The 2012 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival celebrated its 45th year in San Francisco’s Japantown. A festival of gigantic proportions that spans two back-to-back weekends in April.
One of the strengths of the festival is an emphasis on showcasing Traditional Japanese Music and arts which are always a standout feature of the festival’s offerings.
The koto music at this years festival was particularly enjoyable. The koto is a Japanese transverse table harp with usually 13, 17, or 21 strings that can accommodate multiple tunings and is played with plectra. A wide variety of tunings were definitely used throughout the day by the various performers creating a broad musical spectrum.
Most of the concerts were held at the JCCCNC gym on Sutter St. Highlights of the April 21 performances included Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto Koto Studio, Seiha USA, and Brian Matsuhiro Wong Koto Studio.
Mrs. Muramoto’s set opened with a fantasia by Tadao Sawai. Fantasia was a stunning composition with many varied complex passages and shimmering melodies.
For this composition an armada of nine kotos was assembled including bass koto. An excellent solo was played by Brian Matsuhiro Wong. It was an amazing work considering that the kotos within the ensemble were using not just one but a variety of traditional Japanese tunings. The players pulled it off with an extraordinary amount of skill. A credit to the instrument and their school.
Ms. Muramoto showed that koto is not proprietary to the Japanese. Her work in elementary schools gleaned some students of African-American/Guatemalan decent who performed a Guatemalan song on their kotos, accompanied by a classmate, Ms. Muramoto and Brian Wong. Dressed in full kimono with flower print they sang a song about lost love in Guatemala. It was by far the cutest performance of the afternoon.
Ms. Muramoto’s set ended with a seven koto ensemble doing the spring movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons. It was a huge feat that came off well considering that the koto was originally designed to be a pentatonic instrument that was now being asked to play western music with diatonic scales, tuning changes and modulations. The ensemble played it very skillfully, honoring the composer and delighting the crowd.
Next up in the afternoon was the Seiha USA koto school which is approaching its 100th year in existence. The Seiha USA set included a mix of classic and modern pieces. These included the famous “Chidori No Kyoku” from 1855 played by an ensemble of koto players and included vocals.
This was followed by another standard: “Godan Ginuta” a timeless composition dating back to the sixteenth century. It was performed as a koto duet, perfect for the echoing motifs in the piece.
Another modern composition followed “Futatsu No Denenshi” (1973) and their set rounded out with “Shorai Fu” (1940) that called forth the full koto ensemble plus three shamisen and shakuhachi.
The Seiha USA set was excellent throughout and featured a wide variety of ensembles, playing techniques, interesting compositions and excellent musicianship.
The koto portion of the afternoon concluded with Brian Matsuhiro Wong Koto Studio. Based out of Oakland, California, Brian Matsuhiro Wong has studied extensively in the Sawai Koto School in Japan known for its modern approach and impeccable technique.
The set opened with a premiere of a new original composition for solo koto called “Morning Glories” that featured a bright, cheerful melody. Also notable in the set was “Daybreak” by Tokyo based composer Inaru Sawai now Head Master of the Sawai Koto Ryu.
“Daybreak” is a modern three movement composition for solo koto that was skillfully played by Brian Wong. A work of excellent quality it featured delicate melodic passages wrapped in a flowing stream of shimmering arpeggios.
Also notable in the afternoon was a performance by “GenRyu Arts” a youthful mix of performers who played taiko drums and performed traditional Japanese dance.
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