Author Archives: Michael Wilpers

About Michael Wilpers

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at Freer|Sackler.

Utamaro: The Musical at the Freer|Sackler

“Utamaro: The Musical,” recently performed at the Freer|Sackler.

More than two hundred years after his death, the great Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) came back to life for visitors to the Freer|Sackler this summer. The Tokyo-based It’s Follies musical company visited the museums June 30 through July 2 to perform excerpts from their hit 1985 production Utamaro: The Musical.

Five actors in full costume played the great artist himself as well as a kabuki-style narrator and several of Utamaro’s main muses—courtesans from the famous red-light districts of old Edo. Five performances drew a combined audience of nearly six hundred guests to these programs that complemented our exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.

Actress Kurumi Sakai as the kabuki-style narrator of the show.

Their opening number, “Ryogoku, My Town,” extols the stimulating variety of “lonesome losers” who populated the town. The lyrics describe a litany of “pickpockets, snitches, spongers, debt collectors, ruffians, pimps, luggage thieves, sheriffs, sloths, fallen drug dealers, gamblers, drunkards, pilferers, drag queens, male prostitutes, old maids, con men, fakers, storytellers, tumblers, street performers . . . anything is in Ryogoku. This town is my town, I like to walk in this town, a town where lonesome losers lost in the game of life.”

Standing out among the plethora of low-life characters are royalty of the red-light district—the high-end courtesans (oiran) who could be seen by commoners only during a formal parade. One such courtesan was played by actress Yuko Katsube. Her costume featured an ornate kimono and the twelve-inch-tall elevated shoes called koma-geta or mitsu-ashi, worn only by these high-ranking women.

Utamaro (played by Yu Yoshida, left) persuades teahouse worker Okita Naniwaya (played by Tamami Mizutani) to pose for some of his best-selling portraits.

By now a best-selling artist, Utamaro is commissioned to paint a popular waitress at the Naniwa teahouse (which the narrator compares to a modern-day Starbucks). Instead, his attention is drawn to a new girl, Okita, who works there only part-time. Reluctant at first, she is finally persuaded to pose for Utamaro by his persistent and poetic approaches, dramatized in the song “The Woman in You.”

“There is another woman inside you,” he sings, “even though you don’t know. It’s a woman I was looking for, a woman I want to draw a picture of. That is the other woman inside you. Your smile sparkles over the stream on a clear morning. Your portrait is flickering in the candlelight. A beautiful woman radiating her beauty. She is born again.”

Utamaro’s portraits sell wildly and turn Okita into a celebrity.

One of Utamaro’s many famous illustrations of Okita. “Naniwaya Okita,” Kitagawa Utamaro (early 1750s–1806), Japanese, Edo period (about 1793), woodblock print, publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (Kôshodô), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 11.14243, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Disaster strikes when the reigning ruler, Okitsugu Tanuma, a man who long tolerated the excesses of the red-light district, is replaced by his rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira, a staunch opponent of the city’s culture. The new ruler bans all manner of arts and entertainment, including the courtesan portraits that had made Utamaro famous and successful. Not only does Matsudaira ban these practices, but he seizes the artists’ assets and places them, handcuffed, under house arrest.

The rise of an intolerant new ruler is dramatized in the program.

Under this repressive new regime, Utamaro is asked to paint the portrait of a warrior, which he refuses to do on principle, agonizing over his turn in fortune while wearing handcuffs. He wonders aloud what people two hundred years later might think, and our kabuki narrator explains that one art form—music—became a vehicle of protest known as rock ‘n’ roll. “Resistance to authority that Utamaro showed with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) is like what today’s youth do with music,” says the narrator.

“I understand that spirit of resistance called rock,” Utamaro declares. “I am living in the same time with you. Dreams, separation, tearing, meaninglessness, setbacks, friendship, nostalgia, oblivion, decadence, loneliness, fatigue, temptation, misunderstanding, defeat, and despair. These are friends of me and you.”

Utamaro (center) demonstrates his determination to continue painting, despite the repressive regime that has taken over Edo.

