BY MIRANDA ILCHEF, LEAD WRITER
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Debussy’s Nocturnes concerts mark two exciting Australian firsts: not only will the program feature a newly commissioned piece for harp and orchestra by Melody Eötvös, but it’s also the Australian debut of celebrated conductor Nodoka Okisawa. The program blends the voices of Australian, Japanese, and French composers, making it a truly cross-cultural performance.
The MSO will play under the baton of Okisawa, who came to conducting more out of practicality than anything else. During her youth orchestra days, she played cello and oboe – but hesitated when asking her parents to purchase one of these expensive instruments.
“Conducting was not my first choice. I just thought I could afford a baton,” Okisawa reflects.
Today, she’s an award-winning conductor with an impressive list of orchestral experiences under her belt (Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Noord Nederlands Orkest, and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra to name a few). Now based in Germany, Okisawa (pictured) is the assistant to Berlin Philharmonic chief conductor Kirill Petrenko.
Although this is Okisawa’s Australian debut, her connection to Melbourne is surprisingly personal and has spanned her lifetime.
“I grew up reading books by Hiroyuki Iwaki. He often wrote stories in Melbourne, and he used to invite musicians from MSO to his chamber orchestra in Kanazawa,” Okisawa shares.
“When I was working [in Kanazawa] as an assistant conductor 10 years ago, they still had a strong connection.”
Okisawa will first lead the MSO through Valses nobles et sentimentales, Ravel’s bright and buoyant impressionist portrait of Viennese high society. Originally written for piano, Ravel arranged the work to utilise the full power of the orchestral colours as he transports the audience to the shimmering decadence of early-20th Century Austria. The piece comprises eight short waltzes, and pays homage to the style and works of Schubert (who composed a series of waltzes called Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales some 90 years prior).
The second item on the program is the world premiere of MSO-commissioned Sonarmilo by Melody Eötvös, featuring solo harpist Yinuo Mu. Melody (pictured below) was inspired to write Sonarmilo in part by the ancient history of the harp.
“The idea that the harp, being one of the oldest instruments in history, developed from a simple bow and arrow was too fascinating a thread for me to pass up,” Melody shares.
“The image of a hunter just sitting there, idly plucking away at their bow-string on a single repeated pitch really stuck with me – so much so that this is how the piece begins, and we often hear that repeating pitch-motive throughout as well as several evolutions beyond that.”
The process of writing for solo harp was new to Melody, as she has previously only written for orchestral harp where it is often used to add colour rather than function as the main voice. As is the case for many works of new music, Sonarmilo evolved through dialogue. Melody had conversations with “exceptional player” Yinuo Mu, who advised on issues of playability in early drafts. After all, the harp is a complicated instrument, and there are unusual technical requirements to consider.
“The most challenging aspect of writing for the harp is dealing with the pedals and how to negotiate harmony in terms of what’s possible within the realm of those pedal changes,” Melody explains.
“Something I hadn’t considered too much beforehand was also that the harpist needs to stay centred in order to hang on to this rather large and heavy instrument while playing.
“If you’re asking them to change too many pedals too quickly, then they’re likely going to need to have both of their heels up off the ground, and so can potentially lose or undermine that centre.”
From Okisawa’s perspective, conducting a newly commissioned piece such as the Sonarmilo Concertante for Harp and Orchestra is a uniquely rewarding experience.
“Working on a new piece is more liberating than a Mozart symphony since there is no prejudice or tradition,” Okisawa feels.
“It is written for a modern orchestra, so we don’t need to consider performing practice and style. I always enjoy discussing with a composer and musicians during rehearsals.”
The third work on the program, Tōru Takemitsu’s 1981 Dreamtime, was inspired by a visit to an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria where the composer experienced the local indigenous culture in the form of song, dance, and storytelling.
Dreamtime weaves together the music of multiple cultures with the sounds of both traditional Japanese and 20th-Century European music.
“Takemitsu has his own unique sound, and it is the best to listen live,” Okisawa says.
“This piece is a series of short episodes that seem to float along, seemingly without pause. Subtle rhythmic increases and decreases, as well as tempo changes, further emphasise the floating nature of the piece.
“Although he was strongly influenced by European music, Dreamtime could catalyse questioning of Western initiative, especially in our time.”
Upon listening to this MSO performance, Okisawa wants the audience “to enjoy the sound of each moment rather than finding musical flows or continuity”.
“In Buddhism, there is the idea of the impermanence of all things. I feel it has something to do with his music.”
The concert ends with a crowd favourite: the Debussy Nocturnes. Originally inspired by Poèmes anciens et romanesques by Henri de Régnier, the work comes in three movements: Nuages (clouds) is haunting and mysterious; Fêtes (festivals) is playful and slightly frantic; and Sirènes (sirens) features a small female chorus, enticing and ethereal.
On first glance, the pairing of Debussy, Eötvös, Takemitsu, and Ravel seems eclectic. And Melody says this is exactly the sort of music she would’ve chosen to pair with Sonarmilo.
“Takemistu and Debussy in particular have had a massive influence on my orchestration style over the years.
“I’ve always been a little obsessed with these two composers from a theory and analysis standpoint too, so no doubt my own language has, by osmosis, picked up certain features from them.
“I’m thrilled to be on this program, and I think it’s going to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience.”
Experience Debussy’s Nocturnes with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 13 and 15 October at Hamer Hall.
Images supplied. Okisawa Nodoka captured by Felix Broede; MSO captured by Laura Manariti.