Closing the Focus! Festival with a Valentine to Takemitsu

United StatesUnited States Focus! 2015, Program VI: Debussy, Takemitsu, Miyoshi, Yoshimatsu: Sam Jones (trumpet), Alex Shiozaki (violin), The Juilliard Orchestra, Tadaaki Otaka (conductor), Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York City. 30.1.2015 (BH)

Debussy: “Nuages” from Three Nocturnes (1897-99)
Tōru Takemitsu: Twill by Twilight (1988, U.S. premiere)
Akira Miyoshi: Noesis for Orchestra (1978, U.S. Premiere)
Takemitsu: Paths (1994)
Takashi Yoshimatsu: Threnody for Toki (1980)
Takemitsu: Far Calls. Coming, far! (1980, U.S. premiere)

The world would be a better place with more of Tōru Takemitsu’s music, especially as elegantly performed by Tadaaki Otaka and the Juilliard Orchestra at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on the concluding night of the 2015 Focus! Festival. Curated by Joel Sachs, this year’s offerings were titled Nippon Gendai Ongaku: Japanese Music Since 1945, and the final program was devised by Otaka as a tribute to Takemitsu, who died in 1996 and was a close friend.

Since Takemitsu was profoundly influenced by Debussy (and Messiaen), his “Nuages,” one of Three Nocturnes, made an appropriate preface. Otaka and the orchestra found welcome refulgence, coupled with sensuous string tone, making one wish they had done Debussy’s entire set. But far less well-known is Twill by Twilight (1988), which Takemitsu wrote to honor Morton Feldman, who had died the previous year. Its references to fabric and illumination bring to mind Feldman’s Coptic Light, one of his last works, but I also heard some of the ravishing textures of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole.

Paths shows Takemitsu’s more spartan side, with a solo trumpet in an alluring, inquisitive melody. Sam Jones was utterly poised, now playing full-bore, now pivoting slightly to project into a trumpet mute on a nearby music stand.

In between came works by Akira Miyoshi (1933-2013) and Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953), each demonstrating similarly refined colors. Miyoshi’s Noesis for Orchestra is a restless landscape—now calm and gentle, now with volcanic explosions, especially in the brass. Otaka showed magnificent sensitivity—coupled with a highly attentive audience—in allowing the tiniest sounds to unfold. He showed similar thought and care in Yoshimatsu’s Threnody to Toki, a solemn remembrance of a Japanese species of bird that became extinct in 1971. Otaka coaxed silken phrases punctuated by subtle warbles and creaks from the ensemble, which was arranged to evoke a bird-like shape—strings facing each other and a piano in the rear.

An ambitious violin concerto closed the evening, based on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Takemitsu’s Far Calls. Coming, far! draws on Joyce’s density and water imagery, to create a mesmerizing canvas of tender, slow-moving shadows. The violin part, magnetically rendered by Alex Shiozaki, is mostly quiet with occasional louder eruptions, all benefiting from his pristine, formidable technique. (For the festival program booklet, Mr. Shiozaki also provided a lucid essay, “The Arrival of Western Music in Japan.”) As usual, the outstanding, committed playing from the Juilliard Orchestra would put some professional ensembles to shame. And in the entire program, Otaka’s quietly unpretentious direction, coupled with the Juilliard players’ precision, emitted the glow of a loving memorial.

Bruce Hodges

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