Pianist and composer David Benoit has tilled fertile jazz-fusion fields for many years now. On Saturday he took his biggest step to date across the classical border, leading the world premiere of his new tone poem, "Kobe," in a benefit concert for the Asia America Symphony Orchestra at Marsee Auditorium of El Camino College.
Cast in six movements, "Kobe" is an ambitious effort to weld traditional Japanese instruments to a Western symphony orchestra on behalf of an eventful scenario based in part on the experiences of Benoit's mother-in-law. Though beginning in the atomic-bomb-struck ruins of Hiroshima, and including a double drowning, suicide attempts, yakuza threats and the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the story is ultimately affirmative.
Benoit's score, however, is not, largely because affirmation is difficult in music so consistently perky and tension-free. Its darkest moments come not in the predictable rumblings of the earthquake but in the haunted waltz of the "Keiko's Dream" movement. Otherwise, tragedy is a bit of minor mode here or a drum stroke there. Nowhere does the music suggest profound grief, and almost everywhere it calls up reminders of Copland and Bernstein at their brightest and sassiest.
There is reflective sorrow in the opening Prelude, a Hiroshima elegy for koto, shakuhachi and taiko, played with expressive grace by June Kuramoto, Masakazu Yoshizawa and Johnny Mori, respectively. But the Japanese instruments remain largely an underutilized force apart--despite being amplified to compete sonically--with little direct interaction with the orchestra and no stylistic cross-fertilization.
Irrepressible amiability might not have seemed quite so counterproductive if not contrasted with the highly dramatic story that Benoit urged the audience to read. Certainly his earlier jazz set proved that mellow geniality can be a positive factor in shorter pieces. A sampler of Benoit's recent work, mostly for piano and bass (the solid Ken Wild) with lush orchestral backing, displayed Benoit's fluent lyricism, while a pair of Bill Evans tunes found a more dynamic groove for him.
The concert began with Asia America Symphony music director Heiichiro Ohyama leading an affectionately energetic account of Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Fledermaus" Overture. The orchestra played with enthusiasm throughout the evening, with several of its fine principals called on for important solos in Benoit's music.