Utamaro is joined by the full ensemble for the program’s final number, a rousing anthem to resistance and determination called “Rock Land”:

I am living in the same time with you,
feeling lonely in a crowd,
looking on with nostalgia from a cold street corner,
confused by my old diaries,
as I dance fatigued at a bar before dawn,
as I drape my arm casually across a bench of age-old stone,
waiting for a long-awaited dream,
while I am laughing and saying life is full of good-byes,
while I realize I face only despair in the future,
believing in victory though it may never come to me.
Go across the highway and run through the side roads.
My friend, let’s sing a cry of the soul.
I am living with you in Rock Land.

The full ensemble sings the finale, “Rock Land,” with (left to right) Yuko Katsube as Toyohina Tomimoto, Kurumi Sakai as Kyogenmawashi, Yu Yoshida as Kitagawa Utamaro, Haruka Ohkawa as Ohisa Takashima, and Tamami Mizutani as Okita Naniwaya.

In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days and handcuffed for fifty days. Two years later, after his release, he died. The program’s final slide affirms that “Utamaro’s soul has never stopped living among Japanese people in the two hundred years since his death.”

Photographs by Hutomo Wicaksono

Music from the Muslim World at the Freer|Sackler

image of Naseer Shamma’s Al-Oyoun Ensemble

Naseer Shamma and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

The Muslim world is deeply represented not only in the visual arts at the Freer|Sackler but also among our concert podcasts, which are enhanced with program notes, photos, and images of related artwork. These concerts feature musicians from across the Islamic world covering genres ranging from traditional and classical to jazz and crossover styles.

One special treat is a performance by the Cairo-based composer and ‘ud (lute) artist Naseer Shamma, a native of Iraq who studied at the Baghdad Conservatory before relocating to Egypt. He appeared at the Freer in 2012 during his first US tour in ten years. His evocative solos and refreshing arrangements feature an ensemble of ‘ud, violin, flute (nay), dulcimer (qanun), cello, and percussion.

Another Iraqi-born ‘ud artist, Omar Bashir (now based in Budapest), played original music to celebrate the legacy of his legendary father, Munir Bashir, widely considered the greatest ‘ud master of the twentieth century. Omar performed gorgeous improvisations on Arab modes (maqams) in addition to several of his father’s most famous compositions, including Love and Peace, Seville, and Andalusian Señora.

Rahim Alhaj, who studied under Munir Bashir, was joined by percussionist Souhail Kaspar to perform selections from his Grammy-nominated album When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq. For a jazz take on Arab music, the Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and his quintet performed Two Rivers, an original work inspired by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the recent strife in Iraq, and the common ground between American jazz and Iraqi classical music.

Jazz artist Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Jazz artist Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Three-time Grammy nominee Kayhan Kalhor is a virtuoso on the Persian fiddle (kamānche) and an original member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He has appeared repeatedly at the Freer to perform Persian and Persian-inspired music. Kayhan opened and closed this recital in the melodic mode called rāst-panjgāh, which is comparable to the Western major scale, but (like all Persian modes) has its own trademark phrases and moods. Rāst-panjgāh expresses mostly positive sentiments but, in its lower range, conveys a more serene and contemplative mood. In between these opening and closing solos, Kayhan offered a thirty-minute meditation on the ancient mode called segāh, one of the oldest in Persian music.

image of Persian Classical Music: Kayhan Kalhor, kamanche

Kayhan Kalhor performs at the Freer|Sackler.

Another giant in Persian music is the two-time Grammy nominee Hossein Alizadeh, a master of the Persian lutes called tar and setar. In addition to his performing career, he wrote the soundtracks for the Iranian films GabbehTurtles Can Fly, and A Time for Drunken Horses, all screened in the United States and internationally. A fascinating instrument of Persia is the delicate yet powerful santur (hammered dulcimer), played here at the Freer by two wonderful Iranian American artists, Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian.

image of Masters of the Persian Santur: Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian

Santur artists Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Among the younger generation of Persian classical musicians is Paris-based virtuoso Bahman Panahi, who performed at the Freer on setar (lute) with percussionist Ali Mojallal. They played entirely in the mode named for Iran’s ancient capital city, Esfahan. For an original take on Persian vocal music, listen to this concert by Los Angeles-based vocalist Mamak Khadem recorded during our annual Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebration. She adapted melodies from Iran as well as Armenia, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Turkey, accompanied by an unusual ensemble of clarinet, saxophone, keyboard, santur (hammered dulcimer), and percussion.

Mamak Khadem and her ensemble

Vocalist Mamak Khadem and her ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

One of our most unusual podcasts from the Muslim world is our 2013 concert by artists from Iran and Syria who joined together to perform a program they called Sound: The Encounter. These four jazz-oriented musicians—Saeid and Naghib Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Kenan Adnawi—merged Middle Eastern traditions with modern improvisations on bagpipe, double clarinet, saxophone, ‘ud, and drums. You won’t hear anything like it anywhere else.

Also in the jazz idiom, Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani performed his renditions of classic Egyptian songs from the 1950s. Folk-based music is heard on our podcast by the Saudi Ensemble, including melodies for weddings, fishing expeditions, love songs, and other occasions performed on violin, ‘ud (lute), nay (flute), tabla (drum), and qanun (zither). Our only podcast of musicians from Palestine features faculty of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem from their debut American tour. The conservatory was famously endorsed by both Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim for its teaching of Western and Arab music to Palestinian youth. For a taste of gorgeous music from the Turkish Ottoman period, listen to the outstanding Neva Duo on tanbur (lute) and ney (flute).

Our music from Islamic cultures extends beyond the Middle East to music from India, including the Chisti Sufi Sama Ensemble as well as gamelan music from the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia.

The Art of Qur’anic Recitation

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

The recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents an opportunity to look closely at a Muslim music tradition that may have profoundly influenced black music in the United States. Historians have determined that Muslims made up about a quarter of all Africans forcibly shipped to the Americas through the slave trade. They brought with them long-standing traditions of unaccompanied vocal music that probably fared well under the ban on drums enforced by US plantation owners.

The Muslim call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an are marked by florid melodic lines (multiple notes to each syllable), altered notes outside Western scales, an absence of rhythm, and no instrumental accompaniment. Not surprisingly, a vocal tradition developed among African Americans that bears remarkable similarities to this Muslim heritage—the field holler, a genre that probably predated and influenced the blues.

When historian Sylviane Diouf gave public talks following the 1998 publication of her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, she began by playing audio samples of these two traditions side-by-side. You can hear historic recordings of field hollers on the Library of Congress website, such as this one by Enoch Brown recorded in Alabama in 1939. Compare for yourself by listening to Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah, who will lead our lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation on Saturday, November 5, at 2 pm at the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The event is free—no tickets required—and presented as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.

Japanese Music for the Summer Solstice

Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

Click to zoom in! Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

The seasons are frequent subjects of art, but the transitions between them can be difficult to capture. With spring formally becoming summer today, it’s an appropriate time to note the Japanese tradition of narrative paintings that portray seasonal shifts—and the work of a Japanese composer with a similar aim.

One of our Japanese screens from the Edo period (1615–1868), Flowers and a Brook, shows plants blooming in sequence along the shift from spring to summer (right to left). This technique is frequently employed in Japanese screen paintings to depict multiple seasons in a single image. In a musical parallel, Japanese composer Minoru Miki wrote his “Hanayagi” (The Greening) in 1976 as one movement in a larger work representing a year of changing seasons. According to the composer, this work for solo koto “sings in praise of the brilliant life-power of the seasons as they slowly shift from spring to early summer.”

You can listen to this gorgeous ten-minute piece on our concert podcast of koto virtuoso Reiko Kimura, recorded in the Meyer Auditorium in 1998, when she appeared here as part of the Music From Japan Festival (based in New York). Four years before this concert, Kimura joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the premiere of Minoru Miki’s Symphony of Two Worlds at Lincoln Center. Skip to 39:38 and listen to the end to hear the sounds of seasonal change.

