Spring Sounds Spring Seas
MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL Critic’s Choice: “Recordings of the Year 2012”
Two great traditions ● Two organizations ● Two sides of the Atlantic ● Two American composers ● Two soloists ● Two conductors ● Two premieres ● One gorgeous live recording.
A ground-breaking new CD from Kyo-Shin-An Arts and Orchestra of the Swan. Shakuhachi and Koto with Chamber Orchestra.
Spring Sounds, Spring Seas was recorded in concert with Orchestra of the Swan on May 28, 2011. It's the world's first chamber orchestra recording featuring a full program of music with shakuhachi and koto. We recorded in the Stratford Civic Hall with the preeminent Gary Cole of Regent Records. The title honors both the orchestra's Spring Sounds Festival and the famous Japanese duo for shakuhachi and koto, Haru No Umi, written by the renowned koto player Michiyo Miyagi in 1929. This duo, heard on the disc in the orchestral version Haru No Umi Redux, translates as “The Sea in Spring”. Ergo – the title.
What is on the disc?
Performers: The Orchestra of the Swan, shakuhachi Grand Master James Nyoraku Schlefer and koto Master Yumi Kurosawa.
● Haru No Umi Redux, famous as a duo in Japan, where it is traditionally heard on New Year’s, this version offers an evocative string accompaniment by Mr. Schlefer, conducted by OOTS Principal Guest Conductor Kenneth Woods.
● Concerto for Shakuhachi, Strings, Harp and Percussion, by James Nyoraku Schlefer and conducted by Kenneth Woods. A rhythmic, exciting piece in three movements, ranging from the calm of Zen to the high energy of Rock and Roll.
● Koto Concerto: Genji, a remarkably romantic and operatic work in five short movements by the accomplished Daron Hagen – a Kyo-Shin-An Arts Commission, conducted by OOTS’ artistic director David Curtis.
AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE - MAY/JUNE 2013 This seductive album presents three recent works that fuse Asian and Western musical traditions, a popular trend. James Nyoraku Schlefer’s Haru No Umi Redux is a skillful reworking of a seminal piece from 1929 that was largely responsible for the incursion of Western gestures into Japanese music. It is an enchanting piece of exceptional delicacy, as is Schlefer’s 2009 Shakuhachi Concerto, which blends the otherworldly sound of the shakuhachi with harp and strings. The concerto has dissonant moments and plenty of rhythmic punch, but its basic mood is hazy and tranquil. The composer is a Grand Master of the shakuhachi, one of only a few Westerners to achieve this rank. His skill is illustrated especially in the cadenza that opens the impressionist II.
More overtly sensuous is David Hagen’s 2011 Koto Concerto: Genji, an “opera without words” based on an 11th Century narrative. It consists of five psychological portraits. The second, ‘Falling Flowers’, has a poignant violin solo; III, ‘Maiden on the Bridge’, demonstrates the subtlety of koto soloist Yumi Kurosawa, who makes her ancient instrument sound like a small orchestra. The bent sounds, rich chords, and strumming on various parts of the instrument produce marvelous colors.
The Orchestra of the Swan, a British chamber orchestra, plays with expressive understatement. The warm recording, at a concert, has all the qualities of a studio production. East-West fusions seem immune to the struggles of the classical music scene. This engaging album shows why.
Art Music Reviews.co.uk, October 2012. These are world premiere recordings, and the programme also lays claim to being "the world's first chamber orchestra recording featuring a full program of music with shakuhachi and koto." The CD title is a reference both to the Orchestra of the Swan's 'Spring Sounds Festival' and a translation of the opening work, Haru No Umi, into English: 'The Sea in Spring'.
Composer James Nyoraku Schlefer is founder of the not-for-profit Kyo-Shin-An Arts, an organization "dedicated to the appreciation and integration of Japanese musical instruments in Western classical music." Kyo-Shin-An commissioned Daron Hagen's Koto Concerto, his first venture into the exotica of non-Western instruments. Schlefer, on the other hand, has a close and longstanding relationship with Japanese culture - 'Nyoraku' ("like the essence of music") is a name acquired through intensive training and study in traditional music. This CD offers an accessible introduction to the timbral and expressive capabilities of the traditional shakuhachi and the 20-string koto, as interpreted by contemporary, but decidedly audience-friendly, American composers also employing normal occidental forces.
