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Art Lange
Fanfare, April 2007

Like many other Japanese composers of his generation, Masao Ohki (1901~71) was raised with a strong grounding in traditional music - specifically, in his case, the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), which his father taught him to play and which remained an important influence on him throughout his life. Unlike a number of his peers, however, Ohki remained steadfastly nationalistic, both musically and politically, even after his introduction to and eventual immersion in Western classical music. In fact, it is ironic that Ohki used the idioms of Western classical music to express his belief in the economic and cultural oppression of all of Asia by the forces of European and American colonialism.

The two works herein, which (according to Naxos) are receiving their world premiere recordings, represent the contrasting perspectives of Ohki's compositional attitude. The Japanese Rhapsody (1938) has an optimistic, populist appeal reminiscent of, in its own way, an Aaron Copland score like Rodeo or, perhaps, Malcolm Arnold's various British Isles dance suites. Based on folk and dance tunes incorporating traditional pentatonic scales, its insistent rhythmic motifs (frequently punctuated by percussion-the timpani really get a workout) emphasize the music's dance roots through a spirited opening, a brief, shimmering pastoral episode for strings, and are-energized, rousing conclusion.

The Fifth Symphony, however, as might be expected by its subtitle, is a dark, contemplative, philosophical work. Composed in 1953 (eight years after the city's bombing, and coinciding with the end of the American occupation of Japan), its six inner movements were inspired by six paintings by Iri and Toshi Maruki (the score's original title was The Hiroshima Panels), framed by a Prelude and Elegy. Programmatic, though not strictly propagandistic, the music reveals Ohki's skill for scene painting and atmospherics, from the hazy, blurred, shifting harmonies underlying the second movement ("It was a procession of ghosts.") to the more illustrative depiction of fire (the third movement: "Next moment fire burst into flames.") and rain storm (the fifth movement: "All of a sudden black rain poured over them and then appeared a beautiful rainbow."), which may call to mind similar sounds from Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky (think Firebird), and Debussy, Ohki's handling of dynamics, gesture, and orchestration is musically effective and engaging, and some of the scoring-especially the bleak, severe string effects that emerge in the fourth ("People walked around seeking water.") and seventh ("Atomic desert: boundless desert with skulls.") movements-anticipates Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, composed six years later. The most impressive movement, however, is the closing Elegy; twice as long as any of the previous movements, it is built around wandering chromatic string counterpoint (similar to the opening of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste) as it revisits earlier themes meant to symbolize foreboding, innocence and destruction. Program annotator Morihide Katayama suggests that for Ohki, the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima was not only physically devastating, but also symbolized the ongoing oppression of the peasant and working classes, and relates that Ohki's final work, in 1970, was "dedicated to the Vietnamese people who fought against imperialist America."

Veteran conductor Yuasa doesn't exaggerate the score's unusual sonorities, perhaps striving for balance and consistency throughout the work's eight disjointed movements. I can imagine an ideal performance that is more aggressive and illuminating; nevertheless, even with these reservations I found Ohki's Fifth Symphony to be evocative and thought provoking, though I wonder what effect it may have on Japanese listeners familiar with the music's source materials and artistic inspiration, especially those who lived through the bombing and its aftermath. The composer obviously intended this to be something more than a purely musical experience.

American Record Guide, April 2007

Masao Ohki (1901-71) was born in a provincial city in central Japan where there was no influence of Western music. His early musical outlet was Japanese traditional music and the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute that produces breathy tone and shaky pitch. His first encounter with Western orchestral music was' in high school when he heard Beethoven Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. In 1921 he took a job as an engineer and imposed vocal music until he was so frustrated by the limitations of Japanese singers working in a foreign language that he moved to a larger city, took a teaching job, and decided to become a composer for orchestra. He moved to Tokyo to work under Giichi Ishikawa, to study theory and the music of Tchaikovsky (his main model), other Russians, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky.

In 1938 he wrote Japanese Rhapsody (1938) to express the optimism of the Japanese people, who were going to spread their wings in Asia" (from Morihide Katayama's notes). The work is based on two Japanese folk themes and reflects the influence of Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrouchka as well as primitivism. The piece sounds like "Japanese Copland" in many places, though Copland seems less an influence than the result of a synthesis. The Rhapsody is an episodic work, tied together by a Japanese fanfare motto. There is a march, music redolent of the Pacific Islands, and a Coplandish "Japanese cowboy" passage, with the whole thing ending in an enthusiastic percussion orgy. Japanese Rhapsody is not the most sophisticated work I've heard and runs on repetitively for a minute or so too long, but I can't entirely resist "Japanese Copland".

In 1939 Ohki won first prize in the Felix Weingartner Competition, but the war cancelled plans for Weingartner to conduct Ohki's music in Europe. During the war, he wrote patriotic works. Later he dabbled in socialism and efforts to free Asia of colonial oppression from the West. When Japan was defeated, he turned first to Buddhism then back to socialism, this time out of concern for oppression of the working classes.

Ohki's response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was his Fifth Symphony (Hiroshima) in 1953. The work was inspired by the Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki. "The paintings, rich in subtle shadings, corresponded to Ohki's inclination to 'cloudy' sonority", wrote Katayama. The result was an eight-movement symphony that added a Prelude and Elegy to the six Panels. It made a deep impression in Japan and established Ohki as a "left wing composer fighting against imperialism". He would eventually visit North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, where the Hiroshima Symphony was performed several times and may have influenced composition after the 1960s. Okhi dedicated his last symphony, Vietnam, to the Vietnamese in their war against the Americans.

The Hiroshima Symphony is in mostly atonal language without the influence of folk music, though there is a spiritual element from the Japanese Noh plays. Katayama describes it as "characterized by chromatic melodies in narrow ranges, dissonant harmonies, tone­cluster-like sounds generated by the accumulation of semitones and special effects by strings and wind". It ranges from eerie to bleak to stormy (mainly the explosive clusters). I know very little music by Ligeti, but the more eerie parts of Hiroshima remind me of what I have heard. Some might think it "difficult" from this description. On the contrary, it is an expressionist piece that is cinematic in its images and moods.

The Prelude introduces most of its elements. The names of the interior movements go a long way toward describing the work: 'Ghosts' is a procession of ghosts depicted by treading low strings with ominous trumpet fanfares in the background; 'Fire' is depicted by storm music set in a higher register than usual with shrieking downward chromatic scales; 'Water' produces bleak contrasts, with extreme registers painting eerie clouds above and burdened, exhausted seekers trodding below; 'Rainbow' has a cloud formed by a chordal outburst before a high, creaky violin solo evokes a ghoulish rainbow; 'Boys and Girls' has a winding flute melody producing the children's calling out to the emptiness of a dark string melody; and in 'Atomic Desert' screechy high string harmonics and piccolo create a whistling wind, and intervening clusters seem to picture skulls. 'Elegy' alternates a dark Bartokian string passage with thundering chords in the low brass and percussion, signifying morbid sadness, terror, and finally, a burst of tutti and percussive anger.

This symphony employs a common array of modern techniques that convey emotional and geographical devastation well enough to reward repeated listening. It stands well alone but would be a terrific sound track to a movie about atomic devastation or Hiroshima itself.

The New Japan Philharmonic is splendid. The sound is wide, open, and deep-just what the piece calls for.

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