Japan: NEXT by Continuum Contemporary Music
Presented by Continuum Contemporary Music May 26, 2016, 8 pm Mazzoleni Concert Hall 273 Bloor Street West
Japan: NEXT was presented by Continuum Contemporary Music on May 26, 2016, as part of this year’s 21st Century Music Festival. We sat together that night in the smallish but comfy Mazzoleni Concert Hall at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. There was a lot of wood and most of the audience looked and talked like informed subscription audiences attending an evening of contemporary classical music. Scattered throughout this audience were the individual Japanese persons of different stripes — those born in Japan, those born in Canada, those representing the Japan Foundation, those speaking English and those speaking Japanese, plus a few music students, enthusiasts, and music writers filling out the crowd.
First up in the programme was Misato Mochizuki’s Silent Circle, a Canadian premiere which combined the sounds of the East — Mitsuki Dazai’s 13-string floor harp (koto) — with sounds of the West — Anne Thompson (flute), Catharine Cosbey (violin), Sheila Jaffe (viola), Paul Widner (cello), Sanya Eng (harp), Rob MacDonald (guitar), Ryan Scott (percussion), and Brian Current (conductor). Wide open spaces with sky and trees and the audible growth of a large encompassing circle of sound were evoked, and flute interludes and wisps of breath enlivened the piece. Here’s how the composer describes her composition. “Wandering through a labyrinth means turning in circles … Silent Circle is the pure form of a spiritual quest within your internal/external labyrinth. [where] Goal and source then merge.”
This evening’s concert was clearly about new approaches to music making and composing and had little to do with mainstream concerts where bits of Japanese songs — Sakura Sakura or Sukiyaki — are liberally scattered throughout the amplified music. On this evening, the thinking was noticeably international as the musicians performed contemporary acoustic concert music. Often the rehearsal time was only four hours spent on a piece, but despite such limited time and limited financial resources — a fact of musical life as stated from the stage by Continuum’s artistic director Ryan Scott — all the music was played with great care and delicacy.
When Hiroki Tsurumoto’s Cursor 6 started sounding, we heard the regular occurrence of certain passages (cursor = running, Latin) and we grew attentive to the salutary phrases from Laurent Philippe’s piano. Each time a range of bell-like tones were respectively struck on the piano, glockenspiel, and marimba by Philippe, new directions opened up in the sound envelope. The players were Sanya Eng (harp), Rob MacDonald (guitar), Catharine Cosbey (violin), Laurent Philippe (piano), Ryan Scott (percussion), and Brian Current (conductor). Tsurumoto says his composition — a world premiere — was inspired by thoughts generated during his long distance running. He observed that, within the time constraints of his run — as it happens — it’s the details within that change; these details change in the music as well. Cursor 6 is a quiet triumph of finding the art in life.
Look on Glass was Michael Oesterole’s new work played by Ryan Scott (marimba), Mitsuki Dazai (13-string koto), Jinny Shaw and Robin Thompson (sho), Sanya Eng (harp), Rob MacDonald (guitar), and Catharine Cosbey (violin). It was about emergence into a full dialogue with others. This concertino in four movements for solo marimba and a small ensemble of Japanese and Western instruments was played within a tight melodic shape that occasionally broke out in dialogue. So that, as if looking through an imaginary pane of large transparent glass, attuned audiences could step out from a state of isolation into a new reality.
After Intermission, three pieces by Dai Fujikura contrasted beautifully with the preceding pieces in the programme. In the fanciful Touch of Breeze — surely the shortest of musical compositions in the world, clocking in at 1 minute, as requested and commissioned by the Okeanos group, this piece was written for sho (Robin Thompson), viola (Sheila Jaffe) and clarinet (Anthony Thompson). It was conceived as a musical ‘teaser,’ much like those movie teasers meant to draw audiences into the theatres. Breathing Tides was a duet for sho (Robin Thompson) and oboe (Jinny Shaw). In a musical role reversal, the sho played the melody line and the oboe contributed a harmony line with its multiphonic bursts. Eventually the two separate lines come together, and at the piece’s end, they breathe as one. The third Fujikura piece was Okeanos Breeze, written for Ensemble Okeanos. It was performed by Robin Thompson (sho) and Jinny Shaw (oboe), Sheila Jaffe (viola), Mitsuki Dazai (13-string koto), Anthony Thompson (clarinet), and Brian Current (conductor). Although it was the first time Fujikura has used Japanese traditional instruments in a composition, the composition never descended into a mockish pastiche of ‘Japanese sounds.’ Instead, the composer has suggested that being born in Japan and then spending his crucial teenage years in the UK, make him … [and his music] … a mix of both cultures.
Then the concert ended — yes! — with the North American premiere of Death Metal Rock with Head Bang by Hikari Kiyama. Its loud exuberant whistles, engaged piano chording and ‘death metal’ influences brought us right up-to-date. The players were Leslie Newman (flute), Anthony Thompson (bass clarinet), Sanya Eng (harp), Paul Widner (cello), Laurent Phillipe (piano), Brian Current (conductor). This composition and performance amounted to ear-cleaning, avant garde classical style.
This was the concert. Perhaps puzzling to some — and this listener can see and hear why? — it seems these new compositions from Japanese and non-Japanese composers at least didn’t fall into the bad habit of exoticizing Japanese and Western musical instruments — instead, the instruments became an alluring part of each composer’s palette.
But hear for yourself: I recommend you get out there and support live music. There’s a lot to experience.