Monday, June 20, 2011

Music for Lights @ Baruch Performing Arts Center, June 12, 2011

It is now three months since the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami ravaged northeastern Japan and, although much of Japan has returned to normal, recovery in the regions directly hit is still far away. Still now more than 90,000 people stay in temporary shelters. Then there is the whole nuclear hazard caused by the meltdown of three reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Japanese authorities have clearly been complicit with TEPCO, the company that runs the plant, in playing down the extent of the disaster and it has come to light that the radiation escaped in the accident has been twice the level that was officially reported. All of this has implications to how soon—if ever—the inhabitants from around Fukushima can return home to restart their lives.

Music for Lights was a benefit concert for Japan relief efforts organized by two young Japanese women, Jun Kubo and Hiromi Abe, based in New York. Both are versatile musicians comfortable in a variety of idioms ranging from Western classical to jazz. The concert was held in the beautiful Engelman Recital Hall of the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood.

The two women started the concert with three duets for flute and piano. The first, Sonatine pour FlĂ»te et Piano by Pierre Sancan (1916-2008), was a new acquaintance for me and I was taken by the beauty of the music. Jun Kubo’s golden flute sounded lovely in the modern piece. Her tone is very smooth, especially in the lower register. I have earlier heard her in Meg Ogura’s Pan Asian Jazz Orchestra and I have to say that her clean flute sounds more convincing in this classical context, rather than the contemporary band. Next Jun Kubo played Kojo no Tsuki, an old Japanese song which belongs to the shakuhachi repertoire. Kubo started the song with another type of bamboo flute, the transverse shinobue, before switching back to the Western flute. The arrangement was impressionistic and the overall performance quite low key. Hiromi Abe stumbled barely noticeably in some of the piano interludes. The ladies’ performance ended with Sicilienne et Burlesque by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), a rather playful piece in three parts, which suited the temperament of the two musicians well.

In between the pieces, Jun Kubo, who left Japan at 10 but keeps close contact there and even speaks the language fluently, told the audience how she had been in a meeting in Tokyo when the earthquake struck. By that time, she had already been five months pregnant. She had initially thought it was one of the “routine” Japanese earthquakes, but realized that this was something different when all the Japanese colleagues rushed screaming under their desks.

The star of the event was Jun Kubo’s former teacher, Robert Dick. He has been called by some—and with some justification—the best flute player in the world. Dick is technically superior and enormously creative on flutes of various length. Like his young student, Dick is enormously versatile and at home in many kinds of music. Unlike her, though, he can be quite untamed when the music so requires. This was the third time I had the chance to witness his live performance and every time the setting has been entirely different. Again this evening the music presented a different side of the maestro. Dick briefed the rather conservative looking audience before starting his performance, saying that the best way to listen to his music was, well, just to listen to it: “Don’t worry about the flute, that’s my job.”

Robert Dick began his segment of the concert with his own 1973 composition, Afterlight, an expressionistic exploration of the flute in which he blew two, three, even four tones at the same time, at times creating a rather eerie atmosphere. He then moved on to play the Sonata Appassionata composed by Sigfried Karg-Elert (1877-1933) in 1917, thus establishing his classical music bona fides before returning to his own compositions. What followed was Bells for Diz, a bass flute improvisation dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie who, as Robert Dick remarked, had two different stage personalities: one extremely focused when playing the trumpet and another, bubbling and lively when playing Afro-Caribbean percussion. Bells for Diz was an homage to the latter and the creative composer-performer used the big curved flute to generate an array of percussive sounds using the big keypads and blowing into the flute in various ways. The resulting music was inventive and joyful.

The final piece introduced a Dick invention, the glissando headjoint, which on the flute performs the same function as the whammy bar on an electric guitar. The inventor was initially inspired by Jimi Hendrix' guitar playing to explore how to create similar effects on the flute. He then worked over many years with instrument makers to realize his invention. The piece that concluded his part of the concert was a blues in which Robert Dick stretched the possibilities of the flute. The piece started and ended with slow slide guitar like licks. In between, he demonstrated a resourceful musicality and stunning technique moving from the blues to West African native flute tonalities and back via impressive runs.

Following Robert Dick in a concert is an unthankful position to be in. Therefore it was just as well that the next performer, singer Sahoko Sato, switched gears and genres entirely. The mezzo-soprano sang four songs accompanied by Rikako Asanuma (this young pianist is a native of Iwate, the prefecture in Japan closest to the epicenter of the March earthquake). These included Ave Maria by Pietro Mascagni (1963-1945); Kono Michi, composed by Kousaku Yamada (1886-1965) to a poem by Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942); Chiisana Sora, an unusually conventional song by Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), which he had written for a 1962 Japanese TV drama for children; and a Rogers & Hammerstein number, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

The concert ended with a tune by one of the co-organizers, Hiromi Abe, who herself hails from Soma town in Fukushima prefecture. She told about the panicky times when it took her more than 24 hours after the earthquake to be able to get in touch with her parents who still live there (we had the same harrowing experience in trying to connect with my mother-in-law in Iwate). Abe’s parents were safe but their town lost 500 people to the tsunami. Now Soma, just over 50 km from the Fukushima reactor, faces an uncertain future. Hiromi Abe ended the concert with her own song, To the People of Our Hometown Who Became the Light, with English lyrics translated by her friend Hitomi Demura-Devore. Sitting behind the grand piano, Abe accompanied herself as she sang, slightly tentatively, her mellow jazz-influenced ballad. It was clear to the audience that the words that she sang in a husky voice came straight from the heart.

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