Classical CD Review: Modern Japanese Flute Music Yoko Owada

The Japanese flutist Yoko Owada, who appeared in Israel several years ago, has recently published a set of four CDs presenting a selection of 20th-century Japanese flute music.
A disciple of flute celebrities Jean-Pierre Rampal and Aurele Nicolet who wrote a dedication in the accompanying commentary booklet, Owada has recently returned to Japan from a concert tour to the US, Paris, Germany and Korea, among others. Her CDs include contemporary Japanese works for or with flute, spanning a period from 1964 to 1999. Noteworthy is the works’ versatility of styles and techniques. Their common denominator is the absence of simplistic, Puccinior Saint Saens-like devices such as quotations of folk song melodies or traditional pentatonic modes to make the piece sound identifiably “Japanese.” This lack of conservative stylistic features results in amazing individual imagination and inventiveness.
Perhaps the internationally most well-known among the presented composers is Toru Takemitsu, whose “November Steps” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate its 125th anniversary in 1967. His “Voice” for solo flute features unconventional blowing techniques and the simultaneous combination of the flute sound and the utterings of the human voice.
The theatrical chanting and non-verbal voice utterings in “Hideo Kanze” and Hikaru Hayashi’s “Soo-mon” are likely to strike the Western ear as original and innovative, but in fact they are taken from the 14th-century Japanese Noh drama. This instrumental use of the human voice, not by the choir but by the theater’s instrumentalists, indicates that the textless voice is considered here as though it were just another instrument, to create the dream-like atmosphere of this ancient theater and, likewise, of this modern composition. This unique manner of voice production signifies the “Japaneseness” of the composition more clearly than any superficial melodic device could.
A meditative mood, characteristic of the Zen-inspired traditional Japanese spirit, though not necessarily in terms of traditional Japanese music, is conjured up by the solo flute in Kiyotaka Sakata’s “Elegy and Loneliness of the Moon.”
The pianist Yasuko Sonoda, who performs works of her own with Owada, is a former student of Leo Sirota, a Ukraine-born Jewish pianist who lived and taught in Japan before and during WWII.
The 22 works by 11 composers on these discs, presented by the extraordinary sensitivity and virtuosity of Owada and her collaborators, provide an attractive introduction to the contemporary Japanese flute repertoire, more than can be commented on here in detail. These discs whet one’s appetite for another live performance of Owada in this country.