Programming a concert is very personal for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, and so is the emphasis on commissioning new works.
To celebrate ROCO’s relationship with the Asia Society Texas Center, founder, artistic director and principal oboist Alecia Lawyer engaged Kyo-Shin-An Arts — an organization that’s dedicated to the integration of Japanese classical instruments in Western classical music — for support.
Guest conductor Edwin Outwater will lead the full 40-piece chamber orchestra in the world premiere of American composer James Matheson’s Concerto for Two Shakuhachi “The Age of Air,” co-commissioned with Kyo-Shin-An Arts. The world premiere — scheduled as part of “Pacific Crossings” on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. at The Church of St. John the Divine — will feature shakuhachi virtuosos James Nyoraku Schlefer and Akihito Obama.
The work will become the orchestra’s 50th commission in its 11-year history.
So how does one exactly incorporate East into West and West into East? We spoke to composer James Matheson about how that’s done.
Q: In incorporating what’s traditionally a non-classical music instrument in the mix of a chamber orchestra, what kinds of things do you have to consider?
James Matheson: Western instruments have gone through centuries of refinement and development, among the goals of which have been to make tricky things easier.
For example: Can’t make a trill between two particular notes? Add a trill key! Want that flute or bass to have a little extra room on the bottom? Add an extension! Advancements make it possible for instruments to play chromatic music with ease, as well as making the different registers of the instruments able to speak with the widest range of dynamics possible. There are keys, valves, reeds, different mouthpieces and all sort of other small technological innovations that have occurred along the way.
Q: And the shakuhachi flute?
James Matheson: The shakuhachi remains essentially a piece of bamboo with holes. Even the innovation of adding two extra holes is widely rejected by purists. It’s an instrument that hasn’t had all of its special subtleties and weaknesses scrubbed away for the sake of maximal utility. Which, in its way, highlights the differences between these musical traditions.
Q. So what are the particular challenges when it comes to scoring?
James Matheson: Well, the big one is that, unlike a modern Western flute, for instance, there aren’t keys that make chromatic music a natural fit for the instrument.
Strictly speaking, it’s built to make use of a five-note scale (there are, of course, a variety of ways that shakuhachi players work around this), whereas Western instruments are really well designed for making use of the full, 12-note chromatic scale. And my music is generally fairly chromatic, so it took some thinking to come up with ideas that work for shakuhachi, but still essentially sound and feel like my music.
Q: Why did you choose the theme of “air” with the Shakuhachi. Obviously, it’s a wind instrument. But are there other references that might not be more apparent?
James Matheson: Interesting question — and you’ve certainly highlighted one important underlying thought of the piece. After all, sound is simply air set in motion. Or at least it usually is (water can conduct sound as well, but less efficiently). So the soloists are literally blowing air through bamboo tubes, the woodwinds and brass are essentially doing the same, and the strings and percussion are setting air in motion in other ways.
Which just got me thinking about air – and its qualities and properties.
Q: Thinking is bad for your sanity.
James Matheson: And once you start that, it’s impossible not to start thinking about the changing nature of our air, and what that means for everything in our lives.
Changing weather patterns, drought, floods, fires, rising seas — not to be doomsdayish, but these things are all linked to our changing air and all have enormous implications for “everything” that lives.
The age of taking air for granted has probably come to an end.
East meets West as ROCO performs “Pacific Crossings” on November 14, 2015, at The Church of St. John the Divine. Tickets are $35 general admission, $25 seniors, $15 students.