A music review on Monday about the opening concert in the Focus! festival, presented by the Juilliard School, misidentified the conductor who will lead the Juilliard Orchestra in the closing concert of the festival on Friday. He is Tadaaki Otaka — not Joel Sachs, the festival’s director.
Nichi Bei Times
The Dothan Eagle
The Richmond News leader
Chinese contemporary music has attained considerable visibility and influence in the West in recent decades. Chinese-born composers, some of them scarred by the Cultural Revolution, have made major inroads in the classical music scene in the United States and elsewhere.
For various reasons, Japanese contemporary music has had less impact, despite the efforts of worthy organizations like Music From Japan, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Feb. 7 and 8 at the Asia Society. But now the Juilliard School is also rallying to the cause, devoting its annual weeklong festival of contemporary music, Focus!, to Japanese music since 1945.
Joel Sachs, the festival’s director, conducted the New Juilliard Ensemble in the opening concert last Friday at the school’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, and after chamber concerts from Monday through Thursday evenings, the Japanese conductor Tadaaki Otaka will lead the Juilliard Orchestra this Friday to close the festival. Thirty-nine composers are represented, the lone Western interloper being Debussy.
“The choices were limited only by the need to bypass pieces combining Western and Japanese instruments,” Mr. Sachs writes in the festival booklet, mainly because of what it would cost to hire specialist performers.
One of the surprises Mr. Sachs found during his research, he adds, was an abundance of prominent female composers to choose from in “a country that has traditionally been male-dominated.” Fifteen are represented in the festival, and the opening work in Friday’s program was by a woman, Misato Mochizuki’s “La Chambre Claire” (“The Luminous Room,” 1999), based on a book about photography by Roland Barthes.
It was not entirely clear how Ms. Mochizuki was applying Barthes’s notions of studium (spatiality or extension) and punctum (a small opening or incision) in this colorful work for chamber orchestra. But it may have had to do with forays made by the woodwinds — screeching, warbling or keening — over a steady rhythm in the percussion.
Then came the first exception to Mr. Sachs’s general avoidance of Japanese instruments, Toshio Hosokawa’s “Voyage X — Nozarashi” (2009), a sort of concerto for shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, and small orchestra. The shakuhachi, played with malleable, expressive attacks, produces a breathy sound, deep in terms of profundity if not pitch.
“One can hear already in a single tone the sound of the whole cosmos,” Mr. Hosokawa writes, adding that the instrument evokes “the sadness and beauty of the past.” Marco Lienhard, a Swiss-born master of the shakuhachi, did ample justice to these suggestions.
Somei Satoh’s “The Last Song” (2005) returned to the Focus! Festival, where it was heard in 2006. A setting of Walt Whitman’s “Beginning My Studies,” as much declamation as song, it ends in understated ecstasy. Christopher Dylan Herbert, a baritone and a doctoral fellow at Juilliard, heard recently as the title character in a splendid staging of Handel’s Saul, gave a sterling performance, which seemed all the more expressive for its intense restraint.
Robert Fleitz, a student pianist, was an equally fine soloist in Michio Mamiya’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (“Scenes of an Unborn Opera,” 1997), and he for his part was matched in virtuosity in a cadenzalike passage by the bass clarinetist of the ensemble, Shen Liu.
Akira Nishimura’s “Orgone” (2005) ended the program. The title, Mr. Nishimura writes, “derives from the word orgasm.”
“I hoped to transcribe the ‘orgasm’ of nature,” he added. The piece was a lively jolt, this time with ecstasy perhaps overstated.
So was it possible to generalize qualities of Japanese contemporary music from this program? Economy of means and sound? Restrained expression? Unhurried, deliberate motion? A searching spirit? Such traits can occur in almost any style, and their use, even in combination, does not necessarily point back to a Japanese style.
Maybe by the end of the festival, listeners will have a clearer idea of what specifically characterizes Japanese contemporary music. And maybe not, given the paucity of Japanese instruments.