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Takemitsu, Debussy, Ravel, Sarasate, Hosokawa

Prom 10



Akiko Suwanai (violin), Mayumi Miyata (shō - pictured)

Orchestra National de Lyon, Jun Märkl (conductor).


Royal Albert Hall, London, 24th July 2009


“If we listen without European prejudice to the charm of their percussion”, said Claude Debussy of his first exposure to gamelan in 1889, “We must confess that our percussion is like primitive noises at a country fair”.


Without Japan, we wouldn’t have much of what we now take for granted as “western” culture. When Japanese culture burst into Europe in the late 19th century it opened up a new world of exotic possibilities, parallel to the influence of the New World and Asia on the baroque era. No wonder Monet and the Impressionists were so fascinated. Japan primed the west for “other worlds” like Asia, the Middle East, Africa. Orientalism remains a powerful thread in French literature, art and music, which the insular Anglophile world doesn’t appreciate. The significance of this Prom was lost on the small audience. Perhaps people were scared off by “foreign” music, not realising that Bizet, Ravel and Debussy were inspired by strange new sounds in the first place.


In turn, Debussy inspired Tōru Takemitsu. Takemitsu was fascinated by the way Debussy used washes of orchestral sound, “impressionism” as music. He recognized that Japanese instruments could extend the palette of western orchestras, providing extra colours and richness.


In Ceremonial : An Autumn Mode, Takemitsu builds his music around the shō. The shō is a bundle of 17 pipes, each with a copper reed.  Because a performer can inhale and exhale while playing, the instrument can produce extremely long, seamless legato, far beyond the range of conventional mouth blown instruments.  Moreover, each pipe is a different length and each reed vibrates freely within the pipe, allowing subtle gradations of nuance within the line.


Mayumi Miyata demonstrated just how powerful the shō can be.  She created sounds that rose out of stillness, rising in keening arcs of sound that seemed to vibrate across the massive space that is the Royal Albert Hall. The shō’s call is met by three pairs of flautists (soprano and bass), positioned round the perimeter. Takemitsu shows that this tiny instrument can match the massive multiple pipes of the Royal Albert Hall organ in dramatic use of sound and space.


Hearing Debussy’s Estampes – Pagodes right after Takemitsu made me appreciate how well Debussy understood non western idioms. He used pentatonic chords, but also intuited that Asian music develops, not by thematic progression but by changes of tempo and direction.


Maurice Ravel didn’t use Asian motifs in Rapsodie espagnole, but his concept was similar : to borrow from traditions outside conventional orchestral forms to create new music. Instead of five note tones, he uses a scale of four, adding jerky, angular rhythms of Spanish dance. This piece is so familiar now that we forget how startling it must have seemed in 1907.  Similarly, Tzigane, with its “barbaric” wildness of Spanish gypsy, so alien to mainstream, middle class western Europe. This is the sound world of modernism, much in the way that Picasso and Braque embraced angular shapes and blocks of bold colour. Similarly, the Tzigane explores the sounds of gypsy music, more savage and “primiti


The Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL) is extremely good indeed, on a par with Orchestre de Paris and Ensemble Intercontemporain.  Under Jun Märkel, they’ve built upon their reputation for energy, so these performances were executed with whip cracking precision and clarity. The strings move as a disciplined unit, so when the leader, Jennifer Gilbert, takes her solos, she sounds all the more thrilling and free. 


Nonetheless, Akiko Suwani, the soloist, was outstanding. She has such technical command that she can unleash dizzying displays of bravura, but deeply felt and natural.  In Sarasate’s Concert Fantasy on Themes from Carmen, it’s as if Carmen’s personality comes alive, without the need for words. Glissandi “speak”

Imploringly, sharp bursts of staccato crack like boots were stamping in some defiant dance.  The “Lilas Pastia” section evokes a gentler mood, Suwani’s deeper timbre supported by double bass murmuring.


In Toshio Hosokawa’s Cloud and Light (2008) Mayumi Miyata’s shō also functioned as a voice. Where Takemitsu orchestrated around the unornamented

shō, Hosokawa integrates it more closely with the ensemble. The title refers to Buddhist paintings where Amida Buddha floats on clouds, light streaming from his halo. The clouds form dense circles, wisps stretching outwards like flames.  Hence the dignified transverse of the piece, the shō emerging from a mist of muffled strings, which echo its serene lines.  Miyata holds one legato for what seems like 25 bars. It’s so quiet, so elusive that the sound seems to emanate from vibrations rather than register in the ears.  The programme notes (Paul Griffiths) mention Messiaen’s Sept Haïkaï, which was inspired by Gagaku. While listening, though, I thought of the rapturous progressions of Vingt Régards sur L’Enfant-Jésus. In Messiaen as in Hosokawa, it is the sense of timeless movement  that comes across most strongly. Towards the end, sounds seem to disintegrate in tiny, fragmented bell tones, wafting into infinity.


In any ordinary Prom, Debussy’s La Mer would have had pride of place. Quite likely, the Orchestre National de Lyon would have produced a stunning performance. But the rest of the concert was so unusual, and so eclectic, that for once, it didn’t matter quite so much that Debussy’s masterpiece didn’t take centre stage.


Anne Ozorio