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Noh: An evening of tradition and ‘the unconventional’

photo KOTA SUGAWARA

Takeda Munenori, left, plays an angel in the noh play “Hagoromo” with violinist Fuminori Shinozaki, far right, and other musicians on July 23.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterHibiya, Ginza and Tsukiji — these three adjacent areas in Tokyo make up Japan’s foremost theater and cinema district, where “Tokyo Art & Live City,” a project to hold cultural events combining different art and entertainment genres, is currently taking place.

A unique performance combining noh theater and classical music was given as part of the project on the evening of July 23 at Oji Hall, a concert venue in Ginza. The production was called “Hagoromo,” the same as the title of the famous noh play performed in the show, which can be roughly translated as “a feathery robe.”

The story unfolds on a seashore called Miho no Matsubara at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where a fisherman finds a beautiful robe hanging on a pine tree branch and wants to take it home. Enter an angel, or a heavenly maiden, saying: “Please give it back to me. I cannot return to heaven without the robe.” The fisherman returns the robe to the angel on condition that she perform a dance for him. She dances, then flies toward Mt. Fuji and disappears.

A noh play is a musical usually accompanied by hayashikata, a group of four musicians respectively playing the fue flute, the taiko drum, the otsuzumi large hand drum and the kotsuzumi small hand drum. In this show, the hayashikata was joined by violinist Fuminori Shinozaki and soprano Mari Moriya. Shinozaki is the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s first concertmaster, while Moriya is an internationally famous opera singer.

As the angel, the protagonist of the play, Takeda Munenori played the part in the traditional style. So did the hayashikata musicians. When they were not playing, music with a slow-paced, gentle melody written by Masanori Kato, a classical music composer, came in.

Shinozaki was dressed in a stylishly designed kimono, tailored especially for the evening. His performance was serene and composed, effectively interspersed with soft pizzicatos. Moriya sang beautifully, not onstage but from a balcony at the rear of the auditorium. Her parts were not of a very high register, and the melodies she sang also had a gentle and mellow quality. All this made her sound like a real, joyful angel singing from heaven, which gave a very fresh impression.

Until near the end, it seemed that the hayashikata musicians and the two classical music artists were not going to perform together. But toward the very end, there was a scene where they musically interacted with each other. Even then, the classical duo gave an impression that they were subtly and tenderly accompanying the noh play.

At the post-performance talk session, Takeda revealed that he had thorough and detailed discussions with all the musicians and the director regarding when to insert the classical music, while his performance was faithful to the traditional form.

“I changed nothing about the form in the collaboration this time,” the noh actor said. “If we make a new noh play, I think we will be able to interact more [with classical music].”

“By doing something new while keeping traditions, I started seeing what I’m up to,” Shinozaki said happily.

Watching the artists, I thought they were able to squarely take on the challenge of performing with artists from a different genre because they have rock-solid confidence in their position. There is an adage in the world of traditional Japanese performing arts: “Knowing tradition and breaking away with it is katayaburi [the unconventional]; breaking tradition without the knowledge of it is katanashi [the formless].” In that sense, I was fortunate to witness a fine example of “the unconventional” that evening.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.Speech

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