Press Room

Music From Japan’s 35th anniversary season

The 2009-10 season marks the 35th anniversary of Music From Japan.  To commemorate this important occasion, Music From Japan and its Artistic Director, Naoyuki Miura, are pleased to announce Festival 2010: two special programs to be performed on the weekend of February 20 & 21 at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC.  One features the illustrious gagaku artist Sukeyasu Shiba, and the other focuses on new and recent works by Japanese composers, commissioned by MFJ.  Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe will also travel to the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC on February 24.  A program for school children will be presented at New York’s Hunter College Elementary School on February 22.

Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe will open Music From Japan’s 35th anniversary season at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City on February 20.  The concert will celebrate Mr. Shiba’s accomplishments as a performer, composer, researcher, educator, and advocate of gagaku, as well as Music From Japan’s achievements in introducing American and world audiences to the music and culture of Japan.  For this concert, Music From Japan has commissioned Mai Fu Jin 35, a gagaku piece based on the classical tradition, as well as dance segments choreographed to three movements from Mr. Shiba’s Shotorashion suite for gagaku ensemble.  Works in the all-Shiba program will be performed by his Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble and guest performers.

The second concert in Music From Japan’s 35th anniversary presentation, also at Merkin Concert Hall, is on February 21.  Highlights of MFJ Commissions II will present past commissions by Music From Japan, as well as two new commissions written especially for the occasion.  Recent works by Hikaru Hayashi, Shin-ichiro Ikebe, and Sunao Isaji will be revived, and new commissions by Hitomi Kaneko and Yasuko Yamaguchi will receive their world premieres.  Highlights of MFJ Commissions II will be performed by members of Reigakusha, the Music From Japan Chamber Ensemble, and the Cassatt String Quartet, with Yasuaki Itakura conducting.

On February 22, MFJ will present a special gagaku outreach program for the students at New York’s Hunter College Elementary School.  The children will be introduced to gagaku music with a brief history and a performance of Ponta and the Thunder God, based on the retelling of an old folk tale by Sayumi Kawauchi and set to music by Sukeyasu Shiba.  With echoes of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, Ponta and the Thunder God tells of a boy whose eggplant seedling produces a plant so huge that he can climb it to reach a mansion beyond the clouds.  The students will hear Ponta’s adventures narrated by Nabuko Kiryu and even have a chance to sing a “shoga”, an oral notation system that is sung to aid in the memorization of melodies.  They will be shown and told about the instruments played in gagaku, and some lucky students will get a chance to try them out.


About Gagaku

Gagaku is the name given to Japanese court music, which is the world’s oldest continuous performing arts tradition, dating back more than 1,200 years.  Its name translates literally as elegant or ethereal music; as tradition would have it, gagaku’s “purity shaped the heavens, and its vastness formed the earth.”  Performed on traditional instruments by an ensemble of up to 30 musicians, gagaku refers both to a body of music handed down over the centuries by professional court musicians, and to original works in this ancient art form.

Of the traditional instruments found in today’s gagaku orchestras, this season’s Festival features a variety of winds – the ryuteki (transverse flute), hichiriki (double-reed instrument, much like an oboe), and sho (mouth organ); two strings – the gaku-so, from which the modern koto derives, and the gaku-biwa, a lute from Persia that entered Japan with gagaku; and three types of percussion – two drums, the taiko and kakko, and the shoko, which is a small bronze gong.  In addition to these are a number of instruments that are not found in modern gagaku ensembles: the shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute), a later development that is more often associated with Zen meditation than with gagaku, and the four instruments featured in Mr. Shiba’s Chosa Join.  These four have been reconstructed from instruments preserved in the seventh/eighth-century Imperial Treasury of the Shoso-in in Nara: the ohichiriki (a slightly larger version of the hichiriki), haisho (panpipes), genkan (four-stringed lute), and kugo harp (which is replaced by the gaku-so in this performance).


About Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe

Music From Japan’s 35th anniversary season opens at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City on February 20 with Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe.  This program showcases the music of Sukeyasu Shiba, founder of Reigakusha and a renowned composer, scholar, and performer, famed for his reconstructions of lost parts of the gagaku repertory and for his commitment to keeping the genre alive.  This is the first time that any of the featured works have ever been performed in the United States.

With Reigakusha, Mr. Shiba presents the world premiere of Mai Fu Jin 35 (2008), an ensemble piece especially commissioned by Music From Japan for this 35th anniversary season.  He explains how, like its classical gagaku precedents, Mai Fu Jin 35 “is divided into three parts, the ‘Jo’ (introductory), the ‘Ha’ (development), and the ‘Kyu’ (climax).”  Scored for traditional instruments, the work evokes its inspiration: “the great Rengeo-in Temple (Sanjusangen-do) in Kyoto, with its myriad Buddhist statues.”

Also commissioned for the occasion by Music From Japan are three dance segments – incorporating both modern and traditional dance forms – accompanying Mr. Shiba’s earlier work Shotorashion (1980/2010), which was also inspired by Buddhist themes as well as by the music of Toru Takemitsu.  The world premiere of the work’s dance segments will be performed by the two who created them: Stephen Pier and mikomai dancer Maya Sakai.  The modern dance sections were choreographed by Mr. Pier, who has been hailed by the New York press as “one of the most gifted dancers on the modern scene today,” while the traditional dancing was choreographed by Ms. Sakai, in the mikomai style that is her specialty.  Mikomai is one of the two main traditions of female Shinto dancing, a modern miko being a priestess whose duties at Shinto shrines include the performance of ceremonial dances.  Originally, however, a miko was a female shaman who conveyed messages from the spirit world, much like a Greek sybil.  By juxtaposing these archaic roots with Mr. Pier’s contemporary dance, the new choreography perfectly complements the music of Shotorashion, with its ancient and modern influences.

Besides producing original gagaku music, Mr. Shiba specializes in reconstructions of lost works from ancient manuscripts.  Chosa Join (reconstructed in 1983) is one such restored masterpiece, based on fragments for biwa (lute) recovered from one of the thousand Buddhist caves at Dun Huang in western China.  An important city on the great Silk Road trade route, Dun Huang was excavated at the turn of the 20th century, yielding a wealth of materials that date predominantly from between 100 BC and 1200 AD.  Mr. Shiba describes what attracted him to this particular fragment: “While the preponderance of biwa music from Dun Huang is bright and lively, Chosa Join has a softer, more lyrical mood.”

The earliest work on the program, Guwa No. 1 (1966), is scored for Japanese shakuhachi (end-blown bamboo flute) and harp.  Guwa means “fable”, and the composer conceived of the two instruments as representing East and West respectively: “There are places where the shakuhachi plays like a Western flute and where the harp plays like the Japanese koto (a kind of zither) … to bring the sounds of the Eastern and Western instruments into accord with one another.”

As a virtuoso gagaku performer for many years, Mr. Shiba specialized in playing transverse flutes like the ryuteki, which is one of gagaku’s two main melodic instruments.  Ichigyo no Fu (1979), for unaccompanied ryuteki, is a celebration of the instrument, although, as Mr. Shiba explains, the piece “does not necessarily require a tremendous level of technical expertise; the point is to give full voice to the performer’s personal expressiveness.”

An hour before the performance, Mr. Shiba will introduce audiences to the great gagaku tradition and his own development as a gagaku composer, in a pre-concert lecture.

Sukeyasu Shiba’s Gagaku Universe will also be presented in the Freer Gallery of Art, in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, on February 24, featuring the same program and performers as in New York, but with one exception: the composer’s Souan no Kai (2003), scored for hichiriki and gaku-biwa, and based on a legend from the Middle Ages, will replace Guwa No. 1.


About Highlights of MFJ Commissions II

The second concert in Music From Japan’s 35th anniversary presentation, Highlights of MFJ Commissions II, is at Merkin Concert Hall on February 21.  By commissioning new works from contemporary composers, both upcoming and established, Music From Japan plays a significant part in keeping Japan’s great musical tradition alive.  The past 34 seasons have seen many important commissions premiered, and this year’s festival is no exception, presenting world premieres of two new commissions plus a second chance to hear some of the most memorable music from recent years.

Both of this year’s new works are scored for a combination of traditional and western instruments.  Yasuko Yamaguchi’s Wurzeln (“Roots”) (2009-10) features the oboe-like hichiriki with cello, percussion, and piano.  “When I first heard the hichiriki, I was quite taken with the fluid expansiveness of the sound,” Ms. Yamaguchi recounts.  “I decided to create a new music that would preserve the spacious sound of the hichiriki while still allowing its very distinctive sonority to meld with other instruments of a very different sound quality.”  The work was inspired by watching roots grow from a cutting: “the rootlets reached straight at first” before “growing and intermingling,” and this is the contrast Ms. Yamaguchi sought to recreate.  She explains: “The percussion and piano assume the role of interrupting the relaxed glissandos and leisurely movement of the hichiriki and cello,” until eventually “the roles assigned to the individual instruments begin to meld together” and “the music as a whole expands and contracts freely.”

Similarly, Hitomi Kaneko’s Almost Dusk (2009-10) pairs the sho (a Japanese mouth organ capable of producing chordal textures) with string quartet; Ms. Kaneko relates how “fortuitous” it was that Music From Japan proposed this instrumentation, since she “had been intrigued for some time with the idea of putting strings together with the sho.”  Cast in four parts, Almost Dusk, like Wurzeln, took its inspiration from the natural world.  Ms. Kaneko describes her fascination with “the relationship between outline and shadow of the mountains,” and her discovery “that researchers have been successful in reconstructing the original shapes of asteroids using data collected from their outlines and shadows.”  Almost Dusk attempts to capture these elusive relationships; Ms. Kaneko explains that “the contours of sound are produced in Part I, the shadows of sound in Part II,” with both “made explicit in Part III through the relationship between the fundamental tone and the overtones.”  Finally, in Part IV, all three states come together to produce “Almost Dusk”.

The program also revives three earlier Music From Japan commissions.  Scored for two violins, Bivalence II (1997) is one of two duos in which composer Shin-ichiro Ikebe set out to evoke musically what happens when “electrodes with opposing force fields [give] birth to arcs of electricity.”  He explains: “The two individual voices are not simply thrown into contrast; rather they irradiate one another.”

Hikaru Hayashi’s Lament (1999-2000) was “intended as an offering of consolation and encouragement” for disaster victims.  As a chaconne, Mr. Hayashi explains, it “represents a form of theme and variations in which the basic harmony remains constant.”  Relishing the challenge of writing for string quartet, he “anticipated discovering some new sources of interest in the older form.”

Sunao Isaji’s ensemble piece a lovleg day for mirrages on the sea (2003), scored for flute, violin, cello, piano, percussion, and conductor, owes its title to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  This in turn relates to an age-old Chinese myth of an ocean mirage – just one of the “many fantastical legends recorded about Japan in the ancient records of other countries,” with which Mr. Isaji has been fascinated since boyhood, and by which the work was inspired.

The program will be performed by distinguished virtuosos Mayumi Miyata and Hitomi Nakamura of Reigakusha and by the Cassatt String Quartet and the Music From Japan Chamber Ensemble, with guest conductor Yasuaki Itakura.


About the composers, artists, and choreographer

Born into the Shiba family – a branch of the Koma clan of gagaku musicians associated with the temple-shrine complex of Kofuku-ji/Kasuga-taisha in Nara for more than a thousand years – Sukeyasu Shiba served as a leading gagaku performer for the Imperial Household Agency for 27 years.  A respected composer and scholar known for his reconstructions of lost parts of the gagaku repertory, Mr. Shiba established Reigakusha in 1985 to research and perform this ancient music.  His international festival appearances have included Tanglewood, New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, Festival d’Automne in Paris, the Vienna Modern, and Oslo’s Ultima Festival.  Formerly a Professor of Music at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he is currently a guest professor at the Kunitachi College of Music.  Among Mr. Shiba’s awards are the Japan Art Academy Prize and the Imperial Award from the same organization, both awarded in 2003.

Founded by Mr. Shiba in 1985, the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble is a group of professional gagaku instrumentalists dedicated to the study and performance of the classical gagaku repertoire, and the creation of new music for ancient instruments.  The company has commissioned major new works by such contemporary composers as Toru Takemitsu, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Maki Ishii.  Reigakusha has appeared regularly in major halls throughout Japan and abroad, its many international appearances including Tanglewood, New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, Seattle, Berlin, Innsbruck, Oslo, and London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.  The ensemble has been honored with the Nakajima Kenzo Special Music Prize (2001) and by awards from the Geijutsusai Arts Festival (2004 and 2005).  Reigakusha is also committed to bringing gagaku to wider audiences by means of educational outreach programs.

Dancer, teacher, and choreographer Stephen Pier spent nine years as a leading soloist with Germany’s Hamburg Ballet and six as a member of the Royal Danish Ballet, where he collaborated with many of Europe’s finest contemporary choreographers.  His credits as a performer include many years with the Jose Limon Dance Company where the New York press hailed him as “one of the most gifted dancers on the modern dance scene today.” On the faculty of the Juilliard School since 1996, he has also taught at the Alvin Ailey School, the Martha Graham Center, and many other notable companies in America, Europe, and Asia.  In 2004, Mr. Pier founded PierGroupDance to explore and collaborate with other dancers and artists, and he has created more than 30 works for the concert stage, opera, theater, and film.  In September 2008 he began a three-year tenure as director of the new Visions and Voices: Altria/ABT Women’s Choreography Project at American Ballet Theatre.

Hitomi Kaneko graduated in composition from the Toho Gakuen School of Music before continuing her studies on a French Government scholarship at the Paris Conservatoire.  She attended the Avignon and Darmstadt Festivals with scholarships in 1992.  She was invited to perform Miyabi in Kyoto, Japan in 1994, and Rayon Vert was performed by Ensemble Contrechamps at the Contemporary Music Festival, Tokyo, two years later.  In 2001, Ms. Kaneko organized a memorial concert for composer Gérard Grisey, premiering her own Le tombeau de Gérard Grisey with the Orchestre Régional de Cannes.  In 2003, she joined the faculty at the Toho Gakuen School of Music, where she is currently a full professor.

Born in 1969 in Nagasaki, Yasuko Yamaguchi studied composition at Tokyo University of the Arts and then with Manfred Trojahn at Düsseldorf’s Robert Schumann Hochschule, earning her Master’s in 2000.  Her numerous awards include the 2005 Young Musicians Prize of the city of Düsseldorf, and her orchestral work Darumasan ga koronda (“Daruma fell down”) was nominated for the tenth Akutagawa Prize in Japan and performed by the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, as well as by the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa under Hiroyuki Iwaki, who recorded it for Warner Music Japan.  Ms. Yamaguchi’s work for toy pianos, Satou no ame (“Sugar Rain”), was included on the recent CD The Untempered Piano: New Compositions for Toy Piano.  Her works have been performed extensively by leading new music ensembles and heard at such international festivals as Holland’s International Gaudeamus Music Week and the Munich Biennale Klangspuren.  She has recently had two concerts of chamber music dedicated solely to her work: in Dortmund in May 2007, and in Düsseldorf in September 2008.


About Music From Japan

Music From Japan, the leading presenter of Japanese traditional and contemporary music in the U.S., has enriched the cultural life of New York and other cities by bringing Japanese performers, composers, and educational programs to U.S. audiences.  Since 1975, founding Artistic Director Naoyuki Miura has been responsible for presenting nearly 400 works by Japanese composers, including 49 commissions by the organization, and 68 world premieres.  During the last three decades, the organization has presented concerts throughout North and South America, Central Asia, and Japan.  More than 130 Japanese composers have been showcased, as well as many traditional Japanese works.  In 1994, Music From Japan established the Resource Center for Japanese Music, including the Japanese Composer Database, which is available through MFJ’s web site at, and which provides information to people from all over the world on Japanese composers and their music.  Music From Japan has been honored with a Foreign Minister’s Commendation in July 2007, and by two awards to Mr. Miura: the Japan Foundation Special Prize in October 2001, and the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Award in December 2007.



Music From Japan Festival 2010: 35th Anniversary Season

February 20 (Sat)

New York, NY – Merkin Concert Hall, 8:00 pm



Guwa No. 1 (1966; US premiere)

        for shakuhachi and harp

Ichigyo no Fu (1979; US premiere)

        for ryuteki solo

Mai Fu Jin 35 (2008; world premiere, commissioned by MFJ for 35th anniversary)

         for sho (2), hichiriki (2), ryuteki (2), gaku-biwa, gaku-so, kakko, taiko, and shoko

Chosa Join (1983 reconstructed; US premiere)

         for haisho, gaku-so, genkan, and ohichiriki

Shotorashion (1980/2010; *world premiere of dance, commissioned by MFJ for 35th anniversary; US premiere of music)

         for sho (2), hichiriki (2), ryuteki (2), gaku-biwa, gaku-so, kakko, taiko, shoko, and dancers (2)

   Introduction and Mandala



   The Rage of Jikokuten and Finale*


Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble; *Maya Sakai, mikomai dancer; Stephen Pier, dancer/choreographer; Bridget Kibbey, harp; *Takeshi Sasamoto, shakuhachi

(*members of the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble)

Pre-concert lecture at 7:00 pm by Mr. Shiba


February 21 (Sun)

New York, NY – Merkin Concert Hall, 7:30 pm



Hikaru Hayashi: Lament (1999-2000) for string quartet

Shin-ichiro Ikebe: Bivalence II (1997) for violin duo

Sunao Isaji: a lovleg day for mirrages on the sea (2003) for flute, violin, cello, piano, percussion, and conductor

Hitomi Kaneko: Almost Dusk (2009-10; world premiere) for sho and string quartet

Yasuko Yamaguchi: Wurzeln (“Roots”) (2009-10; world premiere) for hichiriki, cello, percussion, piano and conductor


*Mayumi Miyata, sho; *Hitomi Nakamura, hichiriki

Music From Japan Chamber Ensemble: Eriko Sato and Tom Chiu, violin; Fred Sherry, cello; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Stephen Gosling, piano; Eric Poland, percussion

Cassatt String Quartet

Yasuaki Itakura, guest conductor

(*members of the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble)


February 22 (Mon)

New York, NY – Hunter College Elementary School, 10:30 am

(school program, not open to public)

Special program for young students, featuring Nabuko Kiryu as narrator, with Sukeyasu Shiba and the Reigakusha Gagaku Ensemble.  Program includes Sukeyasu Shiba’s musical setting of the folk tale Ponta and the Thunder God, translated into English especially for this performance, and an interactive introduction to gagaku.


February 24 (Wed)

Washington, DC – Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 7:30 pm


Program and performers as for Feb 20, except for first piece:

Souan no Kai (2003) for hichiriki and gaku-biwa will replace Guwa No. 1

All programs and artists are subject to change.

Music From Japan Festival 2010, 35th anniversary, is made possible in part by public funds from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan for the fiscal year 2009, the New York State Council on the Arts, the state agency, and the Japan Foundation.

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© 21C Media Group, January 2010

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