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Before Akiho/After Akiho: ‘Sculptures’ with the Oregon Symphony

New work by Portland-based composer continues to push the boundaries of percussion music.


Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kuneko's sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.
Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kaneko’s sculptures. Photo courtesy of Omaha Symphony and the composer.

Andy Akiho continues to redefine music for percussion with an inventiveness that knows no bounds. Recognized with Grammy and Pulitzer nominations, the Portland-based composer and performer loves to explore sounds in whatever he might touch. This time, the shimmering tones of a sonic sculpture garden filled Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall when Akiho and the Oregon Symphony under Music Director David Danzmayr teamed up to unleash the West Coast premiere of his latest gem, Sculptures: Concert for Orchestra and Video (November 6). The piece made a strong case for those who describe percussion music as “Before Akiho” and “After Akiho.”

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, Sculptures spotlighted Akiho and members of the orchestra’s percussion section playing directly on the sculptures created by acclaimed artist Jun Kaneko.  The stage was visually dominated by a huge bronze head, studded with knob-like protrusions and a very large screen for projected imagery and video. They were central points of the multi-media show.

Consisting of nine sections, Sculptures moved quickly over a 35-minute span. Each section was introduced with a projection of the sculpture. “Translucent,” referring to a Kaneko glass piece, kicked things off with a complex nineteen-beat pattern punctuated by sudden whams from the percussion battery. Melodic lines wove in and out as a rhythmic intensity took over and propelled everything to a thrilling end. 

“Bronze I” highlighted Akiho and Michael Roberts etching specific areas of the big bronze head with bows, generating warm, yet hollow, echo-y tones that were punctuated whenever Akiho struck the head with a mallet.  The brass section of the orchestra evoked a solemn choir in “Petroglyph.” In “Cylinders,” Akiho delivered a mesmerizingly fast series of sounds on eight colorful small creations. “Kintsugi” fashioned quickly shifting rhythmic patterns, swirls of woodwinds, and smooth brass.

Andy Akiho playing Jun Kuneko's 'Ceramic' sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.
Andy Akiho playing Jun Kaneko’s ‘Ceramic’ sculptures. Photo courtesy of Omaha Symphony and the composer.

Kaneko spoke via recording at the beginning of “Ma,” and he described how he wanted his artwork to vibrate with its surroundings. A video then showed Akiho generating all sorts of sounds by playing several of Kaneko’s large sculptures in a warehouse. You could almost feel the vibrations coming through the screen. “Density” followed with shuddering blows from the timpani, hypnotic orchestral chords, and ascending, isolated notes from the harp at the end.

For “Bronze II,” Akiho and Roberts rapped, tapped, and whacked the big bronze head with a variety of sticks and mallets, creating shimmering, metallic tones and overtones.  In the final section, “in that space, at that time,” repetitive passages morphed into other passages that were overlaid on top of each other like a complicated glaze that Kaneko might have created for one of his artworks. There was no grand finale, but the collective sound hung in the air before dissipating.

The audience, which filled most of the hall, loved the unusual sounds and the visual aspect of the piece. I talked with Akiho after the concert and found out that none of it was improvised. He has notated everything in a detailed score. It will be interesting to see when Sculptures is done by other orchestras (read ArtsWatch’s recent interview with Akiho], in which the composer discusses this and other topics).


Oregon Cultural Trust

Deep resonance

To balance out the concert program, the orchestra performed Othello, a concert overture Dvořák wrote as part of a trilogy of such works – Nature’s Realm and Carnival being the other two. Urged on by Danzmayr, Othello received a very dramatic interpretation with brooding basses, plaintive woodwinds, and stormy moments that heaved up and down with passion.  

The ardent melodic content of Othello bookended extremely well with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6,Pathétique,” which the orchestra played with total commitment. The first movement showed off the fleet fingerwork of the strings; powerful sonic volleys; super liquid-like tones from principal clarinetist James Shields; and a sense of impending doom from the lower basses. The second offered a ray of hopefulness, which broke out more brightly in the third before collapsing in the burn-the-house-down, thrilling final measures. Steeped with music that speaks of sorrow and tragedy, the fourth movement evoked an utter sense of loss and finality. You could have heard a pin drop in the hall after the double basses quietly stopped playing. The ensuing silence was genuine, and listeners waited until Danzmayr put his hands down before applauding. 

Years ago, I talked with the orchestra’s former principal tubist, John Richards, about this symphony. He was normally an upbeat fellow, but he mentioned that the Pathétique was emotionally draining for him. And when an orchestra plays it as well as the Oregon Symphony did under Danzmayr, it acquires a deeper resonance with listeners.  

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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