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Monday, February 27, 2017

Concert Review: Beyond the Zero

The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra plays for peace.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(A version of this article was originally published in Japanese translation by the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, reused with permission)
Charles Richard-Hamelin plays the bombed piano, a Baldwin upright that survived
the nuclear blast. In the background looms the A-Bomb Dome, which was not as lucky.
Photo © 2017 Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras and Hiroshima Peace Museum.
The city of Hiroshima, located on the southern end of the big Japanese island of Honshu, remains best known for one date: Aug. 6, 1945. This was where the American bomber Enola Gay dropped "Little Boy," the first of only two atomic bombs ever used against human beings. Since that fatal day, Hiroshima has returned from its ashes as a symbol of international peace. The Peace Museum, the Cenotaph and the A-Bomb Dome (a building that survived the blast) speak volumes by simply standing and saying nothing.

This city of rivers is also home to the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra, which plays a few blocks away from where Little Boy exploded. And as its home city rose from the ashes to flourish in the years since the war, so has this orchestra risen to a place of prominence in Japan. On Thursday, Feb. 16, the HSO offered this season's inaugural Concert for Peace, under the baton of Kayzashi Akiyama, its experienced music director. The program: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Chopin's Second Piano Concerto and Infinite String, an orchestral work by composer and Osaka native Dai Fujikura.

As a symbol of international cooperation, the orchestra was joined by guest musicians from the Sinfonia Varsova in Poland and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal in Canada. The soloist in the Chopin was from that faraway land as well, the Montreal-born pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. Mr. Richard-Hamelin had also given a short recital the day before, playing works by Chopin and Bach on the "bombed piano", a Baldwin upright that survived the fire and shockwave of 1945

The results of Thursday's concert were initially good. Dai Fujikura’s one-movememnt Infinite String has been heard by this reviewer before, at the New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! series. It is a series of rolling, shuddering Doppler effects, moving and metamorphosing across five sections of strings. A steady shiver amps up into a shattering roar, engulfing the listener before dwindling again. New pulses developed in the cellos and basses, adding rhythmic ideas and bringing weight to the rolling waves of sound. The playing was taut and precise.

Mr. Richard-Hamelin ambled onstage, settling at the Steinway for the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2. Following the opening tutti statement, he entered. All of his notes were in place, but more interesting playing was coming from the textured depths of the orchestral accompaniment. Mr. Akiyami explored the rich colors of the first movement with oboe and horn contributions from the out-of-town guests prominently and gratefully placed against the piano runs and the chug of strings. However, the next two movements were muddled and blurred. The slow movement meandered, and was followed by a mannered and somewhat cautious finale. An encore by Mr. Hamelin was Bach, again polite and precisely played.

Kayzashi Akiyami at the helm of the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra.
Photo courtesy Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras.
Thus workaday approach continued in the second half of the concert, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. This can be the Murphy's Law of classical music works where anything can go wrong and often does. To start with, a mis-step in the strings resulted in the famed opening chords echoing for half a beat, producing an unwelcome ricochet effect. From this awkward start, the famous movement developed dully and reluctantly, with interjections from the solo horn, bassoon and oboe failing to set matters right.

The middle movements were better, with the dragging Andante followed by a  determined sounding march with firm, determined horns. However, blurry rhythms from Mr. Akiyama marred matters, despite crisp playing of the low strings. The orchestra charged  into the final movement and its tutti brass fanfare. However, this energetic statement of purpose never managed to achieve liftoff. Beethoven, especially when played in such an historic city and potential history-making concert, deserved better than this.

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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.