ROCO premiere’s 50th commission featuring Japanese flutes

Akihito Obama and James Nyoraku Schlefer

The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s “Pacific Crossings” concert heralds a significant accomplishment for the innovative 40-piece chamber orchestra. The performance, scheduled for Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. at The Church of St. John the Divine, marks the 50th commission by the performing arts nonprofit that champions music by living composers as part of its mission.
“New music, crafted today, reflects our collective moment in time,” says River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) founder, artistic director and principal oboist Alecia Lawyer. “ROCO’s live musical conversation through our world premieres provides an authentic way to understand even more fully the music of the past.”

East meets west as “Pacific Crossings” celebrates the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s partnership with Asia Society Texas Center. Conductor Edwin Outwater leads the full ensemble in the world premiere of American composer James Matheson’s Concerto for Two Shakuhachi “The Age of Air,” co-commissioned with Kyo-Shin-An Arts. The shakuhachi is an early Japanese end-blown flute often used in Zen meditation and traditional Japanese folk music, as well as in classical and jazz works by contemporary composers. Unlike orchestra instruments that have gone through centuries of refinement and development to provide for better resonance, more accurate intonation and ease of performance, the shakuhachi flute remains simple in construction — a bamboo cylinder with holes. The juxtaposition further highlights the differences between the musical traditions that arose from Western Europe and Japan, and how they can merge to craft a pleasing and new aesthetic.

“Programming a concert is very personal in ROCO,” Lawyer adds. “When I work with our musicians and guest artists, commissions are many times based upon their own selection of composers. We wanted to bring the shakuhachi performers and they were the ones who had initiated the commission from Matheson. Kyo-Shin-An Arts pulled us in as co-commissioners for this piece, and we welcomed the opportunity.”

The tile of the work, “The Age of Air,” plays with the notion that sound is simply air in motion. Matheson embraced the theme to encompass other meanings and perspectives associated with air.

“With sound and air as a starting point, it’s impossible not to start thinking about the changing nature of our air and what that means for everything in our lives,” Matheson says. “Changing weather patterns, drought, floods, fires, rising seas — these things are all linked to our changing air and all have enormous implications for everything that lives. The age of taking air for granted has probably come to an end.”

Brooklyn-based Matheson has written works for the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Borromeo String Quartet. In 2011, Matheson was the recipient of the Charles Ives Living, a multi-year award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s also received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bogliasco and Sage Foundations, ASCAP and the Robbins Prize. Matheson serves as Los Angeles Philharmonic’s director of the Composer Fellowship Program and is the artistic director of Neighborhood Classics at Public School 142, a concert series that raises money for one of New York’s most underserved schools through concerts aimed at promoting classical music in the local community.

Making their River Oaks Chamber Orchestra debut alongside Matheson are virtuoso shakuhachi artists James Nyoraku Schlefer and Akihito Obama.

James Nyoraku Schlefer has performed in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Tanglewood, Metropolitan Museum and in colleges and universities throughout the United States. Schlefer has four solo recordings and his music has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Schlefer’s latest recording, “Spring Sounds, Spring Seas,” was released in June 2012 and features original music for shakuhachi and orchestra.

From the Kagawa Prefecture in Japan, Akihito Obama studied various styles of shakuhachi under leading Japanese musicians. In 2004, Obama recorded his first solo shakuhachi album, “Fukoku (Wind Carvings),” featuring improvised works. In 2005, he undertook a walking pilgrimage concert tour of the 88 temples of Shikoku Island. Obama was invited to the Japan Festival at The Kennedy Center and the Sydney World Shakuhachi Festival. He has developed and refined his technique by performing in a wide range of venues, from small clubs to large concert halls with artists playing hogaku instruments and Western instruments. This has allowed him to penetrate traditional barriers and discover his own distinct sound.

“Pacific Crossings” also includes Vivian Fung’s “Pizzicato” and Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 3.”

This full chamber orchestra concert is complemented by a chamber music program at Asia Society Texas Center. “Shakuhachi Duo,” set for Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m., combines Zen Buddhist music and works by Minoru Miki and James Nyoraku Schlefer. Performing artists include Akihito Obama and James Nyoraku Schlefer, oboist Alecia Lawyer and cellist Richard Belcher.The performance, presented in collaboration with the Asia Society Texas Center and Kyo-Shin-An Arts, will include a lively panel discussion moderated by Alecia Lawyer with composer James Matheson, James Nyoraku Schlefer, Akihito Obama and guest conductor Edwin Outwater.

Tickets to “Pacific Crossings” at The Church of St. John the Divine are $35 general admission, $25 seniors and $15 students. Tickets to “Shakuhachi Duo” at Asia Society Texas Center are free to “Pacific Crossings” ticket-holders and Asia Society members, or $10 at the door for general public.

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