The percussionist sits behind a large setup of Japanese instruments. Next to him is the yokobue (traditional Japanese flute) player. Accompanying them are a piano and double bass. Meanwhile, the fifth performer, a calligrapher, is painting large Japanese characters while producing an assortment of groans and other vocalizations.
This mix of Oriental, Occidental, music and art--Isao Mitsushita's "Kizuna"--will be a part of the opening program Sunday for the fifth annual Chamber Music L.A. Festival at Japan America Theatre. A markedly different approach from the four previous festivals, the series of five concerts over two weeks, titled "East/West Encounters," presents music by familiar Western composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven but also includes a local premiere at every concert of a contemporary Japanese composer.
"I didn't want to just present the Japanese music," explained Yukiko Kamei, artistic director of the festival. "I wanted to present the new works along with Western classics. I feel the same about all contemporary works, not just those that are Japanese. Presenting the unfamiliar along with the familiar tends to make the familiar classical sounds fresher."
A former student of and assistant to the late Jasha Heifetz, Kamei, 41, began studying violin as a child in Tokyo where she was born. Four years ago she developed an interest in traditional Japanese music.
"I heard Japanese music on the radio when I was growing up, but I only studied Western music," Kamei said. "I never felt very close to the sound of the traditional music. As I grew older and performed contemporary music more and more, I started to listen to Japanese music differently. Suddenly, I recognized a closeness to the music and was surprised to feel that in myself. It felt very natural to me. So I can't tell whether my interest is more a coming of age or going back to my roots."
Her husband, Shunsuke Kurakata (also a participant in the festival as a pianist), directs a concert series in San Francisco devoted to new music from Japan, where all but one of the pieces for the Los Angeles festival were first heard by Kamei. The other work, Tadao Sawai's "Homura," written in 1974 for 17-string koto and koto ensemble, will receive its West Coast premiere May 24 and was discovered at another festival for contemporary Japanese music in New York.
"Los Angeles gives premiere performances of Japanese works at Monday Evening Concerts and at CalArts, but there is no concentrated effort here as there is in New York and San Francisco," said Kamei.
"Actually, I wasn't looking for premieres and was surprised to see that these pieces had never been performed in Los Angeles. I was happy enough to have the work of five renowned Japanese composers."
Other Japanese works to be performed include Toru Takemitsu's "Entre-temps" (1986) for oboe and string quartet, Toshi Ichiyanagi's "Paganini Personal" (1982) for marimba and piano and Maki Ishii's "A Gleam of Time" (1983) for solo harp.
Matsushita, who plans to attend the festival, will present his music on Sunday's program, "Kaze-no-rosho" (1988) for solo \o7 yokobue \f7 (a Japanese flute) performed by local musician Michiko Akao and "Kizuna" (1985) for \o7 yokobue\f7 , percussion, bass, piano and a calligrapher.
"Calligraphy is usually a very quiet activity," says San Francisco-based artist Shioh Kato, who will serve as calligrapher in the Matsushita piece.
"But this time I'll be making vocal sounds, and movement will be involved."
Kato will paint three large Japanese characters which translate into English as "flying across the universe" while the ensemble plays. He also participated in the U.S. premiere of the work three years ago in San Francisco, where he has lived for 20 years.
Western works programmed along with the Matsushita premiere will be Haydn's Quartet, Opus 76, No. 2, and Beethoven's Septet in E-flat. Other European composers represented in the festival are Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Dohnanyi, Dvorak, Schubert, Saint-Saens and Brahms.