From film cues to symphonic statements – Joe Hisaishi conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic

Joe Hisaishi portrait by © Omar Cruz

Launching the musical year of 2023 in style, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra teamed up with Joe Hisaishi for an uplifting Epiphany afternoon performance of the composer’s works for the screen and the concert hall alike. Like so many public events over the past couple of years, Hisaishi’s guest appearance too had went through some reshuffle, due various pandemic restrictions imposed by the authorities. Postponements notwithstanding, on Friday, the composer finally took the podium at the Helsinki Music Centre, guiding the orchestra through some of his finest musical works.

Best known for his film scores for Hayao Miyazaki, Hisaishi is a versatile composer, whose style fuses together quite diverse musical idioms, resulting in highly personal mixture of the highbrow and the vernacular. Among his cinematic works, the original score for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, 2001) is often counted among Hisahishi’s finest. In 2018, the composer made a twenty-five-minute concertante adaptation of his film original, titled simply Spirited Away Suite.

Scored for piano and large orchestra, the suite is cast in ten short movements, derivied from the key cues of the original film music. Three of the movements feature notable solo piano part, performed by the composer. The suite opens with One Summer’s Day, a seemingly simple pastoral for piano and orchestra, with darker undercurrents woven into the string harmonies, pre-echoing the mysterious journey ahead.

After a tour-de-force sequence for full orchestra, the music adopts more mysterious tone in Nighttime Coming and the ensuing cue The Gods, constituting a gorgeous instrumental fantasy, opening into the realm of dreams. Harp and celesta introduce the tranquil View of the Morning, which is soon turned into terrific orchestral canvases of The Bottomless Pit, followed by the astonishing open-air music of The Dragon Boy.

A feast for percussion, No Face is pure symphonic phantasmagoria, engaging the full ensemble into a wild dance of astounding colours. In contrast, the piano and string meditations of The Sixth Station provide moments of meditative repose, albeit ones shrouded in mists.

The zenith of the suite, Reprise, is a radiant musical summa, scored for the full ensemble, including many wondrous instrumental passages for violin, celesta, harp, solo winds and brass. A musical round-off, revisiting some of the score’s key thematic material, the cue is an absolute charmer.

Completing the musical arch, the suite closes with a postlude for piano and orchestra, aptly titled as The Return.

A splendid outing from Hisaishi and the Helsinki Philharmonic, Spirited Away Suite was performed with upbeat energy and commitment, conveying the full array of sonorous narratives woven into the score. Given as the afternoon’s finale, the performance was lauded with standing ovation, followed by two delightful encores, Ashitaka and San for solo piano from Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997) and the short orchestral anthem World Dreams (2007), the opening piece to a three-movement orchestral suite of the same name.

Hisaishi and the orchestra augured the afternoon with a compelling performance of The East Land Symphony (2011-16). Scored for a large orchestra of triple winds, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, five percussionists on mallets, cowbells, tuned gongs, tam-tam, tubular bells and drums, harp, piano, celesta and full strings, the forty-five-minute score in five movements makes a formidable symphonic statement. Soprano soloist joins the orchestra in movements three and five delivering various text settings in English, Japanese and Latin.

Written as an orchestral response to the devastating earthquake of 2011 and its aftermath, the symphony opens with vehement tableaux of The East Land, a cinematic movement echoing the upheavals of the natural disaster. Here, modernist procedures and repetitive techiques merge, giving rise to much orchestral roar, called forth by the subject matter.

The second movement, Air, comes off as the most striking of the five, perhaps, with its raindrop textures transforming time itself into grey-hued tapestries of instrumental contemplation. Interlocked percussion textures set the movement in motion, juxtaposed with quasi-static, almost pure-tone lines from muted strings. As the music unfolds, winds and brass join, engaged in full orchestral meditation, one wrought of polarities.

Tokyo Dance, Hisaishi’s chosen centerpiece for the symphony, is based on a text by Mai Fujisawa, itself fashioned after children’s rhymes. In a Mahlerian feat, the soprano sets out to evoke a series of naive and sentimental snapshots of the metropolis, subjected to various forms of orchestral commentary; a symphonic hub of splendid irony.

Titled Rhapsody of Trinity, the fourth movement is conceived as a surreal dance suite of sorts. Almost a standalone number in itself, the Rhapsody opens with Bernesteinesque swing and wit, giving rise to brilliantly scored choreographic scene. However, Hisaishi’s score is no Dance at the Gym, for the music soon sneaks away from its opening panorama, taking more shadowy turns as waltz kernels are thrown in, leading to more sardonic passages, cast for orchestra in somewhat Shostakovichian manner.

The closing Prayer is a clear-cut musical arch in ABA. The outer sections are delicately scored for voice, strings and piano, whereas the central passage is a setting of a Bach chorale for full orchestra, paying homage to St Matthew Passion (1727). The subtle vocal part muses on a loosely-knit cycle of Latin proverbs, providing the symphony with ambiguous, cautiously hopeful ending.

As performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic under the composer, The East Land Symphony made a powerful impact. The orchestra conveyed the many layers and idioms of the polystylistic score with dedication and care, delivering an engaging, well-shaped reading. Although it is debatable, whether or not the material and the form of the opening movement are in accord with each other, the symphony is nevertheless awash with imagination and expressive orchestral and vocal writing. Concerning the latter, Olga Heikkilä was a fine soloist for the symphony, well supported by the composer and the orchestra.

Given as the second half herald, the joyfully propulsive DA-MA-SHI-E (1985/1996) makes a smashing eight-minute opener indeed. An ensemble original recast for full orchestra, the score is built upon repeated iterations and ingenious transformations of its core material, clad in dazzling symphonic raiments. An uplifting overture, DA-MA-SHI-E is a nod towards American minimalism, which Hisaishi first discovered from Terry Riley’s ground-breaking early recordings.

Taking good care of rhythmic fluency and textural clarity, the composer and the Helsinki Philharmonic gave DA-MA-SHI-E a wonderful go at the Music Centre, one displaying pure symphonic joy.

An afternoon well spent, Hisaishi’s appearance with the orchestra was performed to a sold-out house, one crowded by an audience somewhat different from those at subscription concerts; fan base for symphonic concerts to come, perhaps. Be that as it may, Friday’s concert was a joyous event indeed.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Joe Hisaishi, conductor and piano

Olga Heikkilä, soprano

Joe Hisaishi: The East Land Symphony (2011-16) for soprano and orchestra

Joe Hisaishi: DA-MA-SHI-E (1985/1996) for orchestra

Joe Hisaishi: Spirited Away Suite (2001/2018) for piano and orchestra

Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland

Friday 6 January 2023, 3 pm

© Jari Kallio

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