Total Immersion: Sounds from Japan

In the final concert of a day exploring Japanese music, the Barbican hosted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kazushi Ono for a concert of orchestral works by Japanese composers. The fusion of styles was fascinating, but the constant lushness of texture exhausting after a while.

London Music: Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra © Lara Platman
Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra © Lara Platman
Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© Lara Platman
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The final concert in this day-long exploration of Japanese music turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. It is likely that, with the exception of Toru Takemitsu, few average Western audiences would be familiar with the composers featured in this programme. This is of course a wonderful reason to exhibit their work – however, in programming a concert comprised of relatively unknown music (all of tonight's six pieces were national or regional premières), combining the right amount of variety with familiarity becomes even more important than usual.

Tonight's performance focused on Japanese works composed for orchestra within the last 50 years. The history of Western music in Japan only began around the turn of the 20th century, when a handful of Japanese students came to study music in Europe – mainly in Germany or Paris. After the Second World War, a more liberal political environment allowed the arts in Japan to flourish and experiment with other cultures. Equally, Western composers delved deeper into Eastern traditions, such as Messiaen's piece Sept Haikai (1962), which explored the ancient gagaku music of the Japanese imperial court. The works performed tonight go some way to demonstrating how modern Japanese composers have taken account of both their own national traditions and trends over the past century of Western art music.

The most obvious Japanese influences in tonight's programme could be seen in Takemitsu's November Steps (1967), a double concerto for shakuhachi (an end-blown wooden flute) and biwa (similar to a lute). It actually took Takemitsu a while to incorporate traditional Japanese instruments into his compositions; he studied Western music for ten years before deciding he should have more understanding of his own traditions as well. In composing this work, Takemitsu encountered problems combining the two musical styles, whose treatment of pitch and metre are often at odds. To some extent, he solved the problem simply by making this dichotomy the focus of the work, and for a good while the orchestra and soloists don't play together. An extended cadenza gave soloists Kifu Mitsuhashi and Kumiko Shuto the opportunity to demonstrate not only their technical virtuosity but also their highly developed improvisation skills. Mitsuhashi in particular gave a very impressive performance – I could have listened to the earthy sounds of the shakuhachi for hours.

Other influences of traditional Japanese music were more subtle but nevertheless created an interesting blend of Eastern and Western sounds. Akira Nishimura's Bird Heterophony (1993) used textures commonly found in Balinese music, whilst Misato Mochizuki's Musubi (2010) opened with an oboe harmony of stacked open fifths that recalled the traditional sho woodwind instrument. This ethereal harmony – in one of gagaku music's standard modes – was then passed around the orchestra among fluttering woodwind and tremolo strings, before an exciting fusion of gagaku, lion dance and samba.

A second feature of the evening was the predominance of programme music, particularly the evocation of nature. In some cases, I became completely caught up in the storytelling – such as during Akira Miyoshi's tone poem Litania pour Fuji, a prayer for Mount Fuji that depicted the eruption of the great volcano. A characteristically Eastern sense of spiritualism surrounded this piece; in Shinto religion, mountains are believed to be home to spirits and deities. An unusual combination of harp and trumpet began the piece, creating a delicate tranquillity that was subsequently consumed by the magma eruption: furious strings, a hammering piano and boisterous interjections from the brass. I found other programmatic works to be less persuasive. Toshio Hosokawa's Woven Dreams (2009–10) was based on a dream the composer had of being in his mother's womb. Whilst I got a sense of expectancy from the slow, weighty musical language of gagaku, I was less convinced by the idea of B flat running through the work as a "womb note" (as described in the programme notes).

I can't say I was totally immersed in tonight's performance. The fusion of Eastern and Western styles was fascinating; however, I found the constant lushness of orchestral texture began to exhaust the ears after a while, and I began to feel there might be rather more to contemporary Japanese music than what we heard tonight.

Programme
Nishimura, Akira, Bird Heterophony
Mochizuki, Misato (b. 1969), Musubi
Takemitsu, Toru (1930-1996), November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra
Fujikura, Dai (b. 1977), Atom
Hosokawa, Toshio (b. 1955), Woven Dreams
Miyoshi, Akira (b. 1936), Litania Fuji
Artists
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kazushi Ono, Conductor
Kifu Mitsuhashi, Shakuhachi
Shutou Kumiko, Biwa
Tickets £12.

Barbican Centre: Hall

Silk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS

Image credits:
Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra © Lara Platman