Noh Holds Barred

An unexpectedly natural union

25 JUNE 2015,
Jurokomai dance
Jurokomai dance

In the Marly Gardens at the Green Gate in the grounds of the famous Sanssouci palace, built by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia as his summer retreat, a place “sans souci”, (“without concerns”), lies the more recent Friedenskirche, the “Peace Church”. And in this church magic sometimes happens. Perhaps almost like a fairy tale.

Searching for my way there at the dead of night last night, by tram or bus or any which way, for a summer solstice concert, a Gentleman chose to help me and told me which tram to take and which stop to exit and then, he told me, I was to “walk though the Old Square to the Inn on the Corner and further along The Straight Path to the Place of the Green Gate” where I would surely find the church, behind the trees beyond. It was almost as if the staunch Berliner that I have become had suddenly and unwittingly found himself in Narnia, or even in The Shire in Middle Earth. For a moment, this curious man with beard down to middle of his rather portly belly, and hair at back to match, struck me as a gnome, a little green man, a Leprechaun perhaps. Or even… did I dare even wonder… could it be El Duende, the invisible little-person who graces the stage of flamenco performances only when the music is so pure that it touches the heart directly? Could it have been the Duende himself who was telling me of this magic place, The Place of the Green Gate?

Often I have talked with my dear friend, my musical brother, harpsichordist Frédérick Haas, of how el Duende can—but only so rarely will—come to the performances of classical music. We have talked often of the importance of that which brings Duende to appear, of how little one dare even mention him for fear of scaring him away, and yet how rare it is that classical musicians are able to wake him and captivate his attention. How odd then, that I am to meet him in person, el Duende, when en route to see a performance of music by Frédérick and his astounding ensemble, Ausonia.

I was astonished by what I found awaiting me in the dark church. An ensemble of musicians from the Early Music community performing works by Weckmann, Biber, Froberger and Buxtehude. A German, an Austrian, an Alsatian and a Dane. To this juxtaposition of people from Germanic lands was added the most unexpected but most natural of elements: Japan. As unlikely as it might seem, placing the ancient and noble classical Japanese musical drama, Noh, in consort with European chamber music comes over as the most obvious of unions imaginable. It was almost as though the wood which had made the instruments had been grown and harvested in the forests of the mountains of Japan, as though the same fragrant sea-breeze which had nourished the Japanese culture had also breathed music into the timbers of the instruments. And somehow, magically, the performers were able to allow this same morning breeze to speak through them and the solid members of their instruments with pure and total liberty, uninhibited by personal ego. Nation, ethnicity, history, culture, art all most suddenly fused at this solstice evening gathering, into a single and complete thought.

Noh or Nogaku, coming from the Sino-Japanese word meaning “skill” or “talent”, has been practiced since the 14th century and remains the oldest major theatre art-form still performed in Japan today. Plays are often derived from tales taken from traditional Japanese literature and often depict a supernatural being who is transformed into human hero form, narrating a story. Normally in five plays, interspersed with comedic kyõgen plays, our performance was shortened to only three plays and interspersed with dramatic and brilliant virtuosic performance from Mira Glodeanu, baroque violin, James Munro, Violone and Frédérick Haas, harpsichord and organ. However, it was never possible, even when he was not on stage, to take ones thoughts too far away from Noh actor, Masato Matsuura.

The audience was gently brought into listening with a solo organ toccata as way of a prelude, which set the mood of tranquility and the natural structure of nature’s design. Already, we were set into an almost trance-like state. Maestro Masato Matsuura entered through the audience during the second musical presentation, one of Biber’s “Rosary” sonatas, with a Jurokomai dance. Immediately shocking but soon peacefully breathtaking, his dance was followed by the French influenced Froberger in a suite for solo harpsichord. This in turn was followed by a second “Rosary” sonata by Biber with Ranbyoshi dance. Ranbyoshi is from the fourteeth ruler of Japan, Emperor Temmu, who learned the dances from five heavenly maidens while he was playing the koto once. The dance involves a disjointed or chaotic rhythm. Strikingly, Masato remained on stage during the Tombeau sur la mort de Monsieur Blancrocher and remained almost motionless sitting on the stage area floor.

Monsieur Blancrocher is a curious character from the world of 17th century France and very special to most harpsichordists. Although so little is known about him, we do know his name was Charles Fleury, Sieur de Blancrocher. He was a lutenist and, we must assume, a very important one. He was befriended with some of the most important harpsichordists of the times, including Louis Couperin, Jean Henri d’Anglebert, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières and Johann Jakob Froberger, to name but a few. It is said that he was out and about on the town one evening with a number of them, including L. Couperin and Froberger, when at some point, he went down to the wine cellar where they were imbibing for more bottles of wine. It seems that he fell down the stairs and died there and then in the arms of Froberger. So distressed by all of this as they were, a number of composers wrote tombeau pieces (pieces in mermoriam) in his honour. These include one by Froberger, as performed at the Ausonia concert. Other composers who wrote such pieces about the death of Blancrocher include François Dufaut, Louis Couperin and Denis Gaultier. Indeed, then, the collection of the finest lutenists and harpsichordists, the finest players of plucked instruments, the world knew at that time. I have always thought of these composers as the true musketeers of the musical establishment of Europe, a band of illustrious and noble chevalier and gentlemen. How appropriate then for our Noh dance performer to be clothed with his right arm and shoulder bared in the traditional way of the noble Japanese archer? As Frédérick allowed his left hand to gently descend down—and then leave—the keyboard in Froberger’s depiction of Blancrocher’s departure from this world, a life sprang into the previously reposed body of our dancer to such a height and intensity, a fight between this and the next worlds perhaps, unfolding gradually to his acceptance of the inevitable, the resignation of his fate.

And, finally, as a woman in flowing brilliant orange cloaks, Masato danced an Onnamai, or “woman dance”, traditionally danced by masked males, with such elegance and panache, that the audience were motionless, holding their breath in awe. We were being transported to so many times and places, cultures and histories, art forms and literary delights all at once that it was hard to remain human, and hard not also to become part of this supernatural realm of magic, wonder, the world of the fantastic. Undoubtedly the most stunