Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.
What would it have been like to attend a piano recital in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), the period when the city called Edo ceased to exist and was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers? It was a time of modernization that featured the introduction of gaslights, steamships, railroads, brick buildings, and telegraph lines. It was also the time when self-trained artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) captured the rapidly changing city in the woodblock prints on view in Kiyochika: Master of the Night.
During the late 1800s, Western music was embraced with enthusiasm in Japan. (The most popular composer in Japan at the time was Beethoven; he remains so to this day.) With that in mind, Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel presented a program in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium that featured Western composers popular in Japan during Kiyochika’s lifetime. The pianist brought out deeper meaning and darker tones in the music, similar to what Kiyochika accomplished in his work.
The first half of the program, played with a combination of passion and precision, featured Beethoven’s “Bagatelles” and “Moonlight Sonata,” followed by Liszt’s “Pensée des Morts.” The pianist ended the first half of the program with “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu” (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell) by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992). Messiaen was born too late to fit neatly into the program, but his work echoes Liszt’s, which itself has ties to Beethoven’s famed sonata. After the intermission, Vonsattel played Schumann’s “Arabeske in C Major, op. 18″ and Books I and II of Debussy’s “Images.” This is where Vonsattel’s playing was marked with poetry and an ethereal air. The themes introduced in the first half—bells, water, and moonlight—reverberated with masterful panache.
You could close your eyes and imagine that you were back in Kiyochika’s Japan, listening to music in a concert hall that was illuminated by gaslight. When viewing the prints in Master of the Night (which often include images of light on water), however, we recommend you keep your eyes wide open.
Kiyochika: Master of the Night remains on view in the Sackler Gallery through July 27, 2014.