East meets the symphonic West

Brahms, Beethoven and Japanese composer Yasushi Akutagawa feature in the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka’s annual Premieres Concert. Stephen Prins attends a rehearsal and talks to guest conductor Keiko Kobayashi

Beethoven and Brahms make for a bulky and daunting programme, which is what the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka has undertaken for its October 28 concert. But guest conductor Keiko Kobayashi is confident that she and the orchestra will deliver the goods – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (‘Pastoral’) and the glorious Brahms Violin Concerto – without embarrassment.

Beethoven is basic for any professional or ambitious amateur orchestra, says Ms. Kobayashi. “Beethoven is a must – his symphonic works are a learning experience, and should be tackled for the challenges. With a grounding in Beethoven, you are set for a decent symphonic career.”
The Tokyo-based conductor took the orchestra through Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a concert four years ago, so she understands the orchestra’s capabilities in regard to that composer.

The other big event of the evening is the powerful, expansive Brahms Violin Concerto, a first for the orchestra. The soloist is Asa Nakajima, a Japanese violinist who has distinguished herself as a Brahms exponent at international music festivals.

Guest conductor Keiko Kobayashi rehearsing with the Symphony Orchestra. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

For the past two weeks, Ms. Kobayashi has been hard at work with the orchestra. They have been rehearsing as a group and in sections, separately. Until the soloist arrives later this week, when serious work on the Brahms gets under way, the orchestra is concentrating on the Beethoven, and a short work by 20th-century Japanese composer Yasushi Akutagawa.

When we dropped by at the Ladies’ College Hall this Thursday evening, the orchestra was tying up loose ends in the slow movement of the ‘Pastoral’ before moving on to the short but demanding Akutagawa, a colourful, intensely rhythmic two-movement work that sees the musicians working at full stretch. The conductor was giving close attention to the brass, woodwinds and percussion. Back in Japan, Ms. Kobayashi is involved with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, with which she has produced a stream of CDs and DVDs, apart from giving regular public performances.

Yasushi Akutagawa, who died in 1989, aged 64, wrote his “Musica per Orchestra Sinfonica” in 1950. CD liner notes point to the influence of Russia’s 20th-century greats, including Shostakovich, Prokoviev and Kabalevsky.

Ms. Kobayashi gives the strings a break while she works with the woodwind, brass and percussion through a climactic, strongly Kachchaturian-like passage. Her close familiarity with the music and respect for detail shows in her painstaking, bar-by-bar progress. Finally, giving the woodwinds and brass their break, she deals with the percussion alone. Over and over she gets the players to refine their entries. This is precision work, and exciting to watch.

When the whole orchestra is once more back on stage, Ms. Kobayashi goes through the work from the beginning, and on through to the tumultuous conclusion. Exhilarating stuff. Earlier in the day, in the lobby of the Colombo Swimming Club, Ms. Kobayashi talked about the Akutagawa, a pocket score of the work on her lap.

“Don't look for influences,” she says. “The music has its own quality and stands on its own. You do get a bit of the composers mentioned as influences, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but you should listen to the music as Akutagawa.”

The conductor is emphatic that the Akutagawa is not a “filler”, sandwiched for variety between the Brahms and the Beethoven but a substantial and distinctive work in its own right. “It is attractive music, and not easy to play, but it is very enjoyable – for the musicians and the audience,” she says, smiling.
It might be mentioned in passing that the composer Yasushi Akutagawa was one of three sons of the famous Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa who, before committing suicide at the age of 35, in 1927, had established himself as the “father of the Japanese short story”, with some 150 pieces that put him in the front rank of Japan’s literary celebrities. Two of the stories, “Rashomon”, of 1914, and “In the Bamboo Grove”, of 1922, were the materials from which the film director Akira Kurosawa fashioned his classic “Rashomon”, of 1950. (One of the pleasures of dipping into literature, history, the fine arts and the performing arts is to join, purely for the joy of making the connections, the dots scattered across these different worlds.)

Ms. Kobayashi, a regular visitor, enjoys a close working relationship with musicians here. This is her fourth concert with the orchestra and her sixth visit to Sri Lanka. She plans to visit twice next year: in March and in November. Her keen interest in wind ensemble playing has led her to create her own wind orchestra out of the talented brass and woodwind players here.

Ms. Kobayashi has recruited her players from the symphony and chamber orchestras, as well as the Police, Army and Navy bands. To date, she has rounded up an impressive 50 instrumentalists.
“The Colombo Wind Orchestra will make its debut in March,” she says. “You have very talented musicians here, but up to quite recently, there was no dedicated group of wind players. Now you have one.”

The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka concert takes place at the Ladies’ College Hall on Friday, October 28, 2011.

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