WHO IS AFRAID OF KAZUHITO YAMASHITA?

By Matanya Ophee

 

This is a review of a concert. It took place on March 28th l987 at the Y Music Society in Pittsburgh. It was the closing concert of a tour organised by the RCA record company featuring two of the leading artists on its current roster—Irish flutist James Galway and Japanese guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita. On the programme: The Sonata Concertata by Paganini, a Sonata in a minor for solo flute by C.P.E. Bach, the Grand Duo Concertante op. 85 by Mauro Giuliani, an Andante with variations by Rossini (originally for flute and harp) , A Serenade by Cimarosa, the Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony arranged for solo guitar by Yamashita, and the well-known Sonatina op. 205 by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In short, pretty much the same programme as the newly issued RCA record by these artists.

This was a promotional tour meant to introduce American audiences to Yamashita and to this particular record. James Galway, described in the program notes as a “supreme interpreter” and a “consumate entertainer,” acted also as a master-of-ceremonies. He dispatched his obligation towards both epithets with utmost professionalism, giving the audience exactly what they came to hear: a bit of music and fast one-liners which would have made Henny Youngman green with envy. He made no bones that his job was to present young master Yamashita. He did a marvelous job of it, at times even self-efacing his own star billing on the program. The concert was aimed at the public-at-large, that immense group which buys the records and the concert tickets on which so many livelihoods in this precarious classical music business depend. It was a full house. Few guitarists attended the concert.

The live performance of this program, as surely one would have expected, was different than the recording. Some of it was fairly reasonable by any one's standards, other parts of it were grating on one’s sensibilities with an incessant vengeance. The main problem was, to this listener at least, the huge dissimilarity between both artists' relation to the music. Galway, always the “consummate entertainer.” sought to convey the light-hearted spirit of much of these unterhaltung stücke as flippantly and matter-of-factly as possible. Yamashita on the other hand, displayed the same boundless committment, the same total application of energy, even to some of the most banal accompaniments, which has become the hallmark of his performance style. In essence, here were two superb instrumenatlists playing in the same hall, in the same evening, and pretty much on the same beat, yet playing two separate compositions which happen to have the same title and the same author. One had no choice but try and tune out one and listen to the other.

It was difficult to tune out Galway. In a recent review of the record, George Warren said that Galway's sound on the flute reminds him of someone cutting up a Volkswagen with a chain saw. After having heard the live performance of the same program, I have to disagree. It was not a Volkswagen. A Mercedes-Benz, perhaps. The Paganini was such a total disaster as chamber music goes, that perhaps the bad tasted lingered over to the C.P.E. Bach Sonata which followed. Giuliani's famous op. 85, was perhaps unfairly judged. Not only I played it myself in concert many times, (and who hasn't?), I also heard it in concert and on records more times than I care to rememeber. (And who hasn't?). The remaining nineteenth century bonbons did not fare much better. Perhaps the only piece where the artists came to see eye-to-eye about the music and which gave the impression thast they were indeed playing the same composition, was the very last selection, the Sonatina by Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

So the only thing that remained to be listened to, by this listener at least, was the solo arrangement of the Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony played as a solo selection by Kazuhito Yamashita. I already expessed elsewhere my thoughts regarding this guitarist's arrangements and I am not going to bore you with a repeat. What was remarkable was not so much the reaction of the couple of guitarists in the audience, myself, Christoph Harlan and Roger Thurman, but that of the general audience. This was a subscription concert arranged for subscribers to the Pittsburg Symphony concert series. So here were some 2000 regular concert goers who must have heard the orchestral original version of the work many times, performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of some of the most important conductors active today. This is popular stuff and very well known. Amazingly, they all sat at the edge of their chairs engulfed in rapt attention. No one coughed, no one fidgeted, no one dared move. You could hear the proverbial pin hit the pavement. And then they gave him a standing ovation!


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