Sunday, October 11, 2009

Concert Review: Kazuhito Yamashita at Northwest Hills UMC

UPDATED: Scroll down for updated information.

The Austin Classical Guitar Society scored a major coup by having Kazuhito Yamashita open their 2009-2010 concert season. I have no earthly idea what Mr. Yamashita asks for in terms of compensation for such an appearance, but it must be quite a tidy sum, as the diminutive Japanese guitarist only performs a few concerts each year, and he almost never plays in the USA anymore. This was his first appearance ever in Austin, and his first concert in Texas in exactly twenty years; since the 1989 GFA in Lubbock. I also attended that concert, and my retrospective about the experience is the single most hit post in all of MMM history (And, that's over four years now).



Of course, I was very excited about the prospect of seeing Mr. Yamashita play again, but I must also admit to a bit of trepidation: How would he have changed in twenty years - two decades! - and, would I still be so impossibly wiped out by the man? Certainly, the way I listen to guitarists today is nothing like how I listened to them twenty years back. I was a thirty-one-year-old MM student back then, and I'm a jaded fifty-one-year-old performer/composer today. Seriously, I'm bored into somnolence by even great classical guitarists anymore, so would Kazuhito Yamashita still be the near singular exception?

In a word, yes.

I went for the $60.00 "preferred" ticket and arrived early enough to get a second row seat behind another Yamashita fan who I previously knew only from internet correspondence. I love it when that happens!

The first part of the program was Jr. High and High School ensembles, both of which were better than I expected, but I must admit that I just wanted to see Mr. Yamashita take the stage. When he did, he played Sonata No. 1 for solo guitar "The Blue Flower" by Keiko Fujiie, a female composer. The slightly overwrought program notes said that it was inspired by German Romanticism and dedicated to Mr. Yamashita. That's really all that needed to be said, so that's all I'll pass along.

*****


UPDATE: My friend Stephen Swender, who was the guy sitting in front of me at the concert, has reminded me that Keiko Fujiie is Kazuhito Yamashita's wife. He told me that at the concert, but I had forgotten. In this light, I'm fairly certain that the sonata amounted to at least a partial collaboration between them, which probably accounts for how well it worked. She is a keyboard player, and the guitar, as an idiom, is so restrictive that nobody who doesn't actually play the guitar can write for it to save their lives. At least, that has been my experience 100% of the time so far. Regardless, it is a wonderful piece of music and a worthy addition to the guitar's repertoire. And hey, nothing wrong with a little musical nepotism: I would if I could. LOL!

*****


Since I was completely unfamiliar with this work and the composer - and, okay, I'll admit to a little bias against female composers - I had no idea what to expect, and what expectations I did have were quite low. Well, in one respect, it was exactly what I expected: The old familiar harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic language of German Romanticism, but it wasn't overly heavy or overburdened with Sturm und Drang. It had just enough of each - weight and drama - to be effective, and man, was it a MF of technical demands. I really like this guitar sonata better than the Jose one, which has become a competition favorite. I'm sure it will be dismissed by the avant-garde crowd though, because of their prejudice against anything remotely musical or communicative, but I also expect audiences to adore it. Call me old fashioned, but I play to and for audiences... and am an audience member from time to time myself. So, my verdict on the sonata itself is, I'd give it an 8.5 out of ten (That's ridiculously generous for me).



As for Mr. Yamashita's performance, well, I need to set this up properly. The twenty-eight-year-old transcendental super-virtuoso I heard play Dvorak's 9th twenty years back is no more. Back in '89 I was so on the edge of my seat because of Mr. Yamashita's wildly abandoned - but perfectly controlled - bravura that I thought my eyeballs would melt, my eardrums cave in, and I feared for my life that the guitar would shatter into itty-bitty bits, with shards of wood and lengths of string flying off into the audience (No, that's not over the top). Last night was nothing like that... well, almost nothing like that.

Also, back in '89, Mr. Yamashita's tone was hyper-aggressive and "naily." That's changed too, and for the better. Not only that, but the young Yamashita had a dynamic range that had him over-playing the instrument to the point of string-rattle-induced distortion regularly: Really and truly, it was the loudest I had ever heard an acoustic guitar sound. Well, that has moderated too.

Now, when you combine these evolutions that Mr. Yamashita has gone through with the evolutions I've undergone, well... it was abso-fu¬Ęk!ng-lutely pluperfectly amazing. His tone is much warmer today, and his tonal range is better than ever: He plays from a few millimeters from the bridge all the way to the middle of the fingerboard, effortlessly and with sublime interpretive appropriateness. I heard pianos, I heard harps, and I heard every kind of guitar, from steely to subdued.

He also takes chances. Lots of them. No net for this tightrope act... and it's obviously no mere act; the guy is really inside of the music and speaking out through it. Yeah, there was a consummate master of showmanship on the stage in front of me, but it was a very mature master who utilized the elements of showmanship he has so finely honed - I was reminded more than once of other Japanese art forms like Kabuki, Sumo, and the martial arts (Remember, I lived in Japan and know, love, and have experienced the culture first hand) - to bring the most out of the music and have it hit the audience with maximal impact.

With all of the chances he took with the performance, you might expect at least a few crushed notes, and I did notice a few, but I'm thinking that twenty years back my ears were not so hyper-trained and so that may be nothing new. In any event, Kazuhito Yamashita is the only completely acoustic classical guitarist I've cared about enough to actually, you know, give up a perfectly good evening of practicing, composing and/or synth programming to go out and experience for the past twenty years. That is the one thing that hasn't changed a jot or tittle.

Oh yeah, the second half of the program was Mr. Yamashita performing his transcriptions of the Bach First Cello Suite and Third Violin Sonata. As I said to my bud sitting in front of me, "I thought I was familiar with that music." Er, no. It's like he re-composed the music for ultra-virtuoso guitar. Magnificent.

Now, if I could only get him to play just the finale of my first guitar sonata. I still think he's the only guitarist alive who could pull it off.

Gotta sign off with the same anime babe too. LOL!

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