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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2000

Retracing Takemitsu's 'Steps'


In 1967 a performance occurred in New York City which changed hogaku forever. Under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra commemorated its 125th anniversary by commissioning pieces from composers around the world.

From Japan, they asked Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu (who already at a relatively young age had garnered several prestigious composition awards, and was considered one of the foremost composers of his generation when he died in 1996 at age 65) gave them "November Steps," which combined the Western orchestra with the Japanese shakuhachi and biwa.

"November Steps" was the first composition which placed Japanese instruments on an equal footing with Western ones. For this reason it was revolutionary for both the American and Japanese audiences. It gave Westerners their first serious glimpse of hogaku instruments and provided a powerful stimulus to the stagnant postwar hogaku world in Japan.

Takemitsu's composition, which counterpoints the shakuhachi's powerful breathy sounds and the biwa's percussive, energetic strokes against orchestral tonal clusters (a hallmark of Takemitsu's works), was strikingly successful. It helped further Takemitsu's recognition on the international stage and launched the careers of the shakuhachi player Katsuya Yokoyama and biwa performer Kinshi Tsuruta.

Apparently it wasn't all easy going during the rehearsals, however. The musicians in New York had never heard of shakuhachi or biwa, and many wondered why they had to use such exotic instruments. Yokoyama and Tsuruta were flown to New York for the performance, but some Orchestra members suggested that American musicians could play the composition on flute and harp, thus saving money and satisfying union regulations.

The New York musicians also had difficulty, at first, in understanding the special performance techniques and tonal colors which are unique to the shakuhachi and biwa. This, along with a sense of musical elitism, made for a cool welcome for the two guest players. Fortunately, the orchestra members soon began to appreciate the expressive possibilities of the instruments in the hands of these two accomplished masters. The performance was a resounding success, and hogaku had made its first major step onto the world stage.

Since then, "November Steps" has been played throughout the world, while hogaku has become more of a world phenomenon. Presently, most music lovers are at least aware of the shakuhachi and biwa, and many have heard them, either in live or recorded performance.

Takemitsu's piece allows us to relive the exciting moment when two distinct and different musical cultures encountered each other for the first time, and it is worth hearing over and over again.

For its 414th regular concert, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under Tatsunori Numajiri will present "November Steps" as part of a program called "Takemitsu and the Impressionists," which will also include Debussy's "Nocturne" and "La Mer" and Ravel's Concerto for Two Hands. On the biwa will be featured Yukio Tanaka (one of Tsuruta's students) and on shakuhachi, Kifu Mitsuhashi.

"Takemitsu to Inshoha," 7 p.m. Feb. 24 at Tokyo Orchard Hall in Shibuya. Admission 7,000 yen, 6,000 yen, 4,500 yen, 3,000 yen and 2,000 yen. For tickets or information call the Tokyo Philharmonic ticket office, (03) 5353-9522.

After the success of Takemitsu's orchestral piece combining Western and Japanese instruments, other composers both Japanese and non-Japanese have followed his example. Takemitsu's contemporaries, Ryohei Hirose and Minoru Miki, have both written for solo and ensemble hogaku instruments with orchestra.

Younger composers are also taking up this challenge, and the Japan Contemporary Music Society will present one such composition in an evening of orchestral works to commemorate its 70th year. Masao Endo's "Kaze no To (Wind Stupa)" for shakuhachi and orchestra will feature Teruhisa Fukuda on shakuhachi and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Kazumasa Watanabe. "Kaze no To" premiered to an enthusiastic audience in Romania last year. This will be its Japanese premiere.

"Gendai no Ongaku-ten 2000" 7 p.m. March 2 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan near Ueno Station. Admission 4,000 yen. For tickets or more information call Fukuda at (03) 3314-1083.

Two young shakuhachi players in the Osaka area will come together for a musical duel in Kansai when Hozan Harada and Yuzan Sakaguchi "fight" each other, musically, for three rounds, each vying to see how far he can go with his shakuhachi. The judges will be the audience.

NHK television has recently sponsored such contests between poets, where each poet steps into the ring and tries to outdo the previous poet's presentation. The two shakuhachi players will play contemporary hogaku compositions and whatever happens to come out in the heat of the musical moment.

"Kodawari Hogaku Batoru," 1 p.m. Feb. 27, Toyonaka City Dento Geino Kan (06) 6850-1313, a three-minute walk from Okamachi Station, Hankyu Takarazuka Line. Admission 1,000 yen in advance, 1,500 yen at the door. For information call Sakaguchi (06) 6855-8324.

The Gendai Hogaku Kenkyujo, which focuses on research and study of modern hogaku, also places a great deal of importance on the classics -- rightfully so, since only through training in classical techniques and styles can one develop the necessary fluency in the metier and the ability for performing contemporary music. The study group will be presenting a concert of kumiuta (song suites), which are the backbone of Yamada-style koto playing. Although this concert will feature student performers, there will also be some of the best Yamada veterans: Namino Torii, Kono Kameyama and Akiko Nishigata. They will be joined by Living National Treasure Reibo Aoki on the shakuhachi.

"Koten Sakuhin Kenkyukai" 1 p.m. Feb. 27, Kioi Small Hall (03) 5276-4500 (between Yotsuya and Akasaka-Mitsuke stations). Admission 2,000 yen. For tickets or more information call Gendai Hogaku Kenkyujo (03) 3565-4197. Christopher Yohmei Blasdel can be reached through his Web site, www2.gol.com/users/yohmei

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