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Saturday, Sept. 16, 2000


Japanese music millennium: new music for the Heisei Era


As the days grow shorter and evenings cooler, the hogaku season begins to pick up. September, October and November are the best months for experiencing the arts in Japan as the creative impulses, stifled by the summer's oppressive humidity, break forth in an array of interesting concerts, recitals and events. The hogaku fare for autumn is the best of the year, culminating in the National Music and Arts Festival held in Tokyo and Osaka Oct. 2-Nov. 10.

The Orchestra Asia Japan Ensemble is directed by the noted Japanese composer Minoru Miki and includes an impressive group of young and midcareer hogaku players. Their upcoming concert, "Heian and Heisei: A Thousand-Year Connection," will feature three outstanding contemporary hogaku works.

Miki has spent his career writing compositions which put traditional Japanese instruments in modern settings. He has also worked hard to promote and encourage other younger Japanese composers.

One of Miki's concerns is that the composers who have won composition awards, like the National Theater Hogaku Composition contest, have few chances to actually have their music performed.

In their upcoming concert, Japan Ensemble will perform top compositions from two previous National Theater contests: Ichiro Seki's 1995 "Light and Dark" and Chinese-born Hu Hinyue's "Moon at the Autumn Beach," this year's grand prize winner.

The final piece on the program will be Miki's own, the Japan premiere of a new opera, "The Tale of Genji." This opera, part of a series of operas based on Japanese history, was written in both English and Japanese. The English version premiered this June at the St. Louis Opera House, and the same cast will come to Japan next year for the Japan premiere of the English version. For this presentation, however, the arias and vocal parts will be done on traditional Japanese and Chinese instruments.

"Heian to Heisei, Sen-nen no Kizuna," Orchestra Asia, Japan Ensemble, 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at Tsuda Hall (in front of JR Sendagaya Station). Admission 4,500 yen at the door, 4,000 yen advanced reservations. For more information call Ora-J Music Office, (043) 241-3141 or see their Web site, www.ora-j.com

Kioi Hall sponsors a series of hogaku concerts, all with interesting themes, aiming to make the genre more accessible and popular. This they do by presenting first-rate hogaku artists at reasonable prices. The next concert will feature the sankyoku genre.

Sankyoku ensemble music became popular in the Edo Period and remains so today. The name literally means "three pieces," or, more precisely, a piece played on three instruments: the shamisen, koto and shakuhachi. Actually, it might be better to term it yonkyoku, since the voice is also an integral part of the ensemble, though the lyrics are sung by either the shamisen or koto player.

A typical sankyoku piece consists of lyrics, composed especially for the occasion or taken from older sources, sung to instrumental accompaniment. The piece begins slowly, and the song makes much delicate use of melisma, where a vowel sound is stretched for several notes. The elongated vowels are punctuated and adorned by the melody of the shamisen and the koto, which occasionally breaks into a kind of simple counterpoint to the shamisen melody. The shakuhachi, fluid as the voice, basically follows the shamisen line while ornamenting and emphasizing the song. Spaced between sections of the song are short instrumental interludes (tegoto) where the players demonstrate their technical abilities. The longest of these interludes usually occur in the middle of the piece and can be technically very demanding, exciting and entertaining.

The upcoming Kioi Hall concert will feature sankyoku pieces from both the Yamada and Ikuta koto styles and a shakuhachi solo. Living National Treasure shakuhachi player Reibo Aoki will be performing, along with Hiroe Yonekawa, Shoin Yamase and Namino Torii on koto, and Koji Kikuhara and Hirokazu Fujii on shamisen.

Sankyoku, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at Kioi Small Hall, near JR Yotsuya Station or Akasaka Mitsuke subway station; (03) 5276-4500. Admission 5,000 yen, 3,500 yen. For tickets, call Kioi Hall Ticket Center, (03) 3237-0061, or see the Kioi Hall Web site at www.kioi-hall.or.jp

The Pro Musica Nipponia (Nihon Ongaku Shudan) is a group of professional hogaku musicians from various genres who came together to explore new possibilities and combinations in hogaku music. Founded in 1964, the Shudan, as it is called, has traveled extensively in Japan and overseas, and maintained a high technical and artistic standard while experimenting with contemporary music.

Their upcoming concert, "A Dream for an Autumn Night," will feature works by veteran composers Ryohei Hirose, Ichiro Higo and Katsutoshi Nagasawa, juxtaposed with a new work by the younger composer Kazunori Miyake.

"Pro Musica Nipponia, Aki no Yoru no Yume," 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Vario Hall, a 10-minute walk from Suidobashi Station. Admission 5,000 yen, 4,000 yen or 3,000 yen in advance, 5,500 yen, 4,500 yen or 3,500 yen at the door (all seats reserved). For more information contact the Shudan at (03) 3378-4741 or see the Web site at www.promusica.or.jp

Virtuoso koto player Keiko Nosaka will team up with the well-known guitarist Ichiro Suzuki for a program of traditional Japanese music arranged for guitar and koto and Western classical music arranged for koto and guitar, with performances in Tokyo and Nagoya.

Both musicians have been pioneers in their fields. Nosaka invented the 20-string koto in the late 1960s and the 25-string koto in the 1980s. Suzuki studied classical guitar under Segovia in Spain and has given recitals around the world. Both have mastered the classics but are avid performers of the contemporary and experimental as well.

It is not easy to combine instruments of different cultures, ages and metier, but when it is done well, the results are outstanding -- as one expects from these two veteran musicians.

Nosaka Keiko and Suzuki Ichiro Dual Recital, 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at Tsuda Hall in Tokyo. Admission: 5,000 yen, 4,000 yen. For reservations or more information, call Duo Japan at (03) 5428-0571. 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at The Concert Hall (Denki Bunka Kaikan) in Nagoya. Admission 4,000 yen. For more information and reservations call Watanabe at (052) 802-3584. Christopher Yohmei Blasdel can be reached through his Web site, www2.gol.com/users/yohmei

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