Above: Misato Mochizuki
Thursday March 2nd, 2017 - In the midst of this busiest of weeks, I set this evening aside to attend the latest in The Miller Theatre's wonderful Composer Portrait series. Tonight's event centered on Misato Mochizuki, a native of Tokyo (born 1969) who, after receiving her Masters degree in composition at the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo in 1992, moved to Paris, where she took 1st prize in composition at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris in 1995.
Ms. Mochizuki is now a well-established musical presence in Europe, and her style aligns aspects of Japanese traditional music with elements of contemporary Western composition. Her music is both other-worldly and accessible, with an essential sense of quietude; but echoes from the realm of nature - and of spirits of the ancient world - can suddenly be displaced by jagged edges and sonic thunderbolts.
Tonight's presentation was truly impressive: five of Ms. Mochizuki's works were rendered in a series of spectacular performances by musicians thoroughly committed to and inspired by her music.
Above: Russell Greenberg, performance photo by Cherylynn Tsushima
The evening started with master percussionist Russell Greenberg displaying uncanny virtuosity in the U.S. premiere of the composer's Quark - Intermezzi III dating from 2010. Emerging from the darkness, Mr. Greenberg continually swung a buzz bow overhead, varying the speed to alter the pitch and creating a moaning, sighing sound as he began to strike, rub, or otherwise coax music from an array of drums, cymbals, and - most evocatively - the gong. Transforming himself into a one-man orchestra - and even whistling at one point - the player creates a sense of kozmic energy which builds to a thunderous finale as he repeatedly lands hammer-like blows on the bass drum.
What better introduction to a composer's work than Mr. Greenberg's staggering performance? Aside from being blown away by both the music and the playing of it, I couldn't help but think that some enterprising choreographer could utilize this incredible score as the setting for a dramatic ballet - something along the lines of Balanchine's Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir.
Pianist Ning Yu immediately took her place at a prepared Steinway for Moebius-Ring, written in 2003. Emphatically struck notes set up an echo effect. An ironic jingle in the upper register cascades downward and the pianist takes up a pulsing dance-like passage that becomes insistent. Scurrying scales, staccati, and single-note blips snatched out of air give way to a duel between high and low accents. Rising and descending scales and stuttering notes pop up, and an animated section transforms itself into a high filigree before a forte downward swoosh leaves its echo hanging on the air. Super!
Above: the JACK Quartet, photographed by Shervin Lainez
Terres rouges ('Red Earth'), dating from 2005-2006, found ideal interpreters in the members of the JACK Quartet. This congenial brotherhood of string players includes Jay Campbell, a cellist I heard a few seasons ago playing Adamo and Fairouz with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke at Merkin Hall. Mr. Campbell is joined by violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, and violist John Pickford Richards.
Above: the JACK Quartet, performance photo by Cherylynn Tsushina
Seemingly played on muted strings, Terres rouges creates a sort of sonic fantasy land, commencing with a seesaw motif. As the work progresses, we hear music that at one point seems elastic - almost rubbery - followed by progressions of scrapings, stutterings, and spot-on attacks. Giddiness and squeaky sounds suddenly evaporate in a mist of sighs and whispers. A great agitation subsides to delicacy, a rocking passage streams up to celestial highs. Music like insects conversing turns utterly pianissimo before the piece ends on a sustained, agitato high note.
The JACK players seemed to revel in the score's quirky demands. This is music which frequently seems devoid of perceptible counts; they played it instinctively...and magically.
Following the interval, Ms. Mochizuki talked briefly with Mr. Greenberg (above photo by Cherylynn Tsushima). The composer spoke of her admiration for New York-based musicians, and of an 'art island' in Japan which is especially dear to her; her words made me long to be there.
I was delighted to have an unexpected opportunity to hear oboist James Austin Smith (above) tonight; Mr. Smith is a particular favorite at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and it was a special delight this evening to hear his multi-hued timbre is Ms. Mochizuki's brilliant and demanding solo work Au bleu bois. Composed in 1998, and thus the oldest work on the program, this music calls for very specific skills from the performer, and which Mr. Smith conjured up to perfection.
Here is a player who can find melody in the most fleeting of phrases, and who can produce the sensation of playing two tones at once. In music that trills, squawks, bubbles, and bounces, Mr. Smith was thoroughly at home, playing with jauntiness one moment and perfect subtlety the next. A fantastical cadenza leads to a concluding wistful song.
An artist who has it all - felicitous technique, inviting tone, emotional resonance, and good looks to boot - it is always rewarding to experience James Austin Smith in performance. I only wish my choreographer/friend Claudia Schreier could have been there: she greatly admires this talented oboist.
Above, the ensemble Yarn/Wire: Russell Greenberg, Ning Yu, Ian Antonio, and Laura Barger
As a fitting finale to this remarkable evening, Ms. Mochizuki's 2015 work Le monde des ronds et des carrés ('The World of Circles and Squares') was performed by Yarn/Wire, a piano & percussion quartet which includes Ms. Yu and Mr. Greenberg along with pianist Laura Barger and percussionist Ian Antonio. The stage was magically lit for this ritualistic work: against a snowy white back-panel, pools of golden light shone on the players, summoning images of ice and fire.
Visions of ancient temples set in long-lost forests or beside forgotten lakes are conjured up as Messrs. Greenberg and Antonio, stationed at the rear of the auditorium, strike crotales and Japanese cup bells: the faithful are summoned. The two men walk slowly to the stage where they circle the two pianists who are seated at the ready. As the pianos take up the single note of the bells, I am elsewhere - in a peaceful, perfect dream.
The seeming symmetry of this work, its feeling of formality, is evoked both by the music itself and by the solemnity of the players. The soundings of various chimes and bells mingle with the pianos to create textures agleam with spiritual longings. We want to stay in this place, forever.
But, being true to her unpredictable self, Ms. Mochizuki then veers into an almost jazzy realm; the music becomes propulsive, gets huge, echoes thru the spheres. Commencing with tappings, the drummers begin an acceleration and a long crescendo. More drums and bells join the cacophony, and at last the two pianists rise and attack the cymbals.
Throughout the evening, we have been immersed in new sound-worlds of Ms. Mochizuki's creation: worlds at once alien and familiar. During the days leading up to this concert, I had been watching documentaries about James Cameron's deepest dive to the nothingness of the ocean's floor, and about intrepid individuals who winter in Antarctica, where four months of night are illuminated by millions of stars. The music we heard tonight seemed to evoke such places...and so much more of the natural world, which mankind at present seems bent on destroying.
This quote from Misato Mochizuki, regarding the composing of Le monde des ronds et des carrés, gave me so much to ponder: "I wrote this piece having in mind the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, and asking myself what leads people to slaughter one another."