Preview: End of Year Concerts

Music to get you in the festive spirit

Music tastes differ from person to person, but less well known is that they also vary over time. There is the well-known question format asking interviewees their favorite "Saturday night" and "Sunday morning" tracks, with the former being typically more upbeat and the latter more laid back. The same phenomenon also exists over the course of the year, with different styles of music suiting different months and seasons. Reggae, for example, is very much a summer phenomenon. So, what impact does the end of the year have on the musical calendar?

Here in Japan, there are two standout features of the end-of-year musical program. One is the Kohaku Utagassen, a nationally televised song contest aired on New Year's Eve that unites the generations but divides the genders into the white and red teams (male and female). This is rather like New Year's Eve itself, when family members come together, only for the women to congregate in the kitchen preparing special dishes, while the men enjoy a few drinks together.

The other noticeable feature of the yearend program is the large number of concerts in December dedicated to the performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. No one is really quite sure why this is so, but the fact that it is a choral symphony allowing large numbers of people to participate is no doubt important, as is the fact that the first word of the lyrics "O Freude"– from the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s "Ode to Joy" – sounds like "o furo de," Japanese for "in the bath"!

Beethoven's composition is particularly uplifting and spiritual, qualities reflected elsewhere in the end-of-year musical calendar. In addition to several performances of "The Ninth," other classical offerings veer towards the religious, either in terms of venue or material.

On December 18, rising classical pianist Keisuke Toyama will perform works by Schumann, Wagner, and Rachmaninov in the hallowed precincts of St. Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo. Elsewhere, the St. Petersburg Chamber Ensemble presents "Ave Maria in Christmas," a series of concerts focused on works inspired by perhaps the most moving Christian prayer. Featuring compositions by Caccini, J.S. Sebastian, Gounod, Pachelbel, and Schubert, the concerts will strive towards an intimate and reflective sense of the sacred.

But spiritually uplifting music doesn't need to be classical. Also treading the musical boards will be the 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir (SGC), giving a distinctly African twist to gospel music. Part of the appeal of the group, whose members are selected from churches in South Africa, is that it appeals to our Yuletide sense of charity – money raised by the group goes to an AIDS orphanage back home. But SGC also has much to offer in musical terms. The nine concerts in Japan will showcase earthy rhythms and rich harmonies topped by heartfelt acapella singing.

Part of the perceived spiritualism of groups like SGC stems from the fact that they are seen to represent parts of the world still considered undeveloped, where the default materialism and consumerism so prevalent in Japan and the West are much less prevalent. But even parts of the developed world can enjoy this musical advantage, in particular the Celtic fringe of Europe. The music of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands evokes a sense of ethereal timeless musical traditions in harmony with a beautiful and largely unspoiled landscape. "Celtic Christmas 2009," a series of six concerts, mines this seam by presenting two acts from Ireland – the choral group Anuna and traditional musicians Altan – and one from Scotland – the pairing of harpist Catriona McKay and fiddler Chris Stout – in what promises to be a spellbinding show.

The need to supplement the usual agenda of pure entertainment with elements of reflection and exaltation at this time of the year seems to add a note of richness and variety to the musical program.

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
6th December, 2009
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