Music Reviews : Chamber Music Festival Opens

Calligraphy may seem an unlikely basis for a particularly vivid, dramatic performance art. But the centerpiece of the opening Chamber Music/LA concert, Sunday afternoon at the Japan America Theatre, proved an attention-getting exercise in something like mutant ninja lettering.

Each of the five festival programs this year is built around the local premiere of a contemporary Japanese work. For the opening it was Isao Matsushita’s “Kizuna,” which pits a percussion/Japanese flute duo against a string bass/piano pair. Bridging the large cultural--and spatial, in this performance--gap between East and West was a wide, three-panel screen, on which Shioh Kato worked his surprisingly violent calligraphic will.

The portentous, evocative music was ably delivered by flutist Michiko Akao, on the yokobue, percussionist Shinichi Ueno, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and pianist Shunsuke Kurakata. Matsushita’s score suggested its own musical commonalty, in shared rhetorical, quasi-improvised gestures.

The instrumental outbursts and mutterings, however, were quickly reduced to accompaniment by the commanding presence of Kato. Working with large, dripping brushes, he attacked the screen with explosive shouts, drawing three symbols--said to represent “flying in the universe"--as a wrenching act of creative will.


By comparison, Matsushita’s “Kaze-no-rosho” is understated, though on its own terms this solo for Japanese flute, introduced locally by Akao two years ago, is equally convulsive. Akao delivered it again with centered strength and a wealth of inflective nuance.

Beethoven’s Septet occupied the second half of this generous program, in a sparkling, balanced, suave account. Violinist and festival artistic director Yukiko Kamei led the pert and pertinent effort, convincingly seconded by clarinetist Gary Gray, bassoonist Kenneth Munday, hornist Richard Todd, violist Milton Thomas, cellist Sumiko Kurata and bassist Neidlinger.

For the opener, violinist Paul Rosenthal led Kamei, Thomas and Kurata in a steely performance of Haydn’s D-minor Quartet, Opus 76, No. 2. Rosenthal’s sound was smooth and invariably louder than anything else, and his fingers more than adequate to the challenges, but he often put himself out in front of the ensemble in time as well as volume.