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Reviewed by:
  • Spring Sounds Spring Seas by James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi; Yumi Kurosawa, koto
  • Julia Topper (bio)
Spring Sounds Spring Seas. Orchestra of the Swan. James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi; Yumi Kurosawa, koto. MSR Classics, MS 1429, New York, 2012. One CD (64 minutes). (CD) $12.95.

Recorded live in concert on May 28, 2011, Spring Sounds Spring Seas is a beautifully produced album that explores the range of possibilities available when Japanese and Western classical traditions are artfully blended. This world premiere recording is presented by Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a foundation dedicated to facilitating the production of new musical works that integrate Japanese traditional instruments in Western classical ensembles. The album is a collaboration between the composer, shakuhachi performer, and artistic director of Kyo-Shin-An Arts, James Nyoraku Schlefer; koto virtuoso Yumi Kurosawa; composer Daron Hagen; and the Orchestra of the Swan, led by conductors Kenneth Woods and David Curtis.

There are three works presented on Spring Sounds Spring Seas that feature solo shakuhachi, 20-string koto, and the Orchestra of the Swan: Schlefer's "Haru no Umi Redux" and "Shakuhachi Concerto," and Hagen's "Koto Concerto: Genji." For those listeners old-fashioned enough to purchase the physical CD rather than streaming the album on Spotify, the accompanying liner notes provide a brief description of each piece as well as short biographies of the performers. The majority of the notes are in English, but Japanese biographies are given for Schlefer and Kurosawa. Artwork decorating the cover [End Page 150] and liner is minimalist and elegant and is appropriate for the feel of the album overall.

Schlefer's compositions are performed first, and while "Shakuhachi Concerto" is a beautiful work that features his skillful playing on shakuhachi, "Haru no Umi Redux" stands out of the two and alone makes this CD worth listening to. The original "Haru no Umi" ("Spring Sea") was composed by Michio Miyagi in 1929 for koto and shakuhachi and is held up as a seminal example of the New Japanese Music movement of the 1920s. Schlefer's version adds a new opening before the initial statement of the original piece as well as before its return. The new opening statement is programmatic in nature, the strings of the ensemble calling to mind the waves of the ocean and bubbles rising from the depths of the sea before slowly joining together in shimming clustered chords reminiscent of the reed pipes of the Japanese shō and then giving way to the koto and shakuhachi. The new material before the reinstatement of Miyagi's piece similarly aims to suggest images of the sea but with a more frantic pace that ends with a dramatic, stunning buildup to the sounds of the koto and violin. The varying instrumentation of the duet nods to Miyagi's original koto and shakuhachi arrangement as well as to French violinist Renée Chemet and Miyagi's version that features koto and violin. The ensemble accompaniment enhances rather than overwhelms these duets, to stunning effect. The "Shakuhachi Concerto" that comes after "Haru no Umi Redux" consists of three movements that follow a classic concerto form and feature shakuhachi, strings, harp, and percussion. The liner notes describe the shakuhachi's role in the piece as "both soloist and team player, alternately in concert or in conflict with the orchestra." The movements are titled "Hazy Awareness," "Crystal Solitude," and "Outside." Overall, the piece is restless, anxious, and even frenzied at times. Schlefer's performance of the shakuhachi here is brilliant and clearly demonstrates why he has achieved the rank of Grand Master from Kyoto's Mujuan Shakuhachi Dojo, one of a very few nonJapanese artists to do so.

The last piece featured on Spring Sounds Spring Seas is Hagen's "Koto Concerto: Genji," commissioned by Kyo-Shin-An-Arts for koto, winds, French horn, strings, and marimba. As the title suggests, the work is based on the famous literary work The Tale of Genji, each of the five movements taking their titles from Genji's chapters: "Cicada Shell," "Falling Flowers," "Maiden on the Bridge," "Floating Bridge of Dreams," and "Vanished into the Clouds." Featuring the koto in this composition is an obvious choice—the protagonist of...


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