Due to snow cancellations on both Monday and Tuesday evenings, Wednesday's installment of the Focus Festival turned into a marathon as an attempt was made to fit in as many of the canceled performances as possible. In the end, the evening lasted a full three hours without intermission. The full program contained fourteen pieces by as many composers. While it's not possible to describe so many works in detail, credit is due to all the musicians who worked to make the evening a success. Each of them played brilliantly and is deserving of recognition.
No retrospective of contemporary Japanese music would be complete without at least one work by Toru Takemitsu. Incredibly, considering how rarely his music is performed in this country, Wednesday evening was the second occasion this month that I had had an opportunity to hear And then I knew 'twas Wind (1992). The ACJW Ensemble had performed it several weeks ago at Paul Hall and I had thought their rendition very good indeed. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this performance even more, perhaps because the references to Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (with which Takemitsu had intended it to be paired) seemed less obvious on second hearing, thus leaving me better able to appreciate the piece on its own merits. Ji Weon Ryu (flute), Sophia Sun (viola) and Caroline Bembia (harp) gave the work an understated interpretation that emphasized its delicate imagery and texture.
Composer Karen Tanaka, who was present at this performance, is actually a resident of Los Angeles and the Program Notes remark that "her style has shifted from Euro-Modern to American Post-Modern." There was little to be heard of these Western influences, though, in Enchanted Forest (2012), a very beautiful piece that sounded exactly as one would expect from its title. Instead, the work seemed better to reflect the appreciation of nature that has always characterized Japanese art. What struck me most forcefully was the composer's grasp of the evocative effects that can be achieved through the use of the French horn, an instrument not often featured in chamber works. Here, played masterfully by Joseph Betts, it was placed front and center where its mellow tone recalled perfectly to the listener's ear the natural beauty of an ancient woodland. On the other hand, the piano part, played by Dan K. Kurland, went beyond mere accompaniment and was made a full partner in realizing this serene vision.
Time Sisters (2013) by Takashi Tokunaga was written for the unusual combination of two harps. I've noticed that the harp often figures prominently in contemporary Japanese music and have wondered if, to an extent, that country's composers employ it in place of traditional string instruments, such as the koto, as the sound produced here was more reminiscent of traditional Japanese music than that of the Western repertoire. It was interesting to read that the piece's original performers, the Matsumura sisters, had highly different personalities (at least according to the Program Notes) and that the work was an attempt "to extract a musical essence from their relationship." One can only speculate to what degree, if any, that may have influenced this performance's two accomplished harpists, Emily Levin and Marion Ravot, when approaching their respective parts.
Those in the audience who persevered to the very end of the recital were rewarded by hearing the evening's most original piece, Plastic Babys (2011) by Akiko Yamane. The composer wrote of this unusual work:
"I was inspired by Trevor Brown's picture Chemical Doll. I was writing this piece under the specter of the radiation disaster in Japan. Many people were wearing masks. I think Brown's picture's texture relates to the Japanese taste for what we call 'kawaii,' which means the cuteness, and also the admirable aspect of immaturity. I try to create these childish textures with a sense of madness. I am pursuing 'pop toxicity' as my core expression."
The music was playful, just as one would expect of a piece having to do with children. At times it reminded me almost of a carnival tune. But beneath the playfulness and "cuteness" could be heard darker undertones as well. When I searched online for Trevor Brown's artwork, I found the images to be sometimes intentionally disturbing, an element that carried over into the music. It was a reminder that a child's world is not always as bright and cheerful as adults would like to imagine but actually far more complicated. In the same way, the music itself was also much more complex in its composition than Yamane's statement would seem to imply. The recognition of deeper levels within the piece imbued it with a certain tension, or frisson, that made this performance exceptionally compelling. The musicians - Johnna Wu (violin), Alexander Knecht (viola), and Martha Mingle (piano) - did an excellent job of conveying to the audience a sense of the work's depth and ambiguity.