Though the koto can be traced back to the 8th Century in Japan, the music played on this long, graceful 13-string instrument at the Japan America Theatre on Monday was written largely within the last 50 years.

Yet the traditions of ancient Japanese music, so carefully kept alive through the centuries, remained tangible in the gifted hands of the evening’s three protagonists.

In what was introduced as “an elegant musical conversation,” Shinichi Yuize (composer of much of the music heard Monday), Yasuko Nakashima (Mrs. Yuize) and Suizan Sakai skillfully mixed old and new musical styles with the numerous possibilities offered by the standard koto, the 17-string bass koto, sangen (the name given the samisen, the three-stringed lute, in a chamber setting) and shakuhachi (the vertically played bamboo flute).

The overall musical mood was serene and introspective, as the names of many of the pieces (“Wintry Moon,” “Spring Night,” “Autumn Mist”) might suggest.


Yet, just as quickly, the music--particularly a pair of compositions by the pivotal composer Michiyo Miyagi (1894-1956)--would introduce a breathtaking element of virtuosity. Yuize continually darted over his koto--changing fret positions midway, striking the strings lengthwise, exploring complex contrapuntal passages.

Nakashima too displayed her prowess on the bass koto in four of her own stern solo works. Sakai’s playing of the shakuhachi showed a control and a sensuousness of tone that make the Western flute seem cold and lifeless in comparison.