After screening the amazing musical documentary We are X, which chronicles the meteoric rise, the struggles, and the heartbreaks of Japanese composer, lyricist, rock star, drummer, and classically-trained pianist Yoshiki and his rock group X Japan, I knew I had to attend a concert to see Yoshiki perform live. So I was thrilled to hear that the Yoshiki Classical Special, produced and performed by Yoshiki with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuga Cohler, would be presented at Carnegie Hall on January 12 and 13.
Yoshiki’s musical versatility and prodigious talents make him an unparalleled multi-genre virtuoso. The bizarre “too real-to-be-real” story of X Japan’s genesis, apex, nadir and resurgence revealed in the documentary We Are X include the seminal elements necessary for epic drama. Yoshiki has used emotional trauma as the raw material to build the rest of his life and art. It also serves as the centerpiece of his Classical Special show, which, like his concerts with X Japan, has a resonant energy that remains with one long after the program has ended.
The opening number was composed by Yoshiki and performed exquisitely by the Tokyo Philharmonic. The melodic “I’ll Be Your Love” (the theme Yoshiki wrote for World Expo Japan) was followed by “The Last Song” against a backdrop of projected images from Yoshiki’s and X Japan’s most ferocious and wicked rock concerts (bare-midriffed, Yoshiki smashes his drum set and everything in sight). I wondered: Would a brash, crazy rocker flood the Carnegie Hall stage with the electricity of his multidimensional musicianship? How would he translate that energy and electricity? How would he convey the sorrow so vividly expressed in his documentary interviews and in the film footage showing him in a cemetery where two members of his musician family are buried?
Thursday evening was Yoshiki’s Carnegie Hall debut and not only was he up for the occasion, he was the occasion, and a surreal and unique one. A sensitive, serene Yoshiki of grace and elegance took center stage and played his heart out on the piano. He channeled all of his love, sadness, hope and faith, taking us into the soul of his artistry, while the Tokyo Philharmonic added its dimension of beauty to honor and celebrate the evening with limpid light and melodic vibrance.
In the first segment, Yoshiki appeared in a dark suit with humble stance and shy demeanor. He won me over with his soft, sibilant voice, his unassuming nervousness, and his quiet introductions of the songs he has composed over the last decades. Though he completed his classical world tour in 2014, with sold-out shows in 10 countries (concert images were projected on the walls of the Ronald O. Perelman Stage during the performance) and cities including London, Moscow, Bangkok, Berlin, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, and Paris, this performance was a first-of-its-kind.
It was apparent that Yoshiki was excited and grateful for the chance to come before his hundreds of well-dressed fans, whose “faces,” he said, “relaxed his nervousness.” They had followed him to this utmost of classical-music venues, Carnegie Hall, to pay tribute to his life, his work, and those no longer with us (his father, X Japan band member Hide, and X Japan band member Taji) who continue to influence his music and to whom he referred throughout the concert.
These souls are always in his heart, as he has stated in documentary interviews. He welcomed the audience with a happy, beaming smile, but indeed the departed were in his heart during the second half of the concert as he dedicated his haunting composition “Without You” to the three, photographs of them during happier times projected on the back wall of the stage.
Yoshiki’s classical concert repertoire is filled with pieces commissioned over the years for various occasions: e.g. the themes for the 2012 Golden Globes and the TV drama Nikushimi ni Hohoende. Yoshiki also included nods to favorite composers he was introduced to as a child, Tchaikovsky (“Swan Lake”) and Beethoven (“Moonlight Sonata”). Regarding the latter, he confided that the pain and suffering he experienced during his life will always be with him, and that he attempts to take his pain deep into himself and translate it into art.
The first half of the concert included Yoshiki’s signature compositions “Forever Love,” “Hero,” and “La Venus,” a Best Original Song Academy Award nominee for 2017. The lovely Katie Fitzgerald, vocalist, aerialist and songwriter, sang two compositions in the first half, which ended with Yoshiki’s stunning concerto “Anniversary,” composed at the request of the Japanese government for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s enthronement. Yoshiki and the Tokyo Philharmonic performed “Anniversary” with majesty and power, the perfect end to the first half.
In the second half, Yoshiki, dressed in a show-stopping long white coat-jacket, was joined by the exquisitely operatic Ashley Knight who sang two compositions. An interesting and unexpected highlight was a song that Yoshiki did not compose, but played as a paean to the American Dream, which he quietly said was not only for Americans, but also for individuals like himself who were able to pursue their dreams and work hard to achieve them because of the opportunities present “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Yoshiki plaintively importuned the president-elect to keep the soul of America alive so that people from other countries would always be able to embrace the opportunity that America afforded immigrants (though he did not utter the word) in the past. Then, with a flourish equal to that of their performance of “Anniversary,” Yoshiki and the Tokyo Philharmonic presented the U.S. national anthem. In light of current affairs and his brief analysis of “what makes America great” – the potential to dream and make dreams come true for Americans and for those who immigrate here – their presentation was just devastating.
The last two compositions were the most memorable. “Art of Life,” another X Japan signature number, was superb, as was “Endless Rain,” both for their inspired emotionalism and power. Perhaps the light show was at its most complete and fulfilling with these two numbers, as tiny circles of reflected white light bounced from the mirror ball on stage out into the audience and back at the orchestra. The stage also was also bathed in light, as it was for most of the evening – brilliant reds, deep blues, fuschias, and pinks. The light show and the wall projections were a fitting accompaniment for the thrilling music and spotless performances by Yoshiki, Ashley Knight, Katie Fitzgerald, and the Philharmonic conducted by Yuga Cohler.
Yoshiki is a master, and a master walks not in fear, but in humility. He knows how to serve others with grace and is pleased to bring happiness and enjoyment because he has suffered and counted the cost. Yoshiki exudes this with his presence and his demonstrated love, advising us “not to take anything for granted” and reminding us that “everything is a miracle.”
Surely, the Yoshiki Classical Special is an affirmation of both of those sayings. The audience wanted more and forced him to return seven times, cheering and giving him bouquets of flowers during one of the longest standing ovations that I’ve witnessed. Yoshiki knocked it out of the park and the ball is still flying out there in space. You can catch him on his website or Twitter feed and probably at the Academy Awards. The nominations will be announced on 24 January. For my film review of We Are X, click HERE.