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Monday, January 16, 2017

Concert Review: It’s Done With Mirrors

The Yoshiki Classical Special comes to Carnegie Hall.
The pianist Yoshiki in concert at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Ken Pierce © 2017 Piercing Metal

Yoshiki is the leader of X Japan, one of the biggest hard rock bands in the history of his native land. On Thursday and Friday last week, the drummer, pianist and composer brought his softer side to two concerts at Carnegie Hall/ And on Friday night, the aptly named Yoshiki Classical Special was filmed for international broadcast. The concert featured Yoshiki at the piano, backed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The flamboyant pianist struck an heroic figure on the stage, but was polite and even soft-spoken with his fans, who listened to three hours of vocal and instrumental works, most of them featuring his skills at the piano. 

So who is Yoshiki? He and his band are cult figures in this hemisphere, but he is an icon in his own country. X Japan once sold out the Tokyo Dome eighteen times. He is a serious musician, writing and arranging his own compositions both for the band and for symphony orchestra. He is a skilled pianist. His image makes younger fans giggle and swoon, and he shares the rare honor of having a Hello Kitty doll made in his orange-haired likeness. Oh, and did we mention: X Japan sold 30 million albums with nary a peep on American radio or what’s left of so-called “music television.”

The first half of the program featured a selection of the composer’s instrumental works, with occasional vocals from two guest sopranos. It started with “I'll Be Your Love,” a slow-building overture led by conductor Yuga Cohler. Then the man himself strode to the stage, in high boots and a long duster. With his long hair and elegant figure, his presence (and the reaction of his fans) recalled that other great showman Franz Liszt, although the Hungarian pianist never hung a gigantic disco ball from the stately rafters of Carnegie Hall. 

The pieces were introduced by Yoshiki himself. Suffering from a laryngitis, he rasped explanations of the backgrounds of his creations. These included "The Last Song", “Golden Globes” (the theme for the Golden Globes) Yoshiki’s soundtrack compositions to various anime films with vocal contributions from guest soprano Katie Fitzgerald. The newest piece presented was "La Venus", the theme for the documentary We Are X. The last piece before intermission was a condensed version of Anniversary, created for the tenth year of the reign of Japan’s nominal ruler, the Emperor Akihito.

The first half also included a long excerpt from We Are X, giving valuable context to new listeners. X Japan started in the post-punk, proto-goth movement known as visual kei. They have enjoyed a long career, marked by triumph, tumult and tragedy. At one point, lead singer Toshi joined a cult, breaking up the band for 16 years. Hide, the guitarist committed suicide in 1998 and Taiji, killed himself in 2011. Their story is the stuff of rock and roll mythology. And in 2014, they announced a show at Madison Square Garden that sold out in minutes.

Yoshiki proved himself to be an able pianist, delivering tricky rhythms, rolls and arpeggios despite battling chronic numbness in the fingers of his right hand. This is presumably a side effect of years playing the drums. He proved his mettle in the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, with the piano’s plaintive tone and familiar rising melody having meaning and portent. If there was a detraction, it was in the addition of orchestration to Beethoven’s sacred text by arranger Shelly Berg, although this is arguably a matter of different cultural taste.

The second half of the concert opened with "Tears", Yoshiki's collaboration with Beatles svengali Sir George Martin. Then Yoshiki paused to tell stories about Taiji and Hide, followed by the ballad “Without You”, a moving tribute to his fallen mates. Its slow build to a crescendo had a profundity missing in the earlier pieces, carrying the weight of real pain and loss. This was the most moving moment of the concert. It was followed by another Western tribute: the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, rearranged as a one movement romanza for piano and orchestra with a new and prominent part for Yoshiki to play.

The concert ended with that disco ball finally having its day, sending sparkles of dancing light along the walls of the venue. It accompanied the X Japan favorite “Endless Rain”. At the height of this song, the artist turned and nodded regally to the audience, their cue to lift their voices for a single, massed chorus. There were no encores. The army of fans and well-wishers showered the artist with flowers and Japanese fans. As one, the audience and orchestra stood and crossed their arms in the X Japan “x” salute. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.