Making Musical Waves

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

We owe the emergence of modern music for the koto, a Japanese zither, to a temple-court musician named Hosui. In the mid-1600s, Hosui was dismissed by the famously capricious nobility in Kyoto for giving an unacceptable performance.

Hosui ultimately prevailed. After resettling in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), he taught blind commoners how to play the exclusive court music styles and instruments that were previously restricted to Buddhist priests and Confucian scholars. Among Hosui’s students was the shamisen player Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685), who pioneered a large and influential repertoire of secular koto music that is still performed today.

More than three hundred years after his death, Yatsuhashi’s tomb in Kyoto is marked by a commemorative stone. His accomplishments in music mirror those of the Japanese artist Sōtatsu, who is credited with bringing the visual arts of the court to a much wider public.

You can hear a few of of Yatsuhashi’s signature works and several of their later incarnations performed by local koto artist Miyuki Yoshikami and flutist Amy Thomas. Their free performance is held on Saturday, January 30, at 1 pm in the ground-level pavilion of the Sackler Gallery. While you’re here, take a last look at Sōtatsu: Making Waves before it closes on January 31.

Freer, Marlboro, and the Library of Congress: A Musical History

Clarinetist Anthony McGill performs at the Library of Congress on January 20 as part of our Meyer Concert Series.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill performs at the Library of Congress on January 20 as part of our Meyer Concert Series.

As our first concert during the Freer closure approaches, we can appreciate how apt it is for the performance to take place at the Library of Congress and to feature artists from the Marlboro Music Festival. These three institutions share a history that originates in the early twentieth century and continues to bear fruit today.

The Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923. In February 1924, arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was looking for an outstanding venue to host a new music series, held three concerts at the museum. She eventually settled on the Library of Congress as the site for her series, which launched the following year.

In museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s later life (he died in 1919), two of his closest friends and collaborators had been Eugene and Agnes Meyer. The three traveled on a joint collecting trip to Asia, and they frequently acquired art together. During World War II, Agnes Meyer intervened with the State Department to secure visas for German violinist Adolf Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin to come to the United States. These virtuosos made their American debuts in concert at the Library of Congress and went on to found the Marlboro Music Festival in 1951.

Eugene Meyer and family. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Estate of Edward Steichen/ © Joanna T. Steichen

Agnes Meyer (far left), Eugene Meyer (far right), and their children in 1926, in a portrait by Edward Steichen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Estate of Edward Steichen / © Joanna T. Steichen

A few years later, Eugene and Agnes Meyer donated most of their Chinese art collection to the Freer in a gift that was the largest presented to the museum since its opening. When Eugene Meyer died in 1959, his personal papers, documenting his career as a financier, owner of the Washington Post, chair of the Federal Reserve, and first head of the World Bank, were donated to the Library of Congress.

In 1965, the Marlboro Festival began touring its ensembles across the country. The Library of Congress hosted many of the festival’s legendary artists in the succeeding decades.

When the Freer’s auditorium reopened in 1993 after a five-year renovation, it bore a new name: the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium. The Meyers’ daughter, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and grandchildren helped fund the renovation and established the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Named for the son and daughter-in-law of Eugene and Agnes, the Meyer Concert Series has featured Musicians from Marlboro every season since then.

Lastly, if you’ve looked closely at labels in our special exhibitions, you may have noticed that important books and manuscripts from the Library of Congress often complement the artwork. For example, we featured early twentieth-century yoga manuals from the library in our recent exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

Please note that advance tickets to the Musicians from Marlboro concert on January 20 are sold out.  However, all unclaimed tickets are distributed to standby patrons five minutes before the concert begins. Looking ahead, tickets to our April 26 concert with Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet go on sale Monday, February 1, at 9 am, via the Smithsonian Associates.

JACK Quartet and Lightbulb: Indonesian Music with a Twist

The Lightbulb Ensemble performing in San Francisco. See them with JACK Quartet tonight.

