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CLASSICAL  March 2007

CLASSICAL March 2007

Subject:

Japan, Before and After

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 30 Mar 2007 10:40:00 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (88 lines)

Masao Ohki

*  Japanese Rhapsody (1938)
*  Symphony No. 5 "Hiroshima" (1953)

New Japan Philharmonic/Takuo Yuasa
Naxos 8.557839 Total time: 52:05

Summary for the Busy Executive: Postcards and peril.

Naxos apparently has more "series" going than any other label. 
This apparently allows the company to issue not only American classics,
21st-century works, and film music, but scores from the Pacific Rim as
well.

The Japanese composer Masao Ohki (1901-1971) is a name barely known, if
at all, outside his own country.  Certainly *I* had no idea he existed,
let alone what he did.  These are the first works by him I've heard. 
He grew up with Japanese music, mainly from the Zen tradition, and with
such scraps of Western music that came his way.  Russians like Mussorgsky
and Tchaikovsky influenced him, particularly because of their mix of
folk music into their concert works.  Modern harmonies and sonorities
came from Stravinsky's early ballets and from others.  Ohki's music began
to make its way during the Thirties.  He embraced musical nationalism,
much as Copland and others had at roughly the same time.  Moreover, he
embraced Japanese political nationalism, aligning himself with Japanese
expansionists as a way of "freeing" Asians suppressed by Western economic
and political imperialism.  Many Japanese, like people of many other
countries (including my own), went to a brutal war for the noblest of
reasons.  It turns out that Ohki had noble motives of his own.  His
nationalism was really a socialist pan-Asianism, concerned with the
laborers of Asia, rather than with the greater glory of Japan.  After
the war, he became explicitly socialist, visited both China and North
Viet Nam, and wrote his sixth and last symphony, subtitled "Viet Nam"
and dedicated to the Vietnamese fight against the Americans.

The two works here are separated by the war and the atomic-bombing of
Hiroshima.  In the Japanese Rhapsody, a well-executed piece of poster
art, flags wave all over the place.  The orchestra shouts brassy and
bright.  The composer insists on two traditional melodies, both very
similar.  Not even John Phillips Sousa at his most jingoistic ever gets
quite so in your face.  It reminds me a bit of Hollywood movie music of
the Fifties, whenever they needed to portray the Mysterious East (Bamboo
Curtain, Blood Alley, Sayonara, The World of Suzie Wong, etc.).

The Fifth Symphony belongs to another, far more complicated world. 
Based on the Hiroshima Panels by the Marukis, it takes off from the first
six panels (of the fifteen, the ones finished at the time Ohki composed).
Each panel gets a short movement, and the composer adds a prelude and
an elegiac postlude (more than twice the length of the next largest
movement).  The panels riff on and update Michelangelo's apocalypse,
with an emphasis on musculature and large crowds.  At the same time,
the artists give the image a quasi-Impressionist wash of color, usually
grayish-red or gray, over the drawing, like a rain of blood and ash --
undoubtedly some of the greatest anti-war images of the previous century,
from sketches made by the artists in Hiroshima itself three days after
the bomb dropped.  The "panel" movements -- "Ghosts," "Fire," "Water,"
"Rainbow," "Boys and Girls," and "Atomic Desert" -- follow one another
quickly, often without a break.  Ohki's language evokes the painting
technique, often a base of dense, dissonant clusters, over which a single
line makes its way.  For me, it's more tone poem than symphony.  In other
words, its coherence as a whole depends on you knowing the movement
titles.  As you can imagine, the "plot" of the symphony pretty much will
depress you.  My favorite movements, "Boys and Girls" and the final
"Elegy," I think become that because they are the least painterly.  Their
logic is strongly musical.  This doesn't mean that the symphony lacks
standard musical strategies of unity.  Ideas reappear from one movement
to another.  There are iconic musical gestures -- the lament of a high
flute, for example, pizzicato bass lines, as well as a dissonant "wash,"
among other things -- throughout.  The piece weeps and occasionally
shrieks (the "Fire" movement, especially) and will probably depress you
to the point of numbness.  However, in the "Elegy," a new tone of anger
and warning is introduced.  Hope, in this case, would probably cheapen
the horror, so Ohki has, I believe, taken the path true to the event.
I don't know yet what I think about the piece, probably a good sign. 
It gives me a good reason to keep listening.

The performers do a thoroughly professional job, without breaking through
to revelation.  If you want something out of the ordinary, you could do
worse, and Naxos makes it easy to take a chance.

Steve Schwartz

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