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Music review: Michiko Hirayama's Scelsi for and of the ages

April 4, 2010 |  2:39 pm

_MG_8394michiko hirayama


Michiko Hirayama strode onto the stage at REDCAT Friday night. The hall was darkened for dramatic effect, but we could tell it was a stride by the determined clicking of her high-heeled platform shoes. For the next 70 minutes, the Japanese soprano, legend in the world of extended vocal techniques, made brilliant, otherworldly sounds. She held notes for a very long time and she bent pitches. She transformed her timbre into that of man, woman, animal and the spirit world.

Many of these techniques were developed for her by the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi in “Canti del Capricorno,” 19 peculiar songs without text, which was the evening’s work. The Italian composer, a flamboyant and shamanistic avant-gardist who died in 1988, called himself a vessel through whom these sounds passed through on their way to Hirayama. And she conveyed these songs as though they had been fed up from the deep earth (Scelsi was a Capricorn, an Earth Sign) or as mesmeric messages from deep space.

Scelsi met the classically trained soprano when she moved from Tokyo to Rome to study (and where she still lives) and lured her into the avant garde. That was six decades ago. The “Canti” were written between 1962 and 1972. Hirayama has performed them often and recorded them twice. Do the math. She is now 87.

Longevity in long-haired music is not new – Leopold Stokowski conducted well into his 90s, for instance – but marvelous new records are being broken all the time. Still forcefully singing opera at 69, Plácido Domingo is thought to be a force of nature. Elliott Carter, at 101 old enough to be Domingo’s father, continues to write meaningful, fresh music.

But Hirayama is in a class of her own. Yes, she could occasionally get a bit shrill in the vocal stratosphere, but sometimes that was what Scelsi wanted; she could also sing with purity and intimacy. She was miked, which is part of the piece since there were a few electronic effects. But one amplification cue was just a split-second late enough to reveal that the soprano had plenty of lung power on her own.

There were several stations on stage, and Hirayama, who first appeared wearing a heavy gong around her neck, marched from one to the next. Four musicians – saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, bassist Aniela Perry and percussionists Amy Knoles and Lydia Martín – accompanied but not often. They spent most of the evening sitting quietly at the back of the stage. Only a few times was there an intriguing dialogue between soprano and sax or bass or percussion.

Scelsi, as mysterious a poet as he was a composer, did not go in for explanation or analysis of his work. A listener either accepts bizarrely momentous music like the “Canti” on its own terms or can expect a headache. But Hirayama’s fortitude and vocal resolve also had a frisky girlish side. She was a timeless channeler of who knows what yet, in those platform shoes, of our time as well.

She was even flirtatious. Not ungenerous with a smile, Hirayama happily high-fived her young percussionists. There was even a hint of charming vanity in her performance. The piece ends with Hirayama blowing into a bass recorder, which had its mouthpiece removed, as if were a classical Japanese court instrument. A haunting evening came to a haunting end, a sonic wind warming us and welcoming us back to the real world. But it was also a self-satisfied sound from a performer who at her curtain calls looked as if she had just nailed another one.

No one likes growing old. But the talk afterward in the lobby from some a fraction Hirayama’s age was, “I want to be like her when I’m 87.”  Her new Wergo recording of the “Canti del Capricorno,” available in Europe, will be released in the States next month. May it give us all a new lease on life.

-- Mark Swed 

Photo: Michiko Hirayama performing Scelsi' "Canti del Capricorno" at REDCAT Friday night. Credit: Steven Gunther / REDCAT.

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