The Lightbulb Ensemble performing in San Francisco. See them with JACK Quartet tonight.

Tonight, two American ensembles—JACK Quartet and Lightbulb —join forces, fusing classical and Indonesian music into a one-of-a-kind performance. But what do Indonesian gamelan and Western classical music have in common? A lot of history, it turns out. Both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were enchanted by the Javanese gamelan they heard at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. That cross-cultural exposure helped inspire the innovations of French Impressionist music. Performances by a Balinese gamelan at Paris’s 1931 Exposition Coloniale provided French composer Olivier Messiaen with musical ideas for some of his most novel experiments. In the mid-1930s, American composer Colin McPhee lived in Bali, where he wrote an important treatise on gamelan music and then incorporated its forms and sounds into his orchestral works. And starting in the early 1970s, gamelan music influenced American composer Steve Reich in developing what became known as minimalist music.

More recent generations of composers have spent years studying in Indonesia and leading gamelan orchestras in the United States, such as the long-standing Gamelan Sekar Jaya from the San Francisco Bay Area. (I had the opportunity to hear them perform in 1981.) Two leaders of that venerable orchestra, Wayne Vitale and Brian Baumbusch, teamed up with the highly regarded JACK Quartet and Balinese choreographers I Made Bandem and Suasthi Bandem to create the massive work Makaradhwaja, which premiered at the Bali Arts Festival in 2012. A year later, Vitale and Baumbusch created the experimental Lightbulb Ensemble, pursuing new music inspired by Balinese models and utilizing custom-built metal xylophones that resemble the gamelan but have original tunings.

At this evening’s concert, you can hear Lightbulb and JACK perform their latest collaboration, Baumbusch’s Hydrogen(2)Oxygen. Each ensemble also performs alone, with JACK presenting John Cage’s Quartet in Four Parts and Lightbulb playing Vitale and Baumbusch’s Mikrokosma. Don’t miss this chance to hear the latest stage in the fruitful co-evolution of Indonesian and Western music. Tickets will be distributed at the Meyer Auditorium beginning at 6:30 pm on a first-come, first-served basis.

With its combination of Eastern and Western themes, the music in tonight’s performance is paralleled in the collections of the Freer|Sackler. The museums contain both American and Asian masterworks, including nearly one hundred objects from Indonesia.

Friday Fave: Lute and White Snake

The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati); Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849); Japan, Edo period, 1847; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.134

The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati); Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849); Japan, Edo period, 1847; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.134

As manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler, I’m always on the lookout for interesting images of music in our collections. We use these artworks to enhance our podcasts and as cover art for our concert program notes. An astute intern of mine spent a summer surveying our entire art collection and found more than four hundred musical images and actual instruments. These objects date from ancient Chinese bells (as old as the tenth century BCE) to nineteenth-century paintings and cover a wide variety of musical scenes from China, Japan, India, and Iran.

One of the most unusual images is The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati), painted by Hokusai in 1847. At first glance, it seems to show neither a musician nor a musical instrument. What it does depict is a beautiful fabric instrument-case for a Japanese lute called a biwa encircled by a snake, a most intriguing combination.

It turns out that the pear-shaped biwa (closely related to the Chinese pipa) is the instrument of the goddess Benzaiten (aka Benten). This Japanese deity was adapted from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, who has long been associated in India with music and scholarship. Images and legends of Sarasvati arrived in Japan via the Silk Road sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries. Just as Sarasvati is depicted in Indian art playing the vina (an Indian zither), Benten was given the role of biwa player. She also took on other aspects of Sarasvati, serving as the goddess of language, dance, water, and snakes. In Japan, Benten’s shrines are often located near water; a painting in the Freer collection from the eighteenth century shows her seated on a high rock, playing the biwa, while ocean waters roil below. These elements may not have formed a logical group elsewhere, but in the Hindu-Buddhist context they are all seen as things that flow, making water and snakes close cousins of verbal eloquence and musical virtuosity.

Stay tuned for new podcasts coming soon, and reserve tickets for our live performances.