Fujii Percussion and Voices: Individual Geniuses and Grasses of the Field

“The art music of the West has developed throughout its history by means of individual geniuses, and out of the soil that supports them; non-Western musicians were born, and grew like the grasses of the field.” – Toru Takemitsu

Fujii Percussion and Voices, held this past week in Koerner Hall at the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, was the fourth concert in the 30th season of Soundstreams.  The virtuoso Fujii family of Japan was joined by the famed Toronto Children’s Chorus, percussionist Ryan Scott (Canada) and pianist Greg Oh (Canada).

Though I, like Yuli who reviewed the last Soundscapes concert, have also played in concert halls like Koerner before, I do not have the same level of vocabulary and musical knowledge to describe my experience.  This review comes with the caveat that it is by someone who attends many concerts in venues ranging from 12-seat dive bars to 18th century halls, to music festivals and amphitheatres, but who notices more of the atmosphere and the feelings invoked than the tones, pitches, and other such amazingly mysterious (to me) things.

The pre-concert chat with Soundstreams artistic director Lawrence Cherney and Canadian composer Michael Oesterle felt intimate yet professional. Lawrence asked about how Michael’s background led him to composing. Interestingly, and providing hope for those who develop an interest later in life, he “wasn’t raised as a musician and had no talent at an early age.” He did, however, grow up surrounded by Baroque music in wonderful acoustic spaces in churches in Germany. When he moved to Vancouver to go to UBC, he took some violin lessons, wrote some music for the University band, and got discovered by a professor who thought he should progress further.

Their discussion covered many topics, including Michael’s thoughts on the state of exposure to classical music in Canada, and how he got to know the Fujii family before the commission of the evening’s music. In discussing his own piece, Carrousel, he explained that he had restricted the instrumentation to keyboards (piano, marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel) in order to unify Eastern and Western influences. The piece is ‘busy’ with sounds like a grand carousel, the kind that have organs built in. There are three movements that would mimic the way a carousel starts up, moves steadily and with joy, and then ‘shimmeringly’ slows to its end.

A short break between the chat and the start of the concert allowed me to capture a shot of Koerner Hall from above, in its almost-empty vast beauty
A short break between the chat and the start of the concert allowed me to capture a shot of Koerner Hall from above, in its almost-empty vast beauty

The Soundstreams website informed me before the show that I’d be experiencing sounds that would evoke the contrasting experiences of Zen and chaos [in a concert that] encompasses works both modern and traditional.  This was certainly the case.

The first piece of the evening was a marimba solo, performed by Mutsuko Fujii. The size of the instrument, the joyfulness of the music, and the way there was a play with speed, pitch, tone and volume, felt like we were watching a dance that just happened to also produce some lovely audible treats.  Holding four mallets, two in each hand, her notes resonated without lingering, like she was punctuating the silence.

I didn’t realize how much the marimba allowed for silence between notes until the second piece, Carrousel, began.  The four musicians, in a square/circle, performed a movement that I can only describe as something I would imagine hearing in a dream sequence. I envisioned someone running through a twinkling forest.

In the second movement of Carrousel, their sounds mimicked a haunted clock. Lighter, higher tones were almost ominous, as though we were being fooled into thinking that the twinkling sounds were playful when they were actually signifying danger. This movement lilted; it felt like another journey in a fantastical setting, but as though the players were more tentative.  The end of the movement seems suddenly bright, almost as though they’ve reached a room with natural light streaming in.

The third movement in Oesterle’s piece begins ethereally, as though there are ghosts floating above. The loud moments are fast, high pitched, rampant and almost chaotic. It’s clear there is a chase happening but there are new characters involved.  Sometimes in the last movement, the piano was pounded in such a way that it almost hurt my ears,  but it seemed clear the the discomfort was intentional.

The third piece of the evening, also with the four musicians in a circle, really showcased the musicians ability to play with volume and intensity. They were a joy to watch with their heads bopping.  I was glad to have known from the pre-concert chat that the piano player would be placing a piece of ball-chain on the inside of the piano at one point, creating a tinkling, lingering, but stunted sound.  When the chain was removed, it was as if the piano had to struggle.

The last piece before the intermission was truly a unique experience. The Fujii Trio and Ryan Scott, each in a corner of the Hall, were in minimal light, while the rest of the room darkened. In each of their individual spaces, surrounded by dozens of instruments, they performed a piece that sounded like the soundtrack to a nature film.  Mimicking the sounds of insects, then cats, birds, a thunderstorm, snake fights, and some sort of inner-earth rumblings, it was at times hard to follow, and in the final minutes I felt like some reviewers might ask ‘How much longer can you make us sit still to nature noises?’

After the intermission, the Children’s Choir came to stage.  Their first piece was their best, and their most dramatic.  Suddenly in the dark, they choreographed small lights to coincide with their choral, ethereal singing, and it seemed as though we were experiencing the sounds that lightning bugs would make if they were on drugs… (that’s a good thing).

I was visually distracted in their second piece by their poor stage placement (two lines of singers extending to either side of a too-small set of risers), but once I closed my eyes could appreciate the way their voices accented the instrumentation of the Fujii sisters.

In the finale, we were treated to all three ladies of the Fujii Trio, as well as the Children’s Choir.  We’d been told during the  introduction to expect the sounds of a rare Japanese percussion instrument that was over thirteen million years old; one of only 9 sets in the world.  Based on their stands I thought we’d be seeing something like a giant symbol, but as it turned out they were like a vibraphone, but where each of the ‘keys,’ hanging freely from a cord and were made from sanukite stones (a rare volcanic rock that sings) rather than metal. The sounds produced were haunting, and longer lasting than any of the other instruments on stage through the evening.

Photo by Makoto Hirata
Photo by Makoto Hirata

Thanks to a partnership with Bank of Montreal, Soundstreams is able to offer 100 tickets for just $20.  With that, “music lovers of all ages” can experience what money can sometimes limit; access to culture.

Next up in the Soundstreams program is Piano Ecstasy, a pianistic fiesta with 6 grand pianos on one stage. Again there will be a pre-concert chat at 7 pm, where Glenn Buhr discusses his new work for multiple pianos.

If you are one who likes to arrive early but aren’t much of a panel person, I highly recommend visiting the cafe below the hall. No words needed for a space like this to enjoy a warm beverage:

B Cafe - Telus Centre


For two different interpretations with all the amazingly mysterious (to me) musical vocabulary, check out Colin Eatock’s review here and Stanley Fefferman’s review here.

About Lee-Anne Bigwood

Lee-Anne Bigwood is an observer and a participant of too many things in Toronto. She used to copy definitions out of the dictionary and has started, but not filled, almost as many journals as the number of years she’s been alive. She is an only child, an Aries, and an ENFP. She is perfectly aware, thank you, that referring to her astrological sign and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator makes her bio sound like a dating profile. [More on PP by Lee-Anne] [Lee-Anne's Blog]