On a program of musical works with imagery ranging from Mount Fuji to zygotes, the common thread was Japan and the sounds it has inspired over the past few decades. With members of the New York Philharmonic arrayed in five sub-groups across the stage in the Met Museum’s auditorium, they began with Toru Takemitsu’s Archipelago S, composed in 1993. Unlike the symbolist and imagistic pieces comprising the rest of the program, Takemitsu’s composition, while inspired by seascapes in Japan, Stockholm and Seattle, was more focused on the realization of sounds in space: “Although form is very important to me, how it is realized in sound is more important.” Conductor Jeffrey Milarsky led the five groups through their dialogue of sounds, which always avoided coalescing into a single orchestral voice, just as Takemitsu intended. The initial dribbles and drops of sound deftly transformed into strokes and waves and swoops and swirls, with each group pausing to let another interject at any given moment, and only occasionally overlapping in a less polite palaver, enveloping the listeners like fog along the seascape.

Dai Fujikura © Ai Ueda
Dai Fujikura
© Ai Ueda

Messiaen’s Sept Haïkaï, Esquisses japonaises, composed in 1962 while the French composer was traveling through Japan, is certainly not “new” or even technically Japanese, but it proved to be a startlingly incisive close to the program. The seven movements, which personified Japanese scenery from “three thousand stone lanterns squeezed together as far as the eye can see” to a park on the slopes of Mount Fuji, captured the sounds of Japan through splashes of specks of color and Gagaku-tinged passages. Messiaen’s transcriptions of the birdsong of 23 different birds are scattered throughout the sixth movement, “Les oiseaux de Karuizawa”: piano soloist Stephen Gosling meandered and flitted through them with vigor. His fingers tripped and stumbled skillfully one over the other, chirruping and chattering in jots and bursts, sometimes freezing at unexpected moments like someone excitedly walking into a screen door. The more abstract seventh movement, continuing along in the spastic, abrupt vein of “Les oiseaux de Karuizawa”, was the most energetic and colorful segment of the evening.

Unfortunately, the two pieces in between, while offering younger authorial voices, were less striking in both composition and execution. Misato Mochizuki’s early work Si bleu, si calme of 1997 was inspired by symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (“Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit, / Si bleu, si calme!”) and was distinguished by alternating passages of intricacy and restraint, eventually dissolving into a puzzling conclusion involving a bouncing violin part and shaken stones. The members of the Philharmonic did not seem to grasp Ms Mochizuki’s intentions; their stiff and clumsy rendition made me long for a low-budget new music ensemble’s interpretation. Even without flawless technique at least they would have made an effort to understand what the music was trying to do, though admittedly the music itself seemed sometimes not to know what it was trying to do either. The contrasting sections of complexity and simplification were meant to symbolize “bleu” and “calme”, respectively, though the swells and flurries and percussive interjections felt disjointed, especially in the Philharmonic’s lethargic conveyance.

Dai Fujikura’s Infinite String, the newest music on the program and a New York Philharmonic commission, was the product of what the composer referred to as “working at home… with no ‘proper job’, as my mother would call it”. He went on to explain that the piece was “about” the process of fertilization and the beginnings of pregnancy and human life, specifically his wife’s experience carrying their child. The Philharmonic, reduced and rearranged into a string orchestra, opened with some frantic sawing that I suppose was a pretty accurate sonic representation of swarming sperm and multiplying cells. The subsequent sweeping passages and eventual leisurely melody at the end (which is “okay in the U.S. but not in Europe”, according to the London-trained composer) seemed to want to represent the randomized luck and wonder of conception, though occasionally they felt repetitious and uncertain, and overall the piece didn’t quite work musically. Furthermore, as a person who, unlike Dr Fujikura, possesses a uterus, I found the appropriation of the gestation experience to be somewhat troubling. All the same, the chorus of piercing strings, growing in complexity in imitation of a zygote, contributed their own undeniably unusual array of colors to a concert that was already rich in color and imagery.