Musical epitaphs evoke Japan
AFTER a holiday season filled with happy but predictable celebrative music, the Honolulu Symphony inaugurated the year Friday with celebrations of a different nature: featuring two pieces commemorating the dead, both of them premieres and contemporary works.
Although quite different in style, Donald Womack's "After" and Shigeaki Saegusa's "Tengai Cantata" both merge traits of Japanese and Western music. Womack's piece pays tribute to the victims of the Ehime Maru; Saegusa's work honors Akio Morita, founder of the Sony Corp.
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $22 to $73
Call: 792-2000 or Ticketmaster, (877) 750-4400
Naoto Otomo conducted the program -- featuring Reiko Kimura on koto and Seizan Sakata on shakuhachi in "After," and the Roppongi Japanese Male Chorus, boy soprano Takaaki Ozawa and the men of the Honolulu Symphony Chorus in "Tengai."
Womack thoroughly explains the musical forces behind "After" in the program notes. Nine is the key number to the piece, as nine were the victims of the Ehime Maru 2001 incident. We hear nine main soloists' passages, a theme of nine notes and nine major sections. These elements are easy to perceive and make the work accessible even to the listeners hostile to contemporary "classical" music.
The powerful beginning, brilliantly played by four sets of timpani, throws us immediately into the tragic mode of the event. Then the piece alternates moments of complex interaction among the orchestra's sections, lyrical passages in the solo parts and murky portions by the strings. This contrast brings us close to the powerful and multiple emotions involved in the tragedy.
Two features of this piece strike at once. First, each contrasting section is presented in a very timely way. Although disturbing to untrained ears, the dissonant sections seem to end just before tiring the listener, while the lyrical parts last long enough to return us to familiar but still dramatic feelings.
Second, the musicians seem to enjoy the intricacy and interplay among instruments. It must be an exciting piece to play, as everyone holds a key role in the overall piece.
The soloists were fabulous in delivering traditional Japanese sounds with Western sensitivity and Japanese decorum. The composer joined the orchestra as the audience repeatedly applauded.
Saegusa's cantata, introduced by composer and librettist, is built on philosophical ideas about death and music. The Japanese text evokes the love of Romeo and Juliet and Cesar and Cleopatra, while the strictly tonal music suggests a sentimental mood, closer to what we associate with new-age music. The choruses were powerful and the young Takaaki sounded like an angel. The piece was a success due to them and the orchestra, under a impeccable conductor.
Valeria Wenderoth has a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches.