SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
“Spring Sounds, Spring Seas” = JAMES NYORAKU SCHLEFER: Haru No Umi Redux; Shakuhachi Concerto; DARON HAGEN: Koto Concerto: Genji – James N. Schlefer, shakuhachi/ Yumi Kurosawa, 20-string koto/ Orch. of the Swan/ Kenneth Woods & David Curtis – MSR Classics
Published on June 18, 2013
“Spring Sounds, Spring Seas” = JAMES NYORAKU SCHLEFER: Haru No Umi Redux; Shakuhachi Concerto; DARON HAGEN: Koto Concerto: Genji – James N. Schlefer, shakuhachi/ Yumi Kurosawa, 20-string koto/ Orch. of the Swan/ Kenneth Woods & David Curtis – MSR Classics MS 1429 [Distr. by Albany], 64:24 ****:
I’ve reviewed several of these East-meets-West compilations lately and have to say that the present collection is the most successful in truly engaging both parts of the globe in meaningful dialogue. Actually, however, the disc begins with a work that seems, despite the use of Western instruments along with koto and shakuhachi (a straight-line bamboo flute of Chinese origin) to have far more Eastern proclivities than otherwise. Haru No Umi Redux (2011) is based on the duo Haru No Umi by the Japanese koto master Michyo Miaygi, “a seminal work from 1929 that brought Western musical influences to Japanese instruments.” The notes to this recording go on to say that while on a tour of Japan, French violinist Renée Chemet was struck by the work and adapted the shakuhachi part for violin. Miaygi and Chemet recorded this version of the piece, and it became a hit in both Japan and Europe. This was supposed to be an important early example of the fusion of Japanese and European music that composers such as Hisato Ohzawa and Qunihico Hashimoto explored in the years before World War II. (By the way, these two composers and a number of others can be sampled in Naxos’ excellent Japanese Classics series.) But as I say, to the casual student of Japanese classical music, the piece sounds very Eastern, having the quiet dignity of the more delicate-natured pieces of gagaku.
In Haru No Umi Redux, master shakuhachi player and composer James Nyoraku Schlefler has replicated the music of Haru No Umi in its entirety but has bookended the piece with original music of his own and has expanded the original duet to include Western orchestral instruments. It makes for a pleasant brief opener to the program. However, Schlefer’s Shakuhachi Concerto (2009) shakes things up quite a bit more, if you’ll excuse the pun. The Eastern flute competes with an orchestra featuring very prominent, and especially in the last movement very noisy, percussion and leaves anything but a feeling of tranquility with the listener. The first movement is agitated, restless but within bounds, bounds that are broken altogether in the rondo finale, which ends with a bang, not a whimper. There’s some respite in the second movement, entitled Crystal Solitude, which, following a cadenza for the solo instrument, introduces “a cluster derived from the chords found in gagaku music.” This for me is one of the most successful examples of musical fusion that I’ve heard lately and would make a splash in the concert hall if some enterprising orchestra board would give it a chance to be heard.
Longer on Eastern atmospherics is the Koto Concerto: Genji (2011) by American composer Daron Hagen, who’s probably best known for his operas. Hagen based his concerto on the eleventh-century Tale of Genji. Often called the first novel in history, it’s a complex tale with a giant cast of characters. Hagen confesses that his music is not programmatic but instead scenic, its five sections based on “five psychological situations from the novel.” The music follows the central story of the noble-turned-commoner Genji and his love affair with a woman he has never seen but whose playing of the koto wins his heart. Fascinatingly, when the concerto was commissioned by Kyo-Shin-An Arts, Hagen had never written for Eastern instruments before and had to acquaint himself with the koto and its music. The result is a very engaging work that expands and evolves from a quietly dreamy opening (Cicada Shell) through a series of pieces that grow in intensity to the final ecstatic movement, Vanished into the Clouds, which supposedly portrays the consummation of Genji’s love for the koto player.
The excellent Orchestra of the Swan supplies the Western instrumental sounds that accompany this musical fusion. Just recently, I’ve enjoyed the orchestra’s work in symphonies of Hans Gál and Schumann (on Avie), and I find the players equally game and equally compelling in this very different program of music. Plus, MSR’s recording is really first-rate, close-up but not in the least claustrophobic—in fact, very open and airy. A winning musical experience on all scores.