Japanese Drums Make The Earth Move At The DFP

With a majestic drum roll and a succession of grand fanfares, Kevin Field, Associate Conductor of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, signaled the beginning of the evening’s encounter between East and West. Performing with renowned Wadaiko (Japanese drums) soloist, Eitetsu Hayashi, in a series of three concerts from 22-24 March at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, the MPO showed their versatility in playing some of the unique pieces selected by Field, who holds a special liking for contemporary music.

Making his debut here, Hayashi is the first Wadaiko soloist of his kind and has gone a step further by creating a new method of solo “O-Daiko” performances that incorporates highly strenuous movements and skills heretofore unheard of in traditional Japanese Wadaiko techniques.

His Taiko career began as a founding member and premiere performer of world-renowned groups “Sado­ Ondekoza” and “Kodo”. Hayashi struck out on his own in 1982 and has emerged as a top-rate virtuoso in his own right, performing with the world’s finest orchestras including the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Seiji Ozawa as well as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Ken Nagano.

Besides orchestral performances, Hayashi has also produced artistic events in Japan, composed music for film, theatre and other Taiko groups, and tried his hand at writing, with a successful book entitled To The Taiko Players of Tomorrow (Ashita no Taiko-uchi e) to his credit. In 1997, he received the prestigious Japanese national cultural award, The 47th Education Minister’s Art Encouragement Prize in the Popular Entertainment Division, and last year, was given the 8th Award for Promotion of Traditional Japanese Culture (Japan Arts Foundation).

The term Wadaiko (literally “Japanese drum”) is often used when referring to Japanese drums as opposed to Western percussion. Taiko, on the other hand, is a term coined for the relatively modern art of Japanese drum performances (kumi-daiko). It is also the name for the instruments, regardless of their size and shape. In traditional performances, each taiko is used in very specific ways and in certain combinations of instruments, but modern kumi-daiko groups do not suffer such restrictions. Taiko selection is based on the style of Taiko music you are playing as well as personal style. And Hayashi brought along with him a whopping seven tons of taiko to give Malaysian concertgoers a taste of Japanese culture.

The audience was greeted by the soft rumblings of the imposing taiko set on stage as Hayashi, dressed in traditional Japanese garb, deftly maneuvered his way around lsao Matsushita’s Hi-Ten-Yu (fly-heaven-play) – symbolically describing the journey of “flying to heaven to play among the stars”. The first part featured rumblings akin to an approaching storm that broke into loud thunderclaps, all accompanied by the rest of the orchestra in an ominous underscore. The drumming worked its way up into a frenzy and it was amazing to witness the almost unflagging energy emanating from this extraordinary musician. In the second part, which was played sans orchestra, Hayashi’s playing took on a tribal feel while the final part took off with a forceful shout from the orchestra and proceeded to build into the mesmerising crescendo that brought rapturous applause from the audience. He returned a short while later to play an equally stunning solo encore.

Benjamin Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (Op.57)- Concert Suite gave the evening a touch of South East Asia. Inspired by his experiences on the island of Bali, Britten composed this piece as a tribute to the hypnotic rhythms of Balinese Gamelan music, with Western percussion instruments taking the place of traditional Gamelan instruments. The MPO ably kept up with the various musical styles that made up this piece, from a robust Russian dance to a caricaturish European-inspired tune to African tribal rhythms, climaxing with the mysterious Gamelan.

Unfortunately, the rather strange choice of William Walton’s Symphony No.1 in B Flat Minor did not seem to gel with the evening’s Oriental feel. Perhaps the choice was made due to the fact that it was performed after the intermission. The composition ran the gamut of human emotions – starting off melancholic, progressing to anger, then tumbling into despair before climbing out of the pits of depression to a celebratory conclusion – all brought to life by the musicians of the MPO.

First Published: 02.04.2002 on Kakiseni

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