Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra's Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves is a masterful delight

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      Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves
      A Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra production. At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday, May 18. No remaining performances

      A distant relative of the thunderous pipe organ and the folksy harmonica, the shō has a small, reedy voice, not at all inappropriate for an instrument made of bamboo and wax. It’s a staple of the Japanese gagaku orchestra, and a close cousin to the Chinese sheng, but it’s not often heard here in North America—which is a pity, and also one of the reasons why the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra’s Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves presentation was a distinct, if low-key, delight.

      The intent, masterfully executed, was to demonstrate the cultural links between Japan and Canada by featuring mostly Canadian musicians, some of Japanese descent, playing mostly Japanese compositions. True to VICO’s mandate, however, the evening also found a Canadian composer interpreting a 19th-century Japanese score, a Japanese-Canadian flutist playing a Persian-Canadian’s composition, and a featured artist who, though born in Japan, lives and works in Amsterdam. It was a truly cosmopolitan undertaking.

      If there were reservations to be had, it was that few of the composers, Japanese or not, challenged the conventions of the shō or taxed the abilities of that featured artist, Naomi Sato. One measure of Sato’s stature is that she’s the one shown demonstrating the instrument when “Japanese sho” is Googled; another is that she maintains a parallel career as an improvising saxophonist. And she seemed to have no difficulty negotiating anything that was thrown at her on Saturday night, perhaps because only Farshid Samandari’s gorgeous Axiom Praxis, one of two world premieres, called on her to do much more than produce slightly plaintive, slightly droning tones.

      The tone was set right off the top with Arata Kobayashi’s The Figure of Sound: by shō and marimba, a quiet conversation between Sato and percussionist Jonathan Bernard that was lovely but somehow insubstantial, a problem that recurred in much of the first half, with the exception of two non-shō-focused works, Samandari’s Apogee, for solo flute, and Tadao Sawai’s Tsuchi Ningyo, for two kotos. The former was the night’s virtuosic high point, with Mark Takeshi McGregor coaxing a lovely sound from his instrument while showing his mastery of extended techniques; the latter was a vibrant—and, in this context, relatively extroverted—demonstration of skilled plucking and string-bending from Kozue Matsumoto and Yurika Nariya.

      Forces and format grew in the second part of the program, although it, too, started out quietly. Sato and McGregor convened as a duo for Toshio Hosokawa’s Bird Fragments III and nicely illustrated the composer’s axiom that “music is the place where notes and silence meet”. A similar mood prevailed in the premiere of Victoria composer Stefan Maier’s For Homi Bhabha, which ended with the ringing of a small brass bell, but the two large-ensemble works that followed offered more robust pleasures. Mark Armanini’s arrangement of Yoshizawa Kengyo’s Chidori no Kyoku, which dates back to the mid 1800s, demonstrated a knack for silken textures, while the aforementioned Axiom Praxis highlighted Samandari’s ability to move through shifting sonic landscapes while maintaining his own compositional identity. The journey is a recurring theme in Samandari’s work, and casting Sato and her shō as Axiom Praxis’s traveller was an inspired choice.