Monthly Archives: December 2013

108: Fonormail

Fonormail (Noun): 1. genetive singular form of fonormal; 2. nominative plural of fonormal

EDIT: as stated at the bottom, I’ve procured a copy of the program notes. Scroll way down to read them.

Review: Nonon Jakuzure Conducts and Plays Rachmaninoff

I’m not going to rat out my benefactor for sneaking me into Honnouji Academy. This was a performance closed to students and staff (and that huge brute Gamagoori seemed awfully tense), but my crazy uncle told me I couldn’t miss it. And my uncle knows taste, so how could I pass this up?

I have a wonderful scanner

All things said, this was well worth the stupid risk. I’ve only the program notes I saved to show for my and my uncle’s trouble, but I’m very eager to share my experience and recount what I can from memory. Let me qualify myself right now: this experience was much, much more than “worth it.” I enjoy classical music, but I am not often truly excited. I usually sit back and twiddle my thumbs in quiet admiration.

This Saturday past was not a sit-back, thumb-twiddly day. Saturday the twenty-third will not fade from my mind for a very long time.

Nothing much is expected of a high school orchestra, not even the rigidly managed one of Honnouji Academy. On the other hand, I’ve met a lot of people who turn their noses up and claim to know the Berliner Philharmoniker blindfolded and with one ear plugged. But the Honnouji Academy Orchestra smashes all these preconceptions down: they are seriously good, good, good. I cannot emphasize enough just how good they sound. Not only are they rehearsed to technical perfection that Toscanini might have given passing marks, but their musicality is (well, to me at least) overwhelmingly amazing for an orchestra of high-schoolers.

Clear your mind of prejudice before diving into the rest of my ramble. After reading my program notes and hearing for myself, I am convinced that the Honnouji Academy Orchestra is my next big thing to follow. I will have made poor work of my rhetoric if you don’t feel the same by the end. There will be a lot of rambling in here: I am really, really enamored with Nonon Jakuzure and the Honnouji Academy Orchestra. So a fair portion of this will also be promotional waffling for her and for the orchestra.

The program was rather heavy-handed for a concert given in a high-school setting: we heard Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. You might hear one or the other (usually the latter), but downing both in one go is as trying for the audience as it is for the performers. The insistence on delivering both at once says a lot about the conductor’s confidence: she is assured that she will deliver, and so goes ahead and programs what she wants, risking an alienated audience.

I would like to start off by plagiarizing a bit from the program notes: “Part of what inclines Jakuzure towards conducting Rachmaninoff is a ‘frigid’ sound.” This much I agree with. There were some portions of the program notes that I felt were unsubstantiated, such as the second part of the previously quoted sentence: “[Jakuzure’s] rigid poise and steely refinement at the helm … ” because simply put, the evoked image is all wrong. Jakuzure loves what she does, and she’s excited about it! That shows when she almost bounces up and down on the podium in the frenetic parts: it’s adorable. I glimpsed a huge smile on her face on one of the outer movements of the Symphonic Dances. What she does is serious business, but by no means is she some stern old lady who doesn’t get how to have fun.

That’s not to say that Jakuzure doesn’t take her work seriously. I’ve already said that the performance of the twenty-third was fabulous: let me get to work backing that up.

The audience was charmed by her entrance (she fairly floated across the stage); but that was nothing on the opening of the Symphonic Dances that put us all on tenterhooks. The defining trait of the Honnouji Academy Orchestra is crystalline clarity: their articulation is impeccable. This is especially important for the middle portion of the first movement, to phrase every note just right. It’s a big bonus for the outer shells too, where the music pulls nasty faces. I praise Jakuzure’s interpretation really drawing out the form of the first movement where the element of dance dominates with much foot-stomping and a few chilly shivers. Jakuzure draws the Stravinsky-esque emphasis on rhythm to perfection without sounding inappropriately percussive. She opens the throttle wide – much more adventurously than any other high-schooler would dare – but never exchanges correctness for swiftness. The result is an impressive dash through the snow at high speed, leaving the audience in stunned silence at the end of the first movement.

I had a hard time sitting still in the pause; I’d just been blown away by an exceptional first movement, and I anticipated the second from the first step I took into the auditorium.

The second movement (“Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)”) is strangely grotesque: it possesses a wispy elegance of a different character than the aggressive, sharp-edged first movement. Always there throbs the “oom-pa-pa” that Jakuzure keeps in focus like a heartbeat: never is it carelessly airy like Strauss. The gorgeous stringwork is executed with great skill by the violins, violas, and cellos all; the brass and winds merit no less praise for weaving mysteriously in and out of the music, enchanting us all with little whirlwinds and devilish eddies leading us to and fro.

