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?

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