The Man Who Makes a Marimba Into a Strad
Holy Trinity Church, 316 East 88th Street
John Blow: Three Motets: My days are gone like a shadow – Save me, O God – My God my God, look upon me
Tsuneya Tanabe: Masque (New York Premiere)
Angelica Negron: Fono (Pre-World Premiere)
Forest Trilogy: I. David Bruce: Songs in Wood – II. Akemi Naito: Five Waka by Saigyõ – III. Jacob Bancks: O Magnet-South (World Premiere)
Makoto Nakura (Marimba)
Cantori New York, Mark Shapiro (Conductor and Artistic Director), Jason Worth (Conductor)
M. Nakura (© Courtesy of the artist)
On a recent trip to Guatemala, I came across a monument in a charming highlands university town. Unlike most Central American statuary, this one was not for a military hero, not for a politician.
It was a monument for the marimba!! And that is only natural, since the marimba is Guatemala’s national instrument, its soft tonal hues heard everywhere.
I am certain Makoto Nakura would enjoy the lulling sounds in Guatemala, but that would be only the beginning. For this artist, the first marimba-player to win New York’s Young Concert Artists Award, as well as countless other prizes, the marimba has the range, invention, technique, and versatility of a Stradivarius violin–literally!!
When I first heard him in Hong Kong several decades ago, his technique was simply ear-poppingly dazzling. Since that time, he has shamelessly amazed the musical world with transcriptions (his recording of Bach transcriptions is stunning), and that still unbelievable technique.
Today, he has used his success to widen works written for the instrument. Not as novelties but for serious and complex ventures which he essays with his usual aplomb.
His first solo work, Tsuneya Tanabe’s Masque was, for those who hadn’t heard him before, a revelation.
Actually it was two revelations. The New York Cantori had preceded him with three motets of John Blow. And while they were sung well enough the church acoustics may have precluded changes of color, making for a literally mono-tonous selection. Mr. Nakura showed from the first simple “Entrance and Fanfare” that one wooden instrument, when played this way, has more color than a whole professional chorus.
The rest of this solo work showed the artist at his most spectacular. Confessedly, I don’t recall the music per se as much as I saw an artist whose legerdemain has probably no equals.
The following work, for chorus and synthesizer, was a clever choral work with composer Angelica Negron providing the electronic sounds (each section had sounds of a different instrument). But this was a “test run” for a world premiere this Wednesday at St. Bartholomew’s Church, so I won’t go into it.
If the first work played by Mr. Nakura showed his pheromonal technique, color and imagination, the next pieces–taking the entire second half–demonstrated another face of the artist. That of the musical innovator.
Here were three works by three different young composers, each based around poems, each written for Mr. Nakura and the New York Cantori, all under the umbrella title “Forest Trilogy” (commissioned by ISGM New Music Commissioning Fund).
It is doubtful if any serious work is written for marimba and chorus, but this trio of composers made some splendid stabs at the challenge, with varying success. And even these difference of success were more subjective for the listener than objective judgments.
It was also dependent on the poems. The most complex was by Jacob Bancks, and for goot reason. Walt Whitman is never easy to set to music. But his rare poem about the American South included long phrases about “reptiles…the bellow of the alligator, the sad noises of the night-owl and the wild-cat and the whirr of the rattlesnake.”
I doubt if our New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-housed Good Gray poet ever heard the whirr of the rattlesnake, but fortunately Mr. Bancks never tried to imitate Whitman’s multitude of images. That was the problem. The music was complex, the chorus was sometimes thrilling, but this was a fine exercise more than a memorable piece.
The first, four poems by David Bruce didn’t have the joyful, machine-sharp, meta-engineering perfection of his Steampunk, reviewed earlier this year. But it enjoyed the same accessible enjoyment. Mainly, here was Makoto Nakura playing different ostinatos above the choir for the quartet of poems.
Mr. Bruce compared the choir to a “singing forest” as opposed to the wood of the marimba, and the Cantori New York worked up some depths of music, with the texture of a Penderecki, while Mr. Nakura tapped away at flame sounds, incredibly beautiful rain sounds (they reached every gamut of the instrument, as though the water was striking a series of asymmetrical structures, multiplying, splashing and making single droplets) and more abstract sounds.
My own favorite was by the young Japanese composer Akemi Naito. While sung in Japanese, the words in English of the 12th Century poet were still glistening, both philosophically (the composer considers them “metaphysical signposts”) and verbally. All five poems are worth repeating. Here is one, where the poet, then a priest, confesses to other longings.
Why do I, who broke so completely with this world, find in my body still the pulsing of a heart once dyed in blossoms’ hues?
Ms Naito’s settings were ravishing for both marimba and choir. Unexplainable, with nuances of Japanese melodies but more a moving crystalline atmosphere, a partnership of choir and artist together.
One further comment. Each work on the program had notes by the composers themselves. Not technical but informal. If they didn’t always explain everything, the music was supposed to do that. In fact, they were touching, personal and, above all, showed the care which Mr. Nakura gives to even the smallest detail of his singular career.