Last week Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi offered 3 concerts at the Philharmonie de Paris. Gorka Oteiza (SoundTrackFest) attended the first of these concerts and leaves us a summary of that evening in this article.
On Saturday, February 9, 2019 at 20:30h, the first of the three concerts that the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi was going to give in Paris (France) was celebrated, where he conducted the young 3D Orchestra, with the participation of the soprano Ai Ichihara on two pieces of the first half.
The place, the emblematic building of the Philharmonie of Paris (Grande Salle Pierre Boulez), designed by the architect Jean Nouvel and inaugurated in 2015. This impressive venue, with wonderful acoustic characteristics that I will detail later, is located in the City of Music (Cité de la Musique); an impressive set of buildings that started their journey in 1995 and that include concert halls, a music museum, exhibition halls, or workshops and classrooms facilities for studying and documentation. A whole area dedicated to accommodate educational and cultural activities related to music, which rightly deserves to be called the City of Music.
All the tickets for the concert were already sold many months ago; the entire 2,400 seats of the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, and such was the expectation of being able to see Joe Hisaishi in Paris again (his last visit to the French capital was in 2017 – read article), that the organizers were forced to add a third concert on Sunday, February 10th (read news).
These concerts were included within a set of special activities organized on February 6-10, dedicated to Japanese culture, which also had workshops, Japanese theater, Wadaiko drums demonstration, or children’s shows (read more).
But let’s go back to that evening, and indicate that despite being the venue completely full, access was very simple and smooth, since the design of the building perfectly distributed the public through multiple entry doors, making it easy to come in and out, both at the beginning and at the end, but also during the intermission.
Before going in details about the concert, let’s see the program:
As you can see, the concert was not the typical concert that Joe Hisaishi usually gives when he goes on tour in Europe, and that usually includes nearly only music from the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano.
The musicians of the 3D Orchestra are a selection of the best students and professors of the Conservatory of Music of Paris, who have grouped together to form an orchestra dedicated specifically to film music, and that despite the youth that characterized most of their components, offered a fabulous interpretation.
Due to the great acoustics of the hall, the concert did not use any kind of amplification, not for the orchestra, neither for the solo musicians, nor for the soprano, finding the concert a perfect balance with the characteristics of the hall and the precise conducting of Joe Hisaishi. Also, this concert did not use choir or any type of image/video projection, as it is usual in the concerts offered with the music from the films of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki.
The first part of the concert was dedicated entirely to a symphonic work called ‘The East Land Symphony’ divided into five movements (two of them with soprano), and which took 8 years to Joe Hisaishi to compose, being published in 2017 in an album called ‘Minima_Rhythm III’.
The beginning of the concert was a bit abrupt, with the movement ‘The East Land’, of strong character and with broken melodies, which presented little glimpses of the characteristic style of the composer. This movement, which was the first that Hisaishi wrote 8 years ago, recently received slight modifications to adapt it to its concert form. In the end, and after a brief pause, an enthusiastic applause from a grateful audience accompanied the director and the orchestra, but it was a partially contained applause, as the public found a very personal and very different from the usual ones seen in concerts.
Next, a rhythmic percussion marked a big part of the second movement, ‘Air’, where the drums stood out and alternated with the different interventions of the orchestra. And nearly with no pause, the first appearance of the soprano Ai Ichihara took place in the third movement ‘Tokyo Dance’.
The best to describe this movement is to let Joe Hisaishi himself speak, through the words written in the booklet that was included with the concert (translated from French, the only language of the booklet): “Tokyo Dance is written for soprano soloist. When I began to compose, I had in mind the idea that everything that mattered at that moment was my own person and my environment. I allowed myself to forget the vast world beyond Japan and see my country as a kind of island of Galapagos, full of satire and black humor. I asked my daughter Mai to invent some Japanese lyrics. After some revisions, we chose to use numbers as the basis of the structure, so the first half became a kind of ‘Tokyo children’s song’. In the end, I wrote this movement with words in English mixed with Japanese lyrics. This creates a story similar to the tale of ‘Heike Monogatari’, in its relation to the Buddhist idea of impermanence.”
The fourth movement, ‘Rhapsody of Trinity’ featured melodies that moved between joy and sadness, seeking a balance in their orchestral counterpoints. According to Hisaishi “Rhapsody of Trinity is full of black humor and satire, as a kind of fun. In fact, tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin. The tragic pieces are quite easy to write, but composing a cheerful and light piece, with notes that touch the melancholy, while giving the sensation that something is wrong, require the penetrating vision of a bird or a point of view equivalent to God. This requires above all a sacred dose of philosophical wisdom. I still do not have this level, and maybe I will not have it! – But I’m still challenging myself.”
