Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra features koto
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra goes multicultural this weekend, pairing a concerto for the Japanese koto with Tchaikovsky’s powerful Symphony No. 4 on Saturday and Sunday, while getting warmed up for the act by supporting the Honolulu Symphony Chorus in Bach’s monumental “Mass in B Minor.”
HAWAI‘I SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Featuring Yumi Kurosawa and guest conductor Naoto Otomo
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
Yumi Kurosawa, an award-winning koto player from Japan who moved to New York to promote her instrument on an international scale, will perform American composer Daron Hagen’s “Genji: Concerto for Koto and Orchestra.” It will be a premiere of the expanded orchestral version of the work, first composed in 2011 for koto and small ensemble and praised as “a vivid and appealing piece” in the Washington Post.
Hagen used the 11th-century Japanese classic “The Tale of Genji,” which is considered by some to be the first written novel in world history, as his inspiration for the piece, Kurosawa said by phone from a tour stop in California. The novel tells the story of the romantic life of a Japanese prince and is known for its description of court customs.
“There are so many women that he had a relationship with,” Kurosawa said, adding that all the relationships are “basically sad.”
“He had some kind of an issue with his mom, and I guess that’s why he’s crazy about women. He wanted an ideal situation with his mother, but he couldn’t find it, so that’s why he wanted to find ‘the one.’ But he couldn’t find her.”
The koto is a zitherlike instrument that is tuned in a pentatonic way — five notes to a scale rather than eight notes, as in Western music. It can be tuned in either minor or major modes. Kurosawa will change tunings midpiece by moving bridges that hold up the strings to specially marked positions.
Kurosawa plays a 21-string instrument, a relatively modern improvement over the traditional 13-string koto, using her right hand mostly to pluck the strings and her left to bend the strings and change their pitch.
“I have 21 strings, so there’s a lot to do,” she said. “Traditional music played only one note (at a time), mainly using the thumb, and sometimes two other fingers. But nowadays, for contemporary music, I use everything.”
Hagen’s piece proved to be a real test for Kurosawa, a two-time winner of the Japanese National Koto Competition. The original composition was in fact so difficult that she went back to him to have some of it rewritten.
Overall, however, she is quite enamored of the work, which has a serene opening section, a middle movement that seems to weave between minor and major, and virtuosic sections that send her fingers flying across the strings. “I think he is a really talented composer,” she said of Hagen.
THE TCHAIKOVSKY symphony is noted for a letter the composer wrote upon its completion to Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, a woman he called his “best friend.” If written today he certainly would have added a “forever” to that, given the emotion he expresses in the letter. It ascribes certain passages to specific feelings, describing one melody as a “desolate and hopeless feeling” and another as “a sweet and tender daydream.”
The letter gloomily describes the symphony’s opening theme as “Fate,” which “guards jealously lest well-being and peace should be complete and unclouded, which hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles and unwaveringly and constantly poisons the soul.”
Given that opening, it seems fitting that the conductor for the concerts will be Japanese maestro Naoto Otomo, who opened the Hawai’i Symphony’s inaugural season with Beethoven’s Fifth, which is famous for its opening “fate” motif.
The orchestra also joins the Honolulu Symphony Chorus in Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” on Friday, featuring Youngmi Kim, Georgine Stark, Jennifer Lane, Randall Umstead and David Dong-Geun Kim as soloists, with Esther Woo conducting. The mass, finished in 1749, a year before Bach’s death, is considered his finest choral work, combining all of his musical skills and talents in expressing his deepest spiritual convictions.