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.



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.