresting passages gave the music coherence in spite of the sense of Beckett’s words escaping him altogether.

Lardelli conducts Lardelli 
Dylan Lardelli’s composition, Holding, involved five players with Lardelli conducting; they were arrayed from the left: sho, oboe, koto, violin and bass recorder. Their impact was to create a generally convincing coalescing of European and Japanese cultures; in this instance Lardelli’s words contrasting sound and silence, intimacy and distance, light and shadow did reflect something of the music’s spirit.

The summing up, by Holloway
Finally, six players; sho, recorder, oboe, guitar, shamisen and bass koto performed Samuel Holloway’s Japonisme, a comment, reflection on European approaches to Japanese culture, including ‘appropriation and misrepresentation’, involving what seemed a deeply ingested understanding of the complex processes of cultural integration experiments.

In spite of a frequent sense of being out of my depth, of failing to be sufficiently familiar with the spiritual nuances of Japanese music, this was a most interesting and largely successful attempt in cross-cultural creativity.



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