The wind was swirling around the Eastman School of Music relentlessly Friday night, but inside Kilbourn Hall, it was the hands of Yumi Kurosawa that were swirling over Japan's national instrument, the koto. Kurosawa thrilled those who braved the weather to attend, playing a mix of classical Japanese pieces and original works.
A koto is a Japanese zither, and in its traditional 13-string form, it resembles one. But Kurosawa plays a 21-string koto, developed in 1971, and it's large enough to evoke a horizontal harp.Her playing showcased a full dynamic range, from muted, barely audible notes to forcefully plucked chords, from bent notes to gorgeous chordal cascades. The size of the koto elicited an upper-body ballet as beautiful as the music.
Kurosawa wore ivory picks on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of her right hand for most of the melodies and flourishes. Her left hand primarily played the lower strings, but there were times when her hands crossed to tackle perfectly coordinated, impossibly complex passages.
She charmed the audience with a lesson in tuning, pointing out the complexity of the process and the koto's sensitivity to humidity. She would tune 67 times during the concert by moving triangular bridges.She also gave us a short history lesson. The koto is 1,300 years old, first developed in China. Over the centuries, it spread to Japan and Korea, but each culture had a different approach to the instrument.
Kurosawa added a considerably original approach when she played the crowd-pleaser of the evening, an interpretation of parts of the "Autumn" and "Spring" movements from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." Later, for her encore, she brought worlds together again with a beautiful koto rendition of another season, George Gershwin's "Summertime."
With her expanded instrument came an expanded repertoire stretching from centuries-old traditional tunes to 21st-century electroacoustic music. Her original compositions "Harvest Moon" and "Looking Up at The Sky," written after the 2007 tsunami that devastated areas of Japan, sounded like a crashing thunderstorm as the koto played over previously recorded sounds.
Kurosawa was joined on those pieces by Anubrata Chatterjee, a superb tabla player who is every bit as masterful on his instrument as she is on hers. When he soloed, his fingers moved over the surface of the drums with equal shares of speed and precision.
As the daughter of koto players, Kurosawa demonstrated a great respect for tradition. She played her own arrangements of the traditional Japanese tunes "Sakura" and "Takeda Lullaby."But there was also a quest to take the koto into the future. And when she played the first composition she ever wrote, "Inner Space," she did just that with full koto swirls executed with the graceful arm motions of a figure skater. The piece was a wonderful balance of order and chaos.
Before playing another original called "Enchantmentica," Kurosawa explained that she had made up the word, and it meant "mysterious magic." I had never heard a koto before, and it seemed just right.
The Barbara B. Smith World Music Series continues with a performance by the Afro-Cuban All Stars on Saturday, April 20, 7:30 p.m. at Eastman School of Music's Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street. $26-$71; discount with UR ID. 274-3000. eastmantheatre.org.