By Ted AYALA
In the forward to his translation of Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human,” the great Japanologist Donald Keene spoke of how modern Japanese artists referred to themselves as being the “orphans of Asia.”
“Japan has become isolated from the rest of Asia, and Western nations do not accept her literature and learning as part of their own,” he wrote. That this should be so has come about partly because of Japan’s imperialist past, partly because of its sense of uniqueness among Asian nations. Despite the richness of its culture, it has faced suspicion from its neighbors and some in the west from which it has sought to be regarded as an equal.
In the case of Japan’s music, specifically the colorful history of its adaptation of Western classical music, this is a great shame. From the dawn of the 20th century to the present day, Japan has produced worthy composers that are of equal merit and talent as some of America’s best-loved composers like Copland or Barber. It has also – in the cases of Saburo Moroi and Toru Takemitsu – produced composers of the highest caliber that stand eye-to-eye with the very greatest in musical history.
A brief but very tantalizing sampling of Japan’s musical history was on display on Saturday at Occidental College’s Bird Studio. Pianist Junko Ueno Garrett, who is a member of the faculty of Occidental’s music department, laid out selections that not only prove the worthiness of Japanese music, but also provided interesting insight into its flexible views of western musical genres.
She opened her recital with a piano miniature by Rentaro Taki, a promising but short-lived composer of the middle Meiji period. A gifted student of piano and composition at the Tokyo Music School, Taki’s talents were quickly noticed by the Japanese government, which provided a scholarship for the young composer to study at the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. Soon after arriving in Germany, however, Taki became fatally ill, returning to Japan where he died of tuberculosis in 1903 at the age of 23.
His melancholy “Minuet” from 1900 already glows with a distinctive voice. Lasting just over three minutes, the work is a lovely combination of western form with the traditional Japanese pentatonic scale, which omits the subdominant and subtonic or leading tone.
The spirit of Taki also lingered in the work that followed by Kosaku Yamada, another Japanese composer who was sent to study in Germany during the early years of the 20th century. Yamada, who lived until 1965, enjoyed a long career not only as a composer but also as a conductor and sometime arranger for recordings of ryukoka, or western influenced Japanese popular music. Using as his basis one of Taki’s most beloved melodies, the song “Moon Over the Ruined Castle,” Yamada crafted an inventive work that, as Ueno Garrett
noted, channels the spirit of Scriabin, but also of the French Impressionists.
French Impressionism was also the inspiration for Yoshinao Nakada’s “On a Rainy Night” from 1948. Though here it wasn’t only the world of Debussy and Ravel that was recalled, but also the chansonnerie of Piaf and Trenet that shaped much of this music’s tone.
Occupying the mid-point of the program were back-to-back suites of piano miniatures by Akira Miyoshi and Hikaru Hayashi. Especially memorable were the selections from Hayashi’s 1984 “Nursery Songs from Okinawa.” Fusing the percussive folk-modernism of Bartók with the Chinese influenced scales of Okinawan traditional music, Hayashi’s suite was a playful work that would serve as a great source of encore pieces for the inquisitively minded pianist.
But the undisputed masterpiece on this program was “Rain Tree Sketch II” by Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu was not only one of the 20th century’s great composers, but also a uniquely versatile composer that effortlessly straddled the worlds of popular and serious music, in demand as much for his populist touch as he was for his uncompromising, modernist voice. Its fragrant, free chromaticism was played with sensitive coloring and shading by Ueno Garrett.
Japan, especially before the end of the Pacific War, took a very unbuttoned down approach to western music, not making any deep distinctions between its classical and popular genres. The echo of this early egalitarian approach resounded in the works of the last two composers on the program, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Nobuo Uematsu.
Sakamoto, founder of the techno-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra and composer of soundtracks to films such as “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and “The Last Emperor,” has also worked in the field of jazz and classical piano music. Examples of the latter were handsomely demonstrated in his “Aqua” and “Intermezzo,” both of them played with supple sweetness by Garrett.
An even more unlikely (to some western listeners) is the leap from video game to concert hall that Nobuo Uematsu displayed in the closing three works on the program, all of them excerpts from his score to the PS1 game “Final Fantasy VII,” which includes some of the best work of his career. Whereas video game music is only beginning to attract attention in the concert hall in the Americas and Europe, Japan has long embraced composers like Uematsu, Koichi Sugiyama, and Yasunori Mitsuda, among many others, and audiences have received their music very warmly in the concert hall with recordings and concerts selling out as far back as the mid 1980s.
The Uematsu selections – “J-E-N-O-V-A,” “Tifa’s Theme” and “Those Who Fight” – were played by Garett with grace and commitment, treating the works with the seriousness of approach they deserve.
Throughout the recital Garrett’s pianism and musicianship were outstanding, tending to the extroverted, which was accentuated by her bright-toned Yamaha piano. Impressive was the voicing of her chords, especially in forte and above when it is easy for color to get lost at the expense of volume. Rhythms were crisp and tight, but always yielding plenty of room for melodies to breathe. Japanese piano music could hope for no better advocate than Ueno Garrett.
One hopes that this is the first of a series of explorations of Japanese piano music because there remains much of great interest and excellence that needs to be heard. It was also unfortunate that there weren’t any examples from the early Showa era, a period of unprecedented growth and evolution in the history of Japanese music. Perhaps Ueno Garrett can share with her audience one of Saburo Moroi’s piano sonatas or something by Sokichi Ozaki in the future?
Let’s hope so.