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Review: Toru Takemitsu celebrated by Southwest Chamber Music

May 5, 2009 |  2:00 pm


Considered Asia’s greatest composer of the 20th century, Toru Takemitsu has become such a revered figure in his native Japan since his death in 1996 that his music is now, like the emperor, above criticism. His are scores of ethereal, ephemeral, exacting beauty able to still the restless heart and salve the disturbed soul.

More than that, Takemitsu’s music is held up as the embodiment of Ma, an untranslatable Japanese word that stands for the Asian principal of empty space. This is the spiritual equivalent of physical nature abhorring a vacuum, except that in the case of Ma the emptiness can be that of the mind in meditation, which is a preparation for enlightenment.

But sometimes a concert simply needs to be a concert, and such was the welcome situation Monday with Southwest Chamber Music’s all-Takemitsu evening in the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall (even if the empty space this time was also the result of an unfortunately small turnout).
Proper respect had already been paid; Monday’s program concluded a Takemitsu celebration by Southwest Chamber Music. Earlier events in Pasadena paired Takemitsu with Bach and explored Ma as well as other important aspects of Takemitsu’s aesthetic.

I don’t think the illuminating, poetic wonder of Takemitsu’s music can be overstated. But he wasn’t a god. I remember him as a surprisingly down-to-earth guy who, after a couple of drinks, could keep you up half the night with his hilarious renditions of the silliest and most obscure Japanese science fiction films.

Takemitsu, in fact, scored more than a 100 films himself. They include such cinematic masterworks as “Woman in the Dunes” and “Ran.” But Takemitsu also supplied high-flown music for trashy movies, fabulously trashy music for high-brow films, and just about everything in between. I suspect that if a festival of all his films were organized, it would encompass an incredible range of human experience, East and West, from the most rarefied to the least.

That, too, is the essence of his concert music. Southwest’s program of works for two, three, four, five and eight players was in the realm of the rarefied. In a preconcert talk, conductor and artistic director Jeff van der Schmidt described the physical nature of Takemitsu’s music. Woodwinds, strings and percussion (there was no brass this night) impart the sounds of wood, water, earth and air. Superballs rubbed over harp strings becomes a stand-in for singing trees.

Takemitsu loved Western music. He was influenced by Debussy and Messiaen, by John Cage and Mahler. But his ear was always Japanese. In the first piece on the program, “Toward the Sea III,” for flute and harp, Takemitsu quoted Melville in the score. And sure enough, he found lines in “Moby Dick” that sound Zen: “Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries ... and he will infallibly lead you to water.” The title of the next work, “And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind,” for flute, viola and harp, came -- again unexpectedly -- from Emily Dickinson.

Takemitsu’s music can be delicate, but it is always a mistake to think that it is dainty or fragile. Heard on recording, the sounds tend to be smoothed out, and the pieces can seem from another, more attractive world than the one we live in. Heard live, the scores can feel startlingly raw. Much of Takemitsu’s is nature music, and nature is not sentimental. And he wasn’t sentimental as a composer, either.

Southwest’s performers did not apply the extra coats of polish that Takemitsu’s music seems to seek.  The composer Morton Feldman once said that he always felt compelled to vacuum under the sofa every time Takemitsu came to visit, given the pristine nature of the Japanese composer's style  “Quatrain II,” a companion piece to Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” sounded as if it were played under pressure.

But the musicians did provide the vivid sounds that are the essence of this music. The larger ensemble pieces, “Bryce” and “Water-Ways,” both of which van der Schmitt conducted, were successes. The marimba swells and the water gong in “Bryce” were magical. Takemitsu here put the flute up against two harps as well as two percussionists. The harps, as Takemitsu’s harps must be, were seductive.

In “Water-Ways,” phrases of a Debussyan nature are like rubber floats in a river. The stream flows one way, changes direction, breaks into smaller streams. The floats bob up and down, and we need not care where they go. In this performance all scenery was beautiful.

-- Mark Swed 

Photo: Jeff von der Schmidt conducts Toru Takemitsu's "Water-Ways" at Zipper Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times