The fifth and final movement of the first part, ‘The Prayer’, had Ai Ichihara on stage again, where the orchestra accompanied in a very subtle and soft way the beautiful voice of the soprano, who sang in Latin a text that felt like a prayer, throughout most of the 8 minutes of the piece. A lyrical and perfect ending, for a different and clearly very personal first half of the concert, where we could get a better glimpse of how is Joe Hisaishi as a composer. A work that deserves to be re-listened, to know a little bit more what this genius of music has to say, when his creativity is not linked/connected/subordinated to a movie.
After an intermission of 20 minutes, and when it was already 21:40h, the second part began and soon we could see that changes had been made on the stage. The podium of the conductor had been removed and a grand piano had been set in the center, placing the entire strings forming an arc around it. After great applause, and with part of the orchestra already in their seats (violins, violas, cellos and some double basses), Joe Hisaishi went on stage, and after waving to the public, sat in front of the piano from where he would partially conduct the orchestra when he was not playing.
Thus, the second part started with a 12-minute music suite (with short pauses), composed by Hisaishi for Takeshi Kitano‘s movies. It began with the well-known piece ‘Summer’ from ‘Kikujiro (Kikujiro No Natsu)’, melodic and delicious as always, then moving to an intense and very nice ‘Hana-Bi’, to finish this block with the rhythmic, fast, and cheerful theme from the movie ‘Kids Return’.
It was a real joy to see how throughout the whole suite the melodies were growing and decreasing, alternating between the piano and the strings, and likewise, in some cases, seeing how they were jumping from one side of the string section to the other, with first and second violins responding to each other, or taking responsibility for extending and concluding the melody. Soft passages and intense passages, perfectly executed by the strings of the 3D Orchestra, which had already surprised us in the first half with their high level of mastery.
In the end, an enthusiastic audience responded with great applause, having finally listened to some of the so well-known pieces that they were willing to enjoy that night. As a curiosity, let me tell you that this block was entitled ‘Mládí’ which in Czech means ‘youth’, and that also coincides with the title of a wind sextet work from the composer Leoš Janáček.
Then, both Hisaishi and the musician’s from the string section left the stage, and there was a break of several minutes, in which the piano was moved from the center to the right side, but leaving it in front of the orchestra, and the podium of the director was mounted again, since for the next piece, Joe Hisaishi was going to alternate between conducting the full orchestra and punctual performances on the piano.
It was already 22:00h and the orchestra came on stage followed by Hisaishi, to start with a 28-minute suite dedicated to the movie ‘Spirited Away / Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi’.
The suite began with a precise and smooth piano solo performed by the composer, to be later complemented with the intensity of the orchestra when he approached the podium to conduct. A suite that showcases the movie, developing and extending the different themes of the soundtrack, all of them superbly linked, narrating a perfect story, and ending as it had begun, with a subtle and soft piano melody played again by Hisaishi, giving the piece a great closure. A suite that musically tells us the story of Chihiro and her transformation into Sen, to finally return to the real world with that subtle piano, after recovering her name and her family. Fabulous!
An excited audience stood up to offer a huge ovation, with shouts and applause as I have rarely seen in a concert, corresponded by reverences from a clearly excited Joe Hisaishi, and an orchestra where you could see a multitude of smiling and satisfied faces.
It was 22:30h and it had been 2 hours since the concert started, but the audience had no intention of letting it end here, and after several minutes of applause, Hisaishi came out again, and greeting the audience kindly, jumped into the podium to offer an encore.
No introduction was necessary, since with the first chords played by the double basses, which had a big smile offered by a large part of the audience as a response, we immediately deduced that the piece that followed was the main theme of ‘My Nighbor Totoro / Tonari No Totoro’. A happy, funny, and energetic piece, with Hisaishi at the piano at some moments, giving a great touch to end the concert.
But in fact, this was not the end, since more than 5 minutes of applause and ovations from the audience, made the composer go back on stage to salute up to three times, “forcing” him to offer in his fourth appearance a new piece, this time alone at the piano, playing the great main theme of ‘Porco Rosso / Kurenai no buta’, ending the evening after 2:15 hours of a fabulous concert.
With a different and very personal first half, where we could see a very intimate Joe Hisaishi, and a second part more melodic, cheerful, dynamic, and common, focused on his music for the movies, the great acoustics of the venue and the magnificent performance of a young but virtuous 3D Orchestra, along with Hisaishi‘s conducting and piano performance, offered us a wonderful concert. A true delight in every way!
Joe Hisaishi is becoming a regular of the European concert circuit, and has at the moment 9 concerts planned for the first semester of 2019 in Europe (read more), which have sold out all their tickets, forcing in almost all localities to add an additional function, which also got sold out.
A personal recommendation, do not miss the opportunity to see Joe Hisaishi in concert at least once. You will discover a different composer, melodic and sensitive, but at the same time intense and surprising, who, alternating the conducting of the orchestra with his piano performances, will offer you a concert to remember for a long time, just as he did with us tonight in Paris.
Article by Gorka Oteiza