Waiter, Bring Me Another Order of Ears Please
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
03/11/2014 - & March 14, 2014 (Madrid)
Toshiro Mayuzumi: Bugaku
Kiyoshige Koyama: Kobiki-Uta
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps
Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Eiji Oue (Conductor)
E. Oue (© T. Iijima)
When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is the calming anodyne after previous concert pieces, “previous” music must be totally banging, walloping, and maddening.
That was the effect last night in a very unique program by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, which is starting their 100th Anniversary World Tour. And with over 150 players playing at their top volume, it did start off with 45 minutes of bangs.
For the record, the Tokyo Philharmonic is decidedly not the NHK Orchestra, which is Japan’s most eminent orchestra. The Tokyo Philharmonic has gone under a bewildering variety of names since 1911, when it began in the offices of a kimono shop as “The Boys Classical Music Ensemble”, then the “Central Symphony Orchestra of Nagoya”, the “Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra” etc etc etc.
Their present conductor, Eiji Oue, is obviously a dynamic conductor–in fact a too dynamic conductor, as you shall see. And his three works last night in Alice Tully Hall really did shake the rafters.
The start was Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Bukagu, which had a rather tragic history. No less a choreographer than George Ballanchine wanted the music of this highly embellished Japanese court dance to serve as background for a ballet. Needless to say, the dancers, with tutus and classical steps, were a reportedly a ridiculous sight, though the music was not to blame.
In fact, Mayuzumi had created a quite authentic Western orchestral version. (Though the title was wrong. Bukagu is the dance, and he had made music for the Gagaku, the music for the dance.) It did indeed seem authentic for this neophyte. In fact, nearly everybody is a neophyte, since non-aristocrats were forbidden to even hear the music until a few decades ago. But Mr. Mayuzumi probably got things right. The wailing oboes and flutes, the strings which went shimmering up and down with unearthly glissandi. The drums which pounded out their rhythms. The tinny sounds which would have punctuated the missing dancing and the mystical emblems on the stage.
In Western terms, much of this seemed aleatory, much of the string bowing was improvising up and down the fingerboard, much like Penderecki’s early music. The ensemble sounds themselves were very very loud, as loud as they were discordant. At first they were reminiscent of Varèse’s unfinished work about an orchestra tuning up. At its rare consonant times, Carl Ruggles could have been using this as a template for Sun Treader.
But the following piece, Kiyoshige Koyama’s Kobiki-Uta while equally discordant, had a story. A real story. It starts with instruments imitating a handsaw, heard through strings bowed close to the bridge. Then, through a twelve-tone chord, a lone cello sings a little melody. The melody is heard at a festival, then becomes part of popular music in a city (very much like Gershwin’s city in American in Paris), and after the metropolis and its full orchestral dissonance, we hear, once again, the long melody, this time played by a bass clarinet.
Perhaps it is démodé to follow a simple story instead of listening to the music, but this was the roadmap for what would otherwise be a loud palette of sounds. Then again, conductor Oue was part of the show itself, as he danced about the podium with grace, crouches and jaunty elegance.
So finally, Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring played by all 150-odd instruments. Next to the preceding works, it seemed almost conservative, but that couldn’t be true. It sounded as brilliant, as shocking, as vigorous today as it did a century ago, and Mr. Oue visually flogged his orchestra to give it an energetic performance.
That, however, was hardly the end. Within a minute, the encore–a twelve minute encore–was played and danced by the conductor and orchestra. This was (gulp) a mélange of music by Irving Berlin, starting with No Business Like Show Business, ending with God Bless America. The arrangements seemed to have been based on 1950’s MGM sludgy exuberance.
With that, mere kitsch was transformed into something quite awful. Along with its questionable grammar (“God, please bless America”, God, You’d Damn Well Better Bless America”), this is no National Anthem. Mr. Oue, though, waved an American flag, jumped into the audience and pulled the front-row listeners to their feet.
About 90 percent of the audience dutifully rose. However, not being raised into a nation of sheep, I sat, waited until it was over, and retreated from this misguided effort to enjoin, woo and ill-conceivably insist on audience obedience.