By Michael Huebner
FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Since 1975, the New York-based presenter Music From Japan has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of an ancient and still vibrant culture.
With the help of government and private funding, co-founders Naoyuki Miura and his wife Mari Ono have commissioned 76 works by Japanese composers and nine more by American composers whose influences are drawn from Japan.
In early July, music selected from MFJ’s extensive catalog of commissioned music was showcased during U.S.-Canada-Japan Encounters in Music, a five-day festival in Tokyo and Fukushima co-sponsored by the Music Critics Association of North America and funded largely by government sources with additional support from All Nippon Airways. The events brought ten music critics and two composers from the United States and Canada to hear three nights of new music in Tokyo, participate in lectures and forums, and witness folk music and dance in the rural village of Iitate.
The commissions, eight of which were included in the festival, have been a priority of MFJ from the start, although it wasn’t easy going at first.
“At that time, in 1975, there were almost no concerts in New York that were only Japanese,” said Miura at an onsen near Fukushima. An orchestral bassist and Fukushima City native, Miura came to New York on a Fulbright scholarship in the 1960s and graduated from the Juilliard School. “Our presentations were always Japanese music, but with only one Japanese piece on the program, so it might be Brahms, Beethoven, Takemitsu, and whatever.”
MFJ’s first commission was For You I Sing This Song by Tokyo native Yuji Takahashi, a renowned pianist, composer, and conductor. The premiere, performed by the quartet TASHI, took place at the second MFJ event at Alice Tully Hall in New York in December, 1976, a concert that also featured the Kronos Quartet and the Gregg Smith Singers.
“Yuji was a very established composer, TASHI played For You I Sing This Song quite a few times, both in the States and Europe, also by Japanese performers,” recalled Ono, a former dancer with Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York.
The next four commissions would not appear until 1987, but that year sparked a flurry of compositions for electronics, computers, and conventional Western instruments, alongside traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen, shō, shakuhachi, and koto, and the more exotic yokobue, fue, and hichiriki.
Many have had repeat performances, including Shigeaki Saegusa’s Cello ’88 (1988), which cellist Fred Sherry performed several times, and Karen Tanaka’s Guardian Angel, which was premiered in New York for MFJ’s 25th anniversary festival in 2000 and has been repeated at least 15 times.
“Guardian Angel is an orchestral piece with clarinet, harp, percussion, and strings,” Ono said. “It has been presented in several countries, including various times in Japan and in the U.S. This was the first time we commissioned an orchestra.”
Eclectic and unusual scoring define many of the commissions: shakuhachi, koto, and computer (Hinoharu Matsumoto, 1994); shō and piano (Ichiyanagi, 1995); gagaku ensemble Kikuko Massumoto, 2001); biwa, fue, and Japanese percussion (Masataka Matsuo, 2007); nohkan and shakuhachi (Elizabeth Brown, 2010), to name a few. American and Japanese composers alike wrote for mixed Western and Japanese instruments and electronic media, further expanding MFJ’s repertoire.
Although decisions concerning which composers receive commissions are made by Miura and Ono, they routinely reach out for input.
“It’s a combination of Yuki’s [Naoyuki Miura] ideas and mine,” said Ono. “We have committees in Japan to help us, and they sometimes give us recommendations. We also have close relationships with critics, and they were helpful in navigating our direction.”
In the wake of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, MFJ turned its attention to the idyllic village of Iitate, which had to be evacuated and where Miura had family ties. With radiation levels on the wane in recent years, Iitate has begun to be repopulated.
“Yuki spent summers in Iitate during his childhood,” said Ono. “It’s really a very close family. We have friends connected to Fukushima and we invited many of them to Iitate.”
MFJ programming began to reflect the horrors caused by the disaster.
“In 2012, one year after the disaster, people started to forget about what happened, so we had the mayor of Iitate give lectures in New York and Washington, and we commissioned poems and music about Iitate, one with kugo,” said Ono.
That piece, Fuyuhiko Sasaki’s To Be Human, scored for voice, kugo (7th-century harp), and haisho (panpipes), was performed July 5 at Tokyo Concerts Lab in the Shinjuku area. Set to a poem by Jotaro Wakamatsu and dedicated to the village of Iitate, it plaintively summoned a return to plow the fields, plant rice, and to “live together in our village once more.” Both timely and timeless, it was sung with disarming repose and naturalness by Hitomi Nakamura.
Several more MFJ commissions were programmed July 6, also at Tokyo Concerts Lab. Yuta Bandoh’s Seesaw for violin, piano, and string trio (2016) was a whimsical play on drones and string glissandos, the string trio adding depth from their placement throughout the hall.
The renowned cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi brought Saegusa’s Cello ’88 (1988) to life, brilliantly negotiating the work’s difficult double stops, scales, and soaring lyricism. Tomiko Kohjiba’s Wadatsumi (2012) for cello and piano conjured the “god or spirit of the sea,” according to the composer, who has written several works related to the March 2011 tragedy. Tsutsumi and pianist Kaori Osuga vividly beckoned the emotion surrounding the events.
Norio Fukushi’s The Night of Full Moon (2011), for voice and nohkan, was the high point of the July 6 concert. Though not expressly tied to the tragedy, its relevance was apparent in the poetry of its mythical tale. There was power in Keiko Aoyama’s voice and grief in her facial expressions as she related the tale of a princess who must return to her home on the moon. Performing on the nohkan, a shrill 15th-century flute, was Kohei Nishikawa, who acted as a counterweight and commentator as the narrative unfolded.
The Tokyo Sinfonietta, conducted by Yasuaki Itakura, presented two more MFJ commissions on July 7 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. From 2017 came Tokuhide Niimi’s quintet for piano and winds, titled shape of the soul. Also dedicated to the 2011 events, its pervasive trills, freneticism, and emotional outbursts made a more abstract reference, though the tension was softened toward the end by interjections of a Bach chorale.
Composed in 2005, Naoko Hishinuma’s In the Deep Sea II created an ominous undersea ambience with undulating percussion figures, tone clusters, soft flute arpeggios, and sustained strings. Gorgeously orchestrated with distinctive impressionistic undertones, this score likely left a strong mark on listeners anticipating further references to 2011.
New York audiences have an opportunity to hear MFJ’s newest commission next year from Yumi Saiki, whose music has been performed in New York (MFJ, 2007-08) and throughout Europe and Asia.
“Yumi will be the featured composer for the coming season, and she is to write a chamber piece,” said Ono.
Formerly the classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com, Michael Huebner now writes for artsBHAM.com, a website devoted to arts coverage in Birmingham. Before coming to Alabama, he wrote freelance for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.
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