It seems improbable that anyone or anything could improve upon the beauty of the Portland Japanese Garden, the acclaimed garden located within Washington Park in the West Hills of the Rose City–but SoundsTruck NW, the Pacific Northwest’s new mobile performance venue, accomplished that feat with an inspiring concert of Japanese and French music on July 5. A standing room only audience filled the courtyard to hear top-tier Portland professionals play works celebrating connections between the two cultures on a marvelously warm, but not too warm summer evening.
Curated by flutist Amelia Lukas and SoundsTruck NW co-founder/pianist Yoko Greeney, the program braided Japanese and French pieces with brief introductions to provide connective context. Japanese art had become a sensation in France due to the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris, and it heavily influenced Impressionism into the turn of the century.
Lukas and Greeney began the concert with Michio Miyagi’s enchanting Haru No Umi (The Sea in Spring). The duo created a relaxing atmosphere with a gentle sound and a slow-moving tempo. That changed with a light tremolo from the keyboard and sprinkles of notes from the flute as if to suggest rain and dapples of light. A playful exchange between the flute and piano gave the piece a carefree spirit, and the conclusion was calm with sloping tones from the flute.
Playing SoundsTruck NW’s Yamaha N3X AvantGrand piano, Greeney performed Nadia Boulanger’s Vers la vie nouelle (Toward the new life). Greeney firmly elicited the dark and mysterious opening passage and deftly transitioned to the lighter and brighter section with its twinkling droplets of tones before finishing with ascendent chords that delivered a sense of hopefulness.
Greeney collaborated with steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho in his Murasaki (Purple). Akiho is an artist who associates tones with colors–Murasaki is part of his Synesthesia Suite, much of which is represented on his first album No One to Know One. The piece fused lovely melodic lines with soft rhythms. A super-pianissimo segment drew listeners into an intimate segment that gradually emerged and became transformed into an extroverted, continuous rush of notes, which Akiho executed with precision. Greeney added a light layer of harmonics, and that resonated well with the audience, most of whom, it seemed, had never heard a steel pan before.
Tōru Takemitsu wrote Toward the Sea for Greenpeace’s Save the Whales campaign, which was quite a radical statement for his countrymen to swallow. With Lukas playing the alto flute and Stephen Kehner on the marimba, Toward the Sea came across as a very mellow and introspective number. It acquired a searching quality with an asymmetrical exchange between the flute and the marimba, with the latter maintaining a pulsating underlayment throughout. Towards the end, the piece evoked a constant breeze, and it ended on a refreshing note.
As a preface to Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird), Greeney treated the audience to an amazing recording of a Japanese songbird from her cellphone. She then collaborated with Lukas in Messiaen’s brief piece in which the flute flitted about with flips, jumps, skips, short cries, and peep-like sounds. Greeney provided spikey phrases and sensitive accompaniment that made the piece a birder’s delight.
Makoto Shinohara studied in France with Messiaen, and his Kassouga for flute and marimba changed the mood, starting with a slow and lovely wayward sound for the flute (Lukas) against a steady beat from the marimba (Kehner). That switched to a playful sequence for the flute and a faster pulse from the marimba before arriving at a soothing ending.
Lukas gave an arresting performance of Claude Debussy’s Syrinx on the bass flute. Based on a Greek legend, Syrinx has an almost timeless, primitive sound as if to become one with nature – all of which Lukas channeled perfectly.
Karen Tanaka’s Water Dance received an impeccable performance by Greeney. Passages passed by like rivulets with bell-like notes chiming above. Now and then, a series of notes would sweep upward, and some phrases seemed to imitate birds chirping. The piece concluded with a trickle of notes and a slowing tempo that stopped without any fuss.
The concert’s final number was Akiho’s Karakurenai (Crimson) for flute, piano, and marimba, but Akiho added to the mix by inviting guitarist Takeshi Yonezawa and Akihito “Aki” Nakanishi to join Greeney at the keyboard. Nakanishi, by the way, is the Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education at the Portland Japanese Garden. Jonathan Greeney–principal timpanist of the Oregon Symphony and husband of Yoko Greeney–doubled up the marimba with Kehner, and Lukas played the flute. The septet cut loose with Akiho’s tricky piece, which contains a stutter step that would trip up most of us who are still learning how to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time (listen to the Oregon Symphony’s Greeney and Sergio Carreno playing Karakurenai here).
Kudos to Amelia Lukas and Yoko Greeney for putting together such an entertaining and educational event that showed off the wonderful attributes of SoundsTruck NW. There are a lot of places that will benefit from this mobile venue. SoundsTruck NW is a real game-changer for the Pacific Northwest.