Category Archives: Performance

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.

World Oceans Day: Songs of Travel

Europeans artists and missionaries traveling to Asia in the sixteenth century promoted Western ideas of religion and art. Some of the artwork created during the Mughal Empire (in present-day India) confirms the emperor’s interest in Roman Catholic imagery and European styles of representation, as seen in the border of this Islamic folio. Folio from the Gulshan (Rose Garden) Album. India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1600. Calligraphy by Mir Ali al-Katib (Bukhara, ca. 1540). Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper. Purchase, F1956.12.

Europeans artists and missionaries traveling to Asia in the sixteenth century promoted Western ideas of religion and art. Some of the artwork created during the Mughal Empire (in present-day India) confirms the emperor’s interest in Roman Catholic imagery and European styles of representation, as seen in the border of this Islamic folio.

On World Oceans Day, listen to La Mar de la Musica: Songs of Departure and Return, a concert held at the museum in 2007. The Vozes Alfonsinas ensemble, based in Lisbon, Portugal, and led by director Manuel Pedro Ferreira, performed Renaissance songs of travel that reveal how overseas influences altered Portuguese music (and vice versa). Four-part vocal harmonies were complemented by the sounds of Renaissance-era instruments, including the rebec, vihuela, and theorbo.

Top: The ensemble Vozes Alfonsinas performs at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in 2007. (L-R): Maria Repas, soprano; Madalena Cabral, rebec; Susana Teixeira, mezzo-soprano; César Viana, recorders; Gonçalo Pinto Gonçalves, tenor; Nuno Torka Miranda, Renaissance guitar and vihuela; Vítor Gaspar, baritone; and André Barrosa, theorbo. Bottom: The ensemble performs for a family audience in the Sackler Gallery.

Top: The ensemble Vozes Alfonsinas performs at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in 2007. (L–R): Maria Repas, soprano; Madalena Cabral, rebec; Susana Teixeira, mezzo-soprano; César Viana, recorders; Gonçalo Pinto Gonçalves, tenor; Nuno Torka Miranda, Renaissance guitar and vihuela; Vítor Gaspar, baritone; and André Barrosa, theorbo. Bottom: The ensemble performs for a family audience in the Sackler Gallery.

As Ferreira, a music professor who has written dozens of papers and books on medieval music and culture, explained in the concert notes:

The conquest of the Atlantic Ocean altered not only the history of Portugal but also its music. Up until the seventeenth century, the Portuguese nation was intimately connected to neighboring Spain. The discovery and populating of the Atlantic islands and the exploration of the west coast of Africa left their mark on the Iberian musical panorama of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The musical influence of the colonization of the Americas became apparent later.

Just as wine returns from a journey with characteristics different from those it originally had, so Iberian musical culture, once tempered by the Atlantic experience, acquired new compositional flavors. This performance calls attention to these outside influences by presenting some written vestiges of this “music of the return journey,” the greater part of which, dependent on oral tradition, has perished in the vortex of history.

These figures from the border of an Islamic folio created in India about the year 1600 depict St. Anthony (left), Christ and the Ship of Salvation, God the Father (upper right), and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John

These figures from the border of an Islamic folio created in India about the year 1600 depict St. Anthony (left), Christ and the Ship of Salvation, God the Father (upper right), and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John.

This concert took place on July 26, 2007, in conjunction with our exhibition Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust, and audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.

Wu Man Comes to Washington

Twice nominated for a Grammy Award, pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man comes to DC next Tuesday to perform with the renowned Shanghai Quartet. Along with pieces by other composers, the concert, held in the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, will include Wu’s own “Kui: Song of Kazakhstan.” In this video from Smithsonian Folkways, she plays the song and talks about why she wrote it.

Reserve your tickets now for next Tuesday night!

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.

Arab Jazz: An Interview with Tarek Yamani

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Tarek Yamani is a New York-based composer and a self-taught jazz pianist. Born and raised in Beirut, Yamani was first exposed to jazz as a teenager. Since the release of his debut album, Ashur, in 2012, he has explored relationships between African American jazz and the rhythms and melodic modes (maqam) of Arab music. In 2013, Yamani produced Beirut Speaks Jazz, a unique initiative aimed at promoting jazz in Lebanon. With his Trio, Tarek Yamani performed last month in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium, in conjunction with the exhibition Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.

Bento: What were your early experiences of playing and learning music?

Tarek Yamani: My father has an incredible sensitivity to music and he loved good music regardless of its genre. He had a black Samsonite case full of tapes of Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, ABBA, Bob Marley, Ravi Shankar, Umm Kulthum, the Beatles, and everything in between. I loved this case and I was always excited to pick something out of it and listen. My parents loved music but were not musicians. My great-grandfather, however, was a well-known singer during Ottoman rule and he was one of the first to record discs for Baidaphon and Polyphon in the early 1900s. His name was Ahmad Afandi Al Mir, and we managed to find in his grandson’s attic four severely damaged LPs with his picture on it.

I was born in the middle of the fifteen-year civil war, and during most of my childhood my family and I were running away. The Lebanese War was atrocious, and as in any militia-based wars, there were no rules or safe areas: one day our street would be safe, the next, a war zone. Cultural activity during those years was non-existent, and therefore the first time I saw a concert was when I played one in my school in 1996. I was sixteen, and I had been teaching myself guitar and got into heavy metal. I even formed a band with my friends, but it didn’t last for long.

My parents got me a piano when things cooled down and I was showing real interest in music. I think I was eleven or twelve when that happened. I started going to the Lebanese National Conservatory, but it was in such a mess that I soon dropped out and picked up the guitar instead. Around the age of 19, my interest in jazz brought me back to the piano.

Bento: What were your early musical influences? What artists, styles, or composers grabbed your attention and helped motivate you?

Tarek Yamani: I listened to everything that sounded like music and I loved it all, from classical to rock to hip-hop. I had a strange attraction to Pink Floyd that was more like an addiction until it slowly faded away when I became interested in heavy metal. After that also faded away, it was jazz that came into my life and changed it forever.

Nobody influenced me in jazz as much as Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane did. However, I was listening to countless jazz records from Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Holland, and Wayne Shorter, to name a few, and all were a major influence on my jazz formation.

Bento: What have you been listening to recently (live or recordings)?

Tarek Yamani: I haven’t been listening to anybody in particular recently, but I’m very much into checking out what’s going on in the Arab world. There’s a big movement in independent music, especially in Egypt when it comes to Arabic rock, and all around the Arab world when it comes to hip-hop. Electronic music is pretty much picking up, too, but jazz is not really happening yet and there are no real jazz scenes. There are mostly individual attempts and a few collective attempts that, if done correctly, will eventually create the necessary platform for a real movement.

Bento: When is the next Beirut Speaks Jazz? Are there any other upcoming performances or projects you’d like to mention?

Tarek Yamani: Beirut Speaks Jazz occurs on April 30 and coincides with International Jazz Day. I’m very much looking forward to the 2015 edition. Some of my other projects include scoring the music for my wife Darine Hotait’s short film Orb, which is going to be the first Arab sci-fi film. I’m also preparing my third album, in which I continue to explore relationships between jazz and Arab music.

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If you like Arab music, check our recent podcasts of concerts recorded in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

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

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.