Whatever else Walt Disney Concert Hall was designed for, there was always a dream that it might be an ideal place to hear ancient Japanese court and shrine music. So said architect Frank Gehry on Tuesday in a spoken interlude between performances in the hall by the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble.
In exchanges with UC Irvine professor Robert Garfias, Gehry mentioned the influence of classic Japanese architecture on his style. In addition, he explained how his study of stately but weighty Gagaku music gave him insights about fusing control and passion, "and I've tried to emulate that in my own work."
Keeping control and passion paramount, the 29 Reigakusha players provided what Garfias called "a chance to go back to a different sense of time" in Gagaku pieces handed down from antiquity as well as Toru Takemitsu's 50-minute "Shuteiga Ichigu" ("In an Autumn Garden") from the 1970s.
Bamboo flutes and pipes, zithers with silk strings, a four-stringed lute, resonant mouth organs and drums of different sizes combined in powerful but exquisitely balanced tonal washes characteristic of an idiom that has evolved over the centuries into an emblem of imperial Japan despite influences from India, China, Vietnam and Korea.
Performed on a rectangular green carpet edged in white, with wooden railings at the corners, the older selections ("Hyojo no Netori," "Etenraku," "Bairo") set drum accents, sometimes doubled by the zithers, against the deep, sustained blare of the winds.
The flute mastery of founder and artistic director Sukeyasu Shiba became prominent in "Shuteiga," an atmospheric suite that found the players located in six widely separated areas of the hall's performing space. Thus, particularly in the opening and closing sections, in which woodblocks were struck with small hammers, musical repeats bounced to and fro: left, right, center, front and back.
Passages featuring all the players achieved an unearthly intensity -- something like a wind tunnel tuned to a long-held mournful cry. But most often, Takemitsu exploited smaller effects: repeated, occasional fugal figurations blending and fading away, or instrumental textures punctuated by the drums or plucked strings.
The program also included "Ranryo-o," a classic dance solo from the Bugaku repertory, in which Katsuyuki Kobayashi executed formal cycles of slow reaches, squats and sliding steps to marchlike rhythms, wearing an imposing orange costume and gilded dragon mask.
Because the spatial focus of the dance continually shifted east, west, north and south, the audience experienced it as a faceted creation, viewable from different angles -- and even the curtain calls, with Kobayashi unmasked, were projected to the four points of the compass.
Finally, the honey-colored wood of the hall served as a handsome backdrop for the ornate robes of the performers and the sculptural intricacy of the instruments -- individual statements of splendor in a warm, open space. "It sounds like it was built for this," Garfias observed.
"Let's say it was," Gehry replied.