Program Notes: Celebrate Asia

Joined by guest conductor Keitaro Harada, the Seattle Symphony performs a vibrant program featuring contemporary works by Dai Fujikura, Takashi Yoshimatsu and Akira Senju for the 13th annual Celebrate Asia at Benaroya Hall on Thursday, March 18, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1, Op. 70b

Allegro molto
Scherzo: Allegro scherzando
Finale: Allegro molto—Andante

After abandoning plans for an engineering career, Takashi Yoshimatsu began teaching himself composition, studied with Teizo Matsumara, and joined local rock and jazz bands before focusing on a career as a classical composer. Coming of age during the height of the Japanese avant-garde, progressive rock and experimental jazz, Yoshimatsu brought aspects of these styles into conversation with his interest in the tonality and expressivity of classical neo-romanticism. This is present in his Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1, an homage to Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (some may recognize the title’s references to Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother & The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1 is the third of five pieces that share the title Atom Hearts Club (beginning with Atom Hearts Club for String Quartet or Orchestra, 1997). Yoshimatsu uses short motivic repetition, brittle timbres, col legno (a technique where string players hit their strings with the wooden part of the bow) and forceful dynamics to imitate the techniques and evoke the timbres of a rock band. Combined with a coy quotation of “and many more” from “Happy Birthday” to a vocal shout in the final movement, Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1 is a pyrotechnic homage — an interactive expression of one’s respect, curiosity and love for another’s musical contributions.


Umi (“Sea”) for Orchestra (U.S. Premiere)

Japanese-British composer Dai Fujikura combines the impressionistic with the avant-garde and minimalist. His compositions are adventurous and reflective explorations of sound’s properties and the emotions they can represent and convey. Fujikura is a recipient of the Vienna Biennale’s Silver Lion Award (2017), has served as composer–in–residence with the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra and fulfilled commissions with the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, Salzburg Festival and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. His first opera, Solaris, has been staged several times and served as the inspiration for the composition Umi, completed in 2014 and revised in 2017 and 2019. Crescendos and decrescendos; the high, brittle registers of the violins; and rumbling stasis of the lower strings combine with dissonant harmonies to conjure a sea that rolls, crashes and unfolds; an unpredictable element that is always in motion even when it appears still and calm. Below is a modified version of Fujikura’s program notes for Umi, which you may read in full on his website:

Within the melody, the string tremolos approach or back off,
Evoking the ocean waves and the terrifying
and unknown feeling when you face the sea.
Waves that represent the buzz of the heart are gradually approaching,
With multiple melodies by the instruments in between.

I have always liked to look at the sea.
After all, no matter when you look at the sea, it doesn't look the same, because there are various expressions in the sea. It's like reflecting the inside of my heart.
I read an interview with an astronaut who said that tears always flow when you see the ocean from space. It is because human beings are designed to be impressed whenever they see the sea.


A Ba La Ka Kya IV (Word Premiere)

Though some anime lovers may not recognize the name Akira Senju, they have undoubtedly heard his work. From Mobile Suit Victory Gundam (1993–94) to Princess Arete (2001) and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009­–­10) to Battery (2016), Senju has soundtracked the intensity, introspectiveness and exhilarating circumstances of characters’ situations and emotional arcs. Born and educated in Tokyo, Senju completed a master’s in composition and forged a career that took his music into concert halls, movie theatres, opera stages and TV screens. His newest work for symphony orchestra, A Ba La Ka Kya IV, is part of a creative response to the disastrous 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the resultant accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The spiritual import and emotional roots of this work are evident in Senju’s description, quoted in full below:

“The beginning of music was praying. From joy, sadness, hope, to despair, human beings have used prayer as a means to express their unspoken desires and overcome sufferings. These early prayers became what is now known as Gregorian chants and Japanese Buddhist Shomyo chants. They became the foundation of music in many cultures. 

“‘A Ba La Ka Kya’ are words of prayer from the Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. A=Earth, Ba=Water, La=Fire, Ka=Wind, Kya=Sky. There is salvation in the sound of these words. I have been composing a few pieces of music inspired by these words since 2011. This is my fourth composition. When the universe strikes us with disaster and people are seeking motivation to live, my role as a composer is to bring comfort to those who are in need through the power of music and prayer.”


Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33, TH 57 (1877)

Completed in 1877, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme were dedicated to and premiered by cellist Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who also served as the composer’s consultant. Variations on a Rococo Theme is harmonically, texturally and emotionally subdued for Tchaikovsky, which speaks to the Mozartian and Rococo-style inspiration for the work. Changes in rhythm, mode and ornamentation transform the texture and set the character of each variation. The ensemble’s methods of support range from question/answer exchanges to melodic layering with the soloist, giving the texture heft while keeping it clear. Moments of Tchaikovsky’s trademark harmonies and lyricism peak through throughout and fully blossom in the virtuosic scamper of the final variation.

© 2021 A. Kori Hill

Posted on March 17, 2021