I have many gripes about the classical music typically played in concert halls today, but one of the most significant is that non-white and/or non-male composers are often overlooked. As a result, several of my posts, such as today’s, will highlight composers from non-Western countries as well as women composers.
Japan has produced many composers with varying styles and ideas, but perhaps only Toru Takemitsu has achieved significant renown in the classical world. Today, I’ll discuss another name in classical composition today: the criminally underappreciated (and underperformed) Takashi Yoshimatsu, born in Tokyo in 1953.
In comparison to the previous centuries, today’s classical music is shorter, more spontaneous, and more dissonant, tending towards producing effects that are unexpected to the human ear. The Romanticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries is often considered out of date and unfitting in the 21st. However, Yoshimatsu manages to straddle this gap – he maintains the tonal harmonies of earlier times while incorporating modern extended techniques, particularly in his larger orchestral works.
Perhaps the best proof of Yoshimatsu’s concept is his piano concerto, titled “Memo Flora”. According to Yoshimatsu, “the words ‘Memo Flora’ were written by the poet Kenji Miyazawa on the cover of a notebook that contained notes for a diagram of the placement of flowers (melody) in a flowerbed (score).”
As in almost all piano concerti, the piano interacts with the orchestra, taking the melody at times and less prominent at others. However, instead of aiming to dazzle the listener and show the full range and virtuosity of the instrument, Yoshimatsu’s work creates much more synergy between the piano and its supporting cast.
This synergy is created through both the instrumentation and the way Yoshimatsu utilizes harmony. Instead of a large orchestra, which can include close to 100 instruments, Yoshimatsu writes for a smaller chamber orchestra and entirely omits the trombone and tuba. This creates a much more intimate atmosphere, and removing the harsher tones of the low brass also increases the subtlety and warmth of the orchestral accompaniment. Harmonically, the shifting key of the music keeps the listener interested, while the frequent use of intervals such as fourths and sevenths adds color.
Within this environment, the piano is much more connected to the orchestra, giving the music a “flow” not found in many other concerti. Yoshimatsu’s use of repeated motifs, a constant theme in his work, and the piano’s variations on those motifs add to the concerto’s connectedness.
Overall, Yoshimatsu’s “Memo Flora” piano concerto is one of the most pleasant works I have ever listened to and belongs to a style distinct from both his contemporaries and composers from the previous few centuries. Although it has been recorded a few times before, this concerto deserves to be heard far more than it is now, and it certainly would not sound out of place in any concert hall.
Although I am focusing on only his piano concerto for this post, Yoshimatsu has far more works that deserve greater attention. I will leave you with a few of his six symphonies, many of which are very “earthy” in tone and use existing orchestral instruments in innovative ways to create fresh sounds.
Many other works by Yoshimatsu, such as his cello concerto, trombone concerto, and his other four symphonies, are available on YouTube. Whether you’re actively listening or doing homework, I would encourage everyone to listen to more of his work!
(All non-original material, including Yoshimatsu’s description of the Memo Flora concerto, is from the composer’s website, http://yoshim.music.coocan.jp.)