Friday , June 21 2024
Cassatt String Quartet with Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto and James Nyoraku Schlefer, Shakuhachi

Concert Review: ‘Kammerraku Promise’ – Cassatt String Quartet with Yoko Reikano Kimura (Koto) and James Nyoraku Schlefer (Shakuhachi)

Some of the most fertile of musical cauldrons are those where instruments and traditions from distant cultures mingle and conjugate. Such was the case at the Tenri Cultural Institute on Sunday, when Kyo-Shin-An Arts and three composers brought together the venerable Cassatt String Quartet with masters of the shakuhachi, the traditional bamboo flute, and the koto, the Japanese zither with movable bridges. Two original compositions and one arrangement of a traditional song added up to a scintillating and stimulating cultural melting pot.

Fusing Traditions of East and West

“Ai for Shakuhachi and Strings” is Japanese composer Minoru Miki’s arrangement of a traditional shakuhachi piece called “Shika no Tone” (“Cry of the Distant Deer”). It’s a tapestry of serene polyphony. The strings establish harmonic movement beneath the melody while echoing the shakuhachi’s characteristic bent notes. The cello is the most resonant of the strings, with the violins sometimes contributing to the harmonies, other times creating a wispy fringe around the shakuhachi tune. In playing his part, shakuhachi master James Nyoraku Shlefer offered something of a clinic in the various techniques of the instrument.

The U.S.-based Japanese composer Masatora Goya was on hand for the world premiere of his “Tree of Life,” which took the same five instruments on a completely original journey. The composer’s initial inspiration was simply the alikeness of the Western strings and the Eastern flute in their all being made of wood (of one kind or another). From there he developed the piece into a series of compelling panoramas.

The first part creates a sense of a dark and even menacing woods, before developing into a Russian-dance-like episode with crying harmonies, as in a ritual begging for rain. Harsh sounds, a lumbering beast, a ticking clock – this is a very visual piece.

In the second section rain begins to fall in discrete pizzicato droplets, then more steadily as harmonies blossom between the strings and the flute. The music becomes richly lyrical – European classical and impressionistic.

The final section illustrates a tree growing upwards, with tone clusters suggesting an opening to the sun. Initially the shakuhachi sounds like it’s in a different tuning from the strings, but their fusion is wonderful nonetheless, and as the flute goes into a fluttering technique they come together in what now sounds like perfect tune. It’s all quite masterfully composed and the performance lived up to that.

Koto, Shakuhachi and Strings

“Between the Leaves” by Yoko Sato – like “Tree of Life,” a Kyo-Shin-An Arts commission – also has three parts. The piece adds an expressive koto part (played deftly by Yoko Reikano Kimura) and recalls Debussy in that it’s all about the colors. Beginning meditatively, it expands with a swaying motion of increasing energy. The musicians achieved a big, decisive sound that took on something of a Romantic flavor – there were a few cello lines that reminded me of Brahms. As in “Tree of Life,” all the instruments were highly integrated into a whole that sounded very natural, as if composers for centuries had been writing for ensembles that included this combination of instruments.

The atmospheric second part featured an especially gratifying duet between the two Japanese instruments, with a distinctive koto part different from any koto music I’ve heard in the past. The third part begins with the strings returning to a dramatic Romantic flavor, and when the koto returns it has been retuned to a friendlier mode. A beautifully colored six-voice development ensues.

Kyo-Shin-An Arts has focused on using Japanese instruments in contemporary Western classical music for some years now. Find out more about their other projects and concerts at their website.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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