Japan is home to a vibrant classical music scene, with many composers who are internationally respected, even revered. Last year's disastrous earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear meltdown gave at least two of the nation's most prominent composers their sad chance to produce work based on these catastrophic events. All three of this program's works were heard in their American premiere performances.
Toshio Hosakawa's Meditation is so new that the score's ink was hardly dry. It arrived in Charleston less than a week ago. Written for a substantial orchestra that almost overflowed the Simons Center's limited stage space, conductor John Kennedy and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra have been laboring mightily to prepare what turned out to be a very difficult and complex yet extremely effective piece. Written in four sections, the first one, "Beat of the Earth," was especially evocative and harrowing. It seemed to come in waves of sound that reminded me of gradual buildups, of subterranean tension, until the inevitable, pounding "snap" of earth-shattering release came in heavy cascades of violent brass and percussion sound. Other wave-like musical structures evinced the massive ebb and flow and crashing destructive force of the tsunami that followed.
Besides his status as the dean of living Japanese composers, Toshi Ichiyanagi's other main distinction is that he was the first husband of Yoko Ono, before she left him for a very different kind of musician. His Symphony No. 8, Revelation 2011 was equally effective, but in a very different way. In keeping with his extensive experience in composing film scores, it came across as more "cinematic" in nature than the preceding piece, even though he used some devices and effects that sounded similar. Written for a somewhat smaller orchestra, it had something of a "concertante"-type structure, with frequent use of (beautifully played) solo instruments, mostly strings. It alternated between what seemed like primordial natural chaos and a mournful threnody for the disaster's victims.
The final piece, Somei Satoh's ethereally serene Listening to the Fragrances of the Dusk, couldn't have been more radically different from the other two. Written well before Japan's recent disasters (1997) for a small orchestra of strings, its almost inaudible beginning slowly grew in volume, in shifting, overlapping clouds of softly textured sound that bloomed occasionally into louder pangs. As Kennedy explained beforehand, the atmosphere, punctuated by stretches of silence, was timeless, with no sense whatsoever of structured rhythm or forward progress. After the intermittent violence of the two preceding works, letting this delicious music bring the program to a meditative and peaceful close was a welcome feeling.