Schlefer's three-movement Shakuhachi Concerto is subtly scored for strings, harp and percussion, with a 'semi-solo' role played by the shakuhachi, an end-blown flute frequently heard in film music wishing to evoke Japan, China or Far Eastern religions. Schlefer is an accredited shakuhachi 'Grand Master', and the Concerto consequently has little time for pseudo-ethnic flutterings. Instead, this attractive, highly approachable work - mainly contemplative, sometimes almost static but with bursts of strong rhythmic energy - exhibits considerable craftsmanship and no little artistry. As a performer, Schlefer's mastery of what is a very difficult instrument to play well is awe-inspiring, as a superb high-definition YouTube video of this very recording on his website demonstrates.
The subtitle of Daron Hagen's Koto Concerto is a reference to the 11th-century 'Tale of Genji', a longwinded romance involving a royal son made commoner through political shenanigans who falls in love with a girl about whom he knows only that she plays the koto divinely! With Hagen eschewing direct extra-musical narrative, the Concerto's five sections capture various psychological states from the story, although the overall feel is a generally cheery one, ending in consummation - or, as the story discreetly puts it, 'Vanished into the Clouds'. For anyone interested in hearing the zither-like koto played both virtuosically and expressively, this is a work to experience. Hagen's colourful, lively writing for orchestra pushes things along, skilfully and tunefully blending Japanese and American styles. Yumi Kurosawa, young but immensely experienced, is a koto player par excellence. In 2009 she debuted with a solo disc of her own pieces for the 21-string koto, a so-called 'world fusion' collection aptly entitled 'Beginning of a Journey' and available through her website. Her performance here can also be viewed, in another splendid high-definition YouTube video, this time on Hagen's website. The same page embeds another video of the String Quartet version of the Concerto (this one albeit currently unavailable). In either version - there is also one for large orchestra - this work merits a regular spot on concert programmes, offering a nearly ideal introduction to Japanese instruments for Western audiences.
Both shakuhachi and koto appear together in the CD opener, Schlefer's very recent Haru No Umi Redux. The 'redux' is an indication of the fact that Schlefer has reworked the quasi-traditional Japanese New Year's tune, Haru No Umi - actually composed by Michiyo Miyagi in 1929 - adding some of his own material with a light string orchestra backing. Redux is a lovely, thoughtful piece made up of several equally atmospheric solo, duo and tutti sections.
The still-underrated Orchestra of the Swan are having a busy time of things at the moment - this is already their third release of 2012, following two Avie CDs pairing symphonies by Schumann and Hans Gál (review, review). They were led in those recordings by the even more prolific Kenneth Woods, who, as part of his ongoing advocacy of Gál and wearing his cellist hat in the Ensemble Epomeo, has just had another Avie disc released, featuring both the composer's String Trios and a couple of shorter works by Hans Krása (AV 2259, review to come). For Woods and the Swans the present disc will surely add to their growing reputation for measured, quality interpretations, as well as a laudable, healthy interest in music that without their intervention would probably languish unjustifiably in dusty library basements. Whilst Woods is Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra, David Curtis, who steps in for Hagen's Genji, is actual Artistic Director and has established the ensemble as a champion for living composers, many of whom they have commissioned. In many ways he cuts a similar figure to Woods - confident, relaxed and thankfully lacking any taste for melodrama. All of that comes across in these recordings, which are as arresting and entertaining as either composer could wish for.
Sound quality throughout the CD is very good indeed, warm and well balanced, although recording levels are set to low. According to the supplied information these recordings were made "in concert", in which case any audience has been airbrushed out with amazing technical legerdemain. The booklet notes and biographies are fairly brief but informative. In the quaint American style everyone is politely referred to as 'Mr' this and 'Ms' that. Schlefer and Kurosawa are distinguished with a Japanese translation of their bios, but for everyone else it is English only.
Byzantion – Art Music Reviews.co.uk, October 2012