Ahead of “Roots, Reeds, & Rhapsody” at Asia Society Texas Center on March 23, ROCO clarinetist Maiko Saski shares her thoughts on the program.
Q: How did you put this program together. What unifies all the pieces?
Maiko Sasaki: My selection is based on “folk influences in classical music.” Throughout history, classical music composers have been using folk music and its elements in their compositions. Some composers employed folk elements to show their roots or identities, some used elements to convey messages while others were just fascinated by the exotic sounds. All repertoire on the program of “Roots, Reeds, & Rhapsody” have folk elements one way or another.
Folk music often has distinctive sound characteristics and/or catchy melodies. Personally, folk music, regardless of its origin, gives me somewhat nostalgic feelings. It reminds me of “home.” It is not necessarily my home but in a larger sense — home for the human soul.
As music is a universal language, I would like us to explore the fundamental folk qualities of humanity that we have in common regardless of race, nationality, gender or ethnicity to embrace the variety of cultures in the world.
Q: The melody in Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes has a klezmer quality. What techniques does a classical clarinetist have to master in order to get this style right?
Maiko Sasaki: The klezmer clarinet sound is totally different from the traditional classical sound. We may need different sets of reeds. We may have to loosen our embouchure quite a bit and apply more flexible air control. But the greatest challenge may not be the technique itself.
Many classical clarinetists, especially in the US, pursue a smooth, dark, focused sound. We are trained to avoid sound impurity or playing notes not written on the sheet music at all cost. We are trained to keep strict tempo. On the other hand, the klezmer clarinet sound has more texture and flexibility. Some noise. Some improvisational notes here and there are part of its charm. So the greatest challenge for us, classical clarinetists, to master (or at least mimic) the klezmer style of music is to play outside the box that we are conditioned to play within!
Q: It’s safe to say that audiences will be listening to Bright Sheng’s Concertino for Clarinet and String Quartet for the first time. What do you like about this work? What should we be listening for?
Maiko Sasaki: I am not entirely sure if our performance will be a Houston premiere. But at least, I haven’t encountered anyone, including myself, who has listened to this piece live in Houston. So I agree it is safe to say that you will hear this piece for the first time.
As the piece was written in 1994 for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, I was expecting the piece would sound like stereotypically contemporary – noisy. A hard-to-understand super complex piece.
However, it totally betrayed my expectation in a good sense. Composer Bright Sheng explains on his website, “the materials of this works are drawn from fragments of folk tunes I heard over thirty years ago when I was living the northwest part of China.” This is an area where Chinese, Muslim, Tibetan, Mongolian and other Central Asian cultures mix, and where the fabled “Silk Road” or trading route from East to West wends its way and is still used.
The first time I heard a recording of this piece, I felt like Dr. Sheng was taking me on a tour of the area. In my imagination, I could see the beautiful mountains that lay in front of us for miles and miles. I could smell the fresh mountain air with a hint of Asian spices. We travel through the ridges riding on the horses. Suddenly, we jump back in time in history to find ourselves in the middle of a battle scene. Another time, we go through a flea market filled with people. Among those people, a beautiful Asian lady smiles at Dr. Sheng. He falls in love with her but he knows we have to leave her. In the midst of his sadness, we are set upon by bandits!!!
Of course, those are my wild imaginations that were inspired by the piece. Other people may have very different impressions – which is perfectly fine. I am curious to know how others feel about the piece after the concert! Nevertheless, the piece is beautiful and cleverly constructed.
Q: Originally, Italian composer Vittorio Monti wrote his Hungarian-inspired Czardas, for violin. What are the challenges of playing that on clarinet?
Maiko Saski: Yes, the piece is inspired by Gypsy music, which is often represented by a seductive and flashy violin. Well, as the clarinet doesn’t have the capability to slide pitches as wide and smooth as strings can do, it is challenging to express “the seductiveness” that’s one of the main characteristics of the music. And of course, fast passages! It’s very difficult to control my fingers.
Q: Debussy’s Pagodas from Estampes has a very unique sound. How did Debussy accomplish this?
In 1889, Debussy attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he was exposed to Asian culture. He was fascinated by the exotic sound, arts and the Eastern ways of thinking. Ever since that time, he often incorporated Asian elements in his compositions. Pagodas is one of those pieces that evokes images of East Asia.
To achieve the unique sound, Debussy extensively used pentatonic scales (five notes in an octave) that are used in traditional Chinese and Japanese music. Debussy marks in the text that Pagodes should be played “presque sans nuance” or “almost without nuance.” I believe it is inspired by Zen philosophy.
I just listened to a rehearsal of this piece played by our pianist Makiko Hirata. She was able to make the sound of the piano out of this world and it made my mind melt away.
I am sure you will find serenity from her performance.
ROCO presents “Roots, Reeds and Rhapsody” at Asia Society Texas Center on March 23 at 7:30 pm. General admission tickets are $25; students and seniors, $15. Please contact ROCO office for the $15 ROCO price — 713-665-2700 or firstname.lastname@example.org