I noticed that Jakuzure took this movement pretty slowly, really letting the waltz rhythm hang on the air; this contrasted sharp-like with the first movement that she took at speed. It wasn’t forced or exaggerated; it was just noticeable, and effective at that. When the ghost of the stately waltz had faded away at the end of the movement, Jakuzure introduced a small accelerando in anticipation of the final movement. (This is appropriate, I think, given that the second movement ends with some rhythmic passagework that wouldn’t sound so great at slow tempi.)

If the first movement had us stunned, was it ever quiet at the end of the second. I held my breath in fear of disturbing the other patrons (even the famed Gamagoori himself was completely silent).

Then the third movement slipped in, catching us unawares. Jakuzure deftly blew away the eerie specter of the waltz and swept in as referee to a frenetic footrace between the servants of Death and the champions of Life. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the All-Night Vigil (better-known in the west as “Vespers,” though I don’t think that’s entirely correct) and so I step unsteadily through the thematic material of the third movement. I do, however, recognize a good restatement of the Dies Irae theme when Rachmaninoff sees fit to manifest it. Traditionally, I have come to expect glory and celebration in final movements; whatever sternness or stuffiness anyone perceived in Jakuzure’s conducting evaporates completely, here; the last movement is a fantastic dash (in some places, a ponderous exploration) that yanks the rug out from under us and sends us into an almost holy awe. As with the previous two movements, there was nothing  but the highest level of discipline and a wondrous depth of comprehension in the music. Jakuzure has a real skill for making musical structure somehow a lot clearer to people: I took this to be the movement that broke the layer of frost; the “frigid” (that adjective from the program notes is one I find apt) first movement and the creepy second movement were both vanquished by this dance to end all others (this was not the sort of observation I made for just every work or every conductor). I found myself completely enchanted by the last two minutes of this fantastic performance: the brass stated the Dies Irae theme with such charm and the winds lived up to their name, sounding like cold breezes sweeping ’round gravestones. But this is, with a mighty struggle, overthrown in the end by a higher, greater force, and with a final gong crash Jakuzure brings the house down. Jakuzure could do no wrong: she took this movement by storm – not brashly, but with great spirit. She struck the fear of god into a lot of the concert-goers (though that could just have been people sitting too close to Kiryūin’s top box). There was maybe a half-second of stunned silence before the auditorium erupted into applause. I was caught off-guard at first; I’d never heard such an immediate (and LOUD) reaction before. Even Gamagoori applauded visibly and with gusto. I thought the presence in the top box shined a little brighter, too. I noted all this later, though; at the time, I was busy on my feet with the rest of them, roaring my approval.

Intermission was upbeat downtime for everybody: smiles all around with complimentary drinks and even a snack bar. I made eye contact with Gamagoori briefly before hiding myself back in the crowd.

The second part of the program saw us all in high spirits. I think many others (like myself) were more familiar with the Paganini Rhapsody than with the Symphonic Dances. The hush spread rapidly as the house lights went down, and the cheers were all the louder when Jakuzure bounced onto the scene. She embraced the concertmistress and silenced the audience with a wave before taking her seat at the keyboard.

She turned round and nodded to the concertmistress; and the orchestra launched itself into the introduction.

The exposition, first variation, and theme statement were all taken at speed. Of course, that tempo carried over to the rest and we saw some rather impressive playing from soloist and orchestra both. I noticed a visible stiffening of the first violins over the statement of Paganini’s theme, but I couldn’t possibly complain about the sound. This was clearly the portion that they had rehearsed really, really hard. The hard edges on the theme (the pronounced A, the pronounced E) were sharpened to perfection. When the line was handed off to Jakuzure, the piano came to life and responded almost identically, with the same devilish precision.

Jakuzure first bared her claws in variation 8. This segment made it apparent that her knack for phrasing is clearly grounded in the orchestra, though she carries it right over to the piano without a hitch, even when attacking the Rhapsody at the tempo she does. There were moments like variations 12 and 13, where we got to see the piano working closely with the orchestra; first one sings, then the other. The “dance” in the music was well-delivered: I’ve not heard such a spirited expression of variation 13 in a long time.

