Asia, Claude Debussy, Edgar Allan Poe, Gustave Dore, Japan, Japanese Noh drama, LA International New Music Festival, Laura Mercado-Wright, REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Toru Takemitsu, Toshio Hosokawa
Sometimes ideas are obvious, a favorite theme of mine. On first glance the idea of a Japanese composer setting the iconic poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe seemed to approach hubris. Really, a Japanese composer taking on one of the most famous American poems? But I was curious about Toshio Hosokawa, an important Japanese composer I’d been hearing about from friends Kent Nagano, Momo Kodama and Ichiro and Tami Nodaira, and asked for a perusal score from his publisher, Yuki Yokota at Schott Japan.
Fortunately Hosokawa’s score appeared in a timely way in my mailbox from Tokyo a few months ago. I started reading the piece and rereading the poem. I got hooked, very hooked, in a matter of hours, and started to grasp the obvious. And I heard the voice of my good friend Laura Mercado-Wright after the first few bars.
I’ve already enjoyed tremendous experiences with Laura Mercado-Wright. We were introduced to her by Charles Wuorinen when we co-commissioned his It Happens Like This with James Levine and Tanglewood for our 2013 LA International New Music Festival, and she was a spark plug of energy. During that same festival, Laura was one of the four sopranos in what became our Latin Grammy nominated performance of Elegia by Gabriela Ortiz and, with baritone Abdiel Gonzalez, sung the U.S. premiere of Oratorio Profano by Venezuelan composer Adina Izarra.
Laura made her Carnegie Hall debut this March with the MET Ensemble, selected by James Levine for the New York premiere of It Happens Like This. In other words, she is well on her way to big career.
And, as she describes it, her summer boyfriend is Hosokawa’s score. Imagine the ominous grace note laden falcon voice in Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten but in Japanese and written in the 21st century, and you’ll have an idea of her role!
When I read The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, it reminded me of the Japanese Noh play. The view of the world in the Noh is not anthropocentric. Some of the main characters in the Noh are animals and plants, and some are unearthly spirits. Poe describes the process of the collapse of the modern rational world, as a consequence of an invasion of the world by a weird animal ‘raven’ which lives in the other world. I considered this poem as a story of Noh and expressed it in the form of monodrama with mezzo-soprano and ensemble.
Toshio Hosokawa’s description of The Raven got me thinking. As I took my time studying his music, more and more pieces of his now obvious cross cultural puzzle came into view.
That there is an affinity between the Japanese and French is obvious, but Hosokawa’s point of view was for me at first hidden. Monet’s home at Giverny is a treasure trove of wood block prints of Hokusai and one of Hokusai’s twenty four views of Mt. Fuji inspired Debussy’s La Mer (go ahead and locate Fuji-san in a print more often called The Wave). And as the illustration above by Gustave Doré demonstrates, Poe was a powerful influence on the French symbolist scene, at least when Stéphane Mallarmé is your translator someone important is paying attention. Claude Debussy always dreamed of an opera based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, but as Pierre Boulez accurately pointed out he abandoned the idea as it would have been a weak sequel to Pelléas et Mélisande. But Poe provides the right atmosphere for parts of the world of Debussy, as does Asia. Toru Takemitsu has a humorous reputation with some Japanese musicians that he is “Debussy with rests!”
So Impressionist and Symbolist France was as captivated by Edgar Allan Poe as it was by Japan. Debussy dreams of a Poe opera, Mallarmé translates the poems, Doré illustrates them. Fast forward to 1991 and one finds Takemitsu reversing Debussy’s Hokusai inspiration by literally quoting from La Mer in his double piano concerto Quotation of Dream. As the sky surrounds a Zen garden, so Debussy surrounds Takemitsu’s music.
Maintaining a connection to tradition is a major motivating force in Japanese culture. Hosokawa does the obvious as he ties up a lot of loose ends between France, Japan and the United States, placing Poe’s poem into a setting inspired by Japanese Noh drama. There are ghosts all over his score, from ancient Japan to Debussy’s absinthe drenched Paris to unrequited 19th century harmonies to Poe’s American horror story poem.
He’s very supportive of our concert performance, which will be the West Coast premiere of The Raven. And what hooked me was that he has written a very spooky score that completely avoids any horror movie music cliché, quite an achievement.
And Laura has the perfect voice!
Need tickets? All our Los Angeles International New Music Festival concerts are at 8:30 PM with pre-concert talks at 8 PM. Tickets may be purchased at the REDCAT box office, by phone at 213.237.2800 or online at redcat.org. For more information and detailed program information, visit http://www.swmusic.org
Best, best, best,