Traditional Western instruments welcome a musical friend from Japan

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

The traditional violins, bassoons, trumpets, etc. will be in attendance as expected when the Hartford Symphony Orchestra sounds its first notes at this weekend’s concert.

However, audiences will also hear a stranger in the midst for one composition.

The shakuhachi.

For “Kanno Revive, Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi,” Kojiro Umezaki will join the orchestra on the Japanese instrument, an open-ended flute.

Umezaki took up the instrument (which is probably closest in pitch to the Western C-flute) he said, because “I grew up in Tokyo and attended a high school where the choral teacher was studying with one of the great masters of the instrument. I had been playing the Western flute and he suggested that I try to learn to play the shakuhachi. Being of mixed-race (he’s Japanese and Dutch), I’m sure there was an interest in learning more about the Japanese side of my roots, more than my non-mixed peers, perhaps.”

“Traditionally, (the shakuhachi) was a solo instrument,” explained Umezaki. “Itinerant monks of a particular sect of Zen Buddhism would play it, often as a part of asking for alms, but more importantly as a means to practice breathing and mediation.”

“After the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, that sect was banned and what was already a secularized practice of the instrument became more so,” said Umezaki.

“There is a tradition form of trio of music that combines shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto. And, there’s also its use in popular forms of music that developed out of reopening Japan’s borders and adopting Western ideas on instrumentation and musical devices,” said Umezaki.

For the performance, Umezaki will be performing with the symphony as a whole—a challenge for any solo instrumentalists.

“One challenge (performing with an orchestra) stems from instrument design, somewhat on a philosophical level,” said Umezaki. “Basically, it’s about matching loudness or volume with an orchestra of instruments that were designed to project sound in a maximally uniform way.”

“Western instruments are incredible in that the dynamic range of every instrument is quite large and it’s relatively consistent from the lowest note to the highest,” said Umezaki. “The shakuhachi isn’t designed that way. Some notes are purposefully quiet. The asymmetrical nature of the tone-quality and loudness of each note is desirable. That works nicely in a solo context, but it presents some challenges when you’re playing with a whole orchestra of instruments.”

From the point of view as a musician, Umezaki said Kanno’s Revive, Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi “has a sense of clarity that supports the theme of the work, ‘revive,’ quite nicely. Speaking just for the shakuhachi part, it’s written to be melodic in many moments and is quite idiomatic in terms of longer phrases that afford shaping individual notes. I think Kanno’s background as a composer working in film and animation underscores that he comes from a generation of composers who are more comfortable with a bigger ‘toolbox’ to work with, and the inclusion of shakuhachi and koto isn’t much of a departure for him; they are simply part of the toolbox.”

Umezaki is part of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, which recently provided the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s documentary, “Vietnam.”

“It is a part of American history, and it’s also a part of the history of South East Asia. I don’t think I can really write anything that can speak to its scale of complexity, terrible decision-making, and abject horror and tragedy,” said Umezaki.

“Silk Road’s mission is to continue to find new pathways to strengthen mutuality across differences. In that sense, it’s participation in the sound track–at least in concept–might be to offer a more aspirational tone in what is clearly a very troubling and conflict-ridden part of modern human history,” said Umezaki.

When audiences hear the opening notes of Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi, Umezaki said, “The piece is titled ‘Revive.’ I think the composer— and the musicians performing the piece— would be deeply satisfied if everyone there gave a chance for each phrase to speak to that theme.”

The HSO will present Beethoven’s Eroica Friday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Oct. 8, in the Belding Theater at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. The program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica,” Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, and Kanno’s Revive, Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi.

Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets start at $35; $10 for students with ID.

For more information, call (860) 987-5900 or visit www.hartfordsymphony.org

4/18/07 Koijro Umezaki from the Silk Road Ensemble Photography © Todd Rosenberg Photography