There is obligatory praise to be made, of course, for variation 18; it suffices to say that Jakuzure, true to the tempo she set down from the introduction, took this one noticeably faster than most others, and probably with a little less rubato. She also played her loud cards sparingly, preferring to let the orchestra do much more of the talking. The result is not unromantic nor off-putting in any way: on the contrary, I found myself enjoying the flow of the music very much (compare Jakuzure’s approach with a pianist struggling to say something meaningful with all the blocky chords that overpower the beautiful sound of the strings. This variation is tricky because the piano is largely accompaniment, in my opinion).

Variations 22 and 23 are my new personal favorites, largely thanks to Jakuzure’s heart-pounding performance. The Honnouji Academy Orchestra acquitted itself again, leaning to and fro as Paganini’s theme wove in and out of the music; at the juncture between variations, the contrast between A flat minor and A minor was beautifully presented. Jakuzure sped up even further into the mighty restatement of the Paganini theme, sending sparks flying with every note. Her hands cascaded down the piano at a furious clip, never for a moment flubbing the articulation.

Despite the quiet ending that closes the work, she brought the house down anyway.

Now, some two thousand words’ worth of prattle later, I hope that I’ve made it clear that I will champion Nonon Jakuzure and the Honnouji Academy Orchestra if nobody else will (and I highly doubt that is the case). They are a breed apart from the usual run-of-the-mill musicians you see in high school, or even anywhere else on the classical scene. If you catch wind of them coming to a concert hall near you, GET TICKETS and get them fast.

I have high hopes for Nonon Jakuzure. Rumor has it that she’ll soon be recording the works of Johann Strauss II with her marching band. Heck, I’d buy that.

EDIT: I have procured a digital copy of the program notes. You can read them here, in case the embedded copy below doesn’t work.

All characters and setting material are copyrighted by Trigger (and probably others). If you like Kill la Kill, why not go support the creators by buying either the anime or the manga?


110: Golfspeak

Noun: golfspeak (uncountable) – The jargon associated with the sport of golf.

I had the privilege today of attending the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s Winter Concert. Now that I am cozy and warm and happily remembering the music, I feel compelled to praise the University Symphony for its superb performance.

The program leaned towards the modern (and the grotesque, if I may add subjectively). We began with an adventurous foray into Takemitsu’s “A Flock Descends Into The Pentagonal Garden.” Whatever the audience expected was immaterial; this piece was a bombshell. The orchestra conjured arrays of dissonances and tones that wandered around without discernible musical threads to grab onto. I must say, I doubt more than a tenth of us gleaned anything coherent out of this piece. The piece was largely a touchy-feely thing: “big loud dissonance,” “quiet somber consonance,” et cetera. It was sometimes awe-inspiring to hear the orchestra produce such unearthly tones (there was a memorable segment featuring a three-way between the celestia, some percussion instrument I can’t recall, and the xylophone), but for the most part we the audience took the piece as a novelty or an exercise.

My lukewarm opinion on the composition does not reflect on the orchestra, though; the sound was “all wrong, in the right way.” For comparison, a baby smushing a fist into piano keys at random is “all wrong, in the wrong way;” a poorly trained novice pianist will sound “all right, in the wrong way.” The University Symphony played deliberately and with powerful conviction; the result was not particularly pleasing to the ear, but could hardly be confused for lack of skill.

By the time the orchestra concluded “Garden,” I was already making a mental note to come again to the next performance. It’s one thing to listen to recorded music at home on a pair of decent speakers, but to be in the hall, getting the full force of the symphony, is really something out there. I’ve forgotten how wonderful the sound is and how hypnotizing the sights. The strings bow together. The brass nod together. The winds chirrup together. And then there’s that ball of charisma standing at the podium. You don’t get to see a man in a tux bouncing up and down every day, do you?

Ann Yi took the stage (and thus Chekhov’s piano was played) for a performance of Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. I’m going to be brutally honest, she wasn’t at all the highlight of this piece, let alone the evening. The majestic orchestral statement of the primary theme from the first movement left me limp with shock and pleasure; the second movement, fraught with theme and variations, was beautifully drawn through in the capable hands of the orchestra; the hair-raising symphonic pyrotechnics of the third movement closed everything off with a bang. But I was not terrifically impressed with Yi’s performance. I heard mutters (from the patrons next to us?) of comparison with Yuja Wang (which angered me, because so far as I could hear the only similarity was their nationality; their styles were completely at odds).

I do not wish to place blame on any party but unavoidable circumstance, but I feel that the limiting factor in the Prokofiev was the soloist’s readiness. I thought Pletnev attacked the concerto at a slow pace; Yi came shambling along and made it nearly unrecognizable. It became difficult for me to follow the musical threads because the buffers in my memory are more time-sensitive than material-sensitive. (Later, I was told that she only rehearsed twice with the orchestra. I guess it’s not a huge surprise that this wasn’t as good as it could have been.)

