IN CONCERT: Take on Takemitsu’s ‘Rain Spell’ drenched in life and beauty

February 12, 2007

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu clearly left us too early, passing on at the age of 66 in 1996, depriving us of what else might have come from this fascinating thinker.

Recognition of his expressive power was made possible Friday afternoon at the Music Academy of the West, courtesy of Camerata Pacifica’s sensitive performance of his beautiful 1983 chamber work “Rain Spell.”

Here, in a fine, meditative 10-minute package, was a neat primer in what made Takemitsu such a synthesizer of 20th century ideas, from impressionism to atonal writing and John Cage-ian notions of space and indeterminacy. He pulled it all together and kept beauty inside the music, without ever watering down his intellectual integrity.

Takemitsu has been getting more attention recently in various places, including a recent essay by Alex Ross — one of America’s great classical writers — in the New Yorker. Closer to home, the Pasadena-based Southwest Chamber Music group presented a lovely Takemitsu-themed concert last month, with more intensive tributes planned.

By now, Takemitsu’s music shouldn’t be as absent from the general classical atmosphere as it is, and he should need no introduction. Camerata’s eloquent and socially gifted founder Adrian Spence virtually bent over backward Friday to prepare the audience for the experience. He explained that while this work belonged to the “plink plonk” school of 20th century music, it has a poetic, sculptural quality.

A sculptural analogy is a good one. Like a mobile, with its discrete parts and gestures fluttering in a gentle breeze, “Rain Spell” is less concerned with structure, in the conventional sense, as it is with overall balance. Takemitsu mastered the art of giving lyricism and life to abstraction. If free of terms of design and tonality, the music in this colorful quintet piece is hardly dry or formless.

Out of Carol McGonnell’s clarinet solo part grew a swarming ensemble sound, the flute (played by Spence) and clarinet encased in the embroidery of piano, harp and vibraphone (Robert Thies, Marcia Dickstein and Douglas Perkins, respectively). An alto flute passage melted into a duet between piano and harp — tuned microtonally and tugging on our mind’s ear.

This was music at once meditative and mentally bracing. Takemitsu, at his best, was especially attentive to the spaces between notes — the voids that make the solids resonate. At some point, he truly will need no introduction.

Also on the program, compatibly enough, was a dose of Debussy — one of Takemitsu’s favorites. The French composer’s sense of color readily can be found in the Japanese composer’s palette. His familiar and rightfully beloved “Sonata for Violin and Piano” was given a solid reading by violinist Catherine Leonard and Thies. Solid, in Debussy’s terms, means firm but flowing, a key paradox in Takemitsu, as well.

Leonard, in particular, is generally a marvel to behold. She is in control of her tonal and technical attributes. That virtuosity and care was in evidence in her Debussy playing, from the lovely melodic fragment which sneaks in and out of the scampering second movement to the moody swaying of the final part.

Moving backward through musical history, the program ended with its oldest and tidiest piece, Beethoven’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 5, Opus 24 (Spring).” A formal luster hovers over the writing, dating from his early Mozartean era, and Leonard and Thies gave it a clean reading.