The audience, of course, disagreed mightily with scroogey old me and gave her a standing ovation. They might have demanded an encore had not other patrons began sneaking out of the auditorium. Perhaps I am being too critical. At any rate, it was not bad, though certainly not mindblowingly amazing.

After the intermission, we jumped to the highlight of the program: Saint-Saëns’ third symphony. This was my chance to hear the great pipe-organ of Hertz Hall at work, combined with the impressive battalion that was the University Symphony.

This was the work that left me tongue-tied. I was not baffled but blown away: gone was the meandering modernist Takemitsu; gone was the lollygagging lukewarm Prokofiev – here was the white-hot Saint-Saëns, played with a ferocity and depth that rocked me out of my seat. I would not be so rash as to suggest a comparison with other leading orchestras, but I will note that I am too much a philistine to know the difference. The sound! Oh, the sound!

The organ part, performed by Professor Davitt Moroney, was monumental: from its soft entry in D flat major to its joyous final romp, I was waiting for more. As the Professor put it in his preface to the work, “I make more noise than [the members of the orchestra] do.” The Hertz Hall organ held up excellently in this regard, making itself heard but not being obnoxious.

The University Symphony, again, is the real hero here – they attacked every phrase with care and with understanding belying their college-level ages. We were whisked up and down on a long stream of music; it was glorious in every respect. I have no higher praise for it than a desire to own a record of this performance: if I could purchase a performance on compact disk, I would do so without hesitation (except maybe at the price).

I left the concert in high spirits; I talked a little with two gifted violinists I am proud to know, Marissa and Michael, and they shed some insight on the orchestra. Rumors float on the wind that their next season will include Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” I can’t wait! I would go again, even if it meant paying more than the $5 for UCB student admission. It was well worth it, worth it ten times over.


109: Serce

“Gdzie skarb twój, tam i serce twoje.”

Seized with fear, Victorique looked down. There were footprints in the snow.

Not just footprints: at their end was a clump of men all wrapped in black. In the middle of the clump was that idiot, waving stupidly, happy as a stupid rat in a trap. His voice was borne up to Victorique on the frosty breeze. But Victorique wasn’t looking down; she was a thousand miles away, pinned under a suffocating block of ice. She barely heard or saw that hazy image of Kujo, reflected and refracted and distorted and distended a thousandfold through crystal. She mumbled something – it sounded like his name – but couldn’t hear herself speak.

Grevil’s hair seemed to stiffen, though the library was air-conditioned. “Silly baby squirrel. I mean, rabbit,” he said blandly. Kujo kept waving excitedly. “He was just looking for you, unaware that he’s become a hostage.”

Victorique wrenched herself to lucidity. “You mean … you’ll harm Kujo?”

“That depends on your answer.” Grevil couldn’t bring himself to look down, neither at his sister nor her friend. Victorique whirled away from the window and glared at him. But she was small and he was big: she had only her intellect behind her rage, and he …

Kujo turned to the men. “Do you think Inspector Blois will be coming out soon? Can I go up now? I’m anxious to see Victorique’s face – ” he stopped midsentence, looking blankly into his escorts’ eyes.

Victorique’s look dimmed slowly until there was only a sad reproach flickering there. Grevil stood as a poker, still avoiding her gaze. “I understand,” she said dully. “I’ll assist the Ministry of the Occult. But don’t touch a hair on Kujo’s head!” She shook as she forced the words out.

Grevil paused a moment. “A favor for my little sister?” he stepped to the window. “Yes, I’ll grant that request.” He gestured with a finger at the men below.

Victorique heard Kujo now, his voiced tinged with panic, screaming her name again and again. She did not face the window. She had worked so hard to harden her resolve, and if she looked now –

“The rabbit is the Monstre Charmant‘s heart.” She clasped the pendant, Kujo’s gift to her, with shaking hands. “If the rabbit dies, the monster dies, too.” She took a breath to steady herself.

Victorique! This isn’t goodbye! I’m not leaving you!”

Victorique gasped, and Kujo’s name rose unbidden to her lips. She turned and ran to the window, wanting to believe his words, but dreading the tone of finality in his voice.

Seized with fear, Victorique looked down. There were footprints in the snow.

Victorique, Kazuya, Grevil and co. are copyrighted by Kazuki Sakuraba and (the publisher) Fujimi Shobo. This extract, a favorite of mine, is drawn from the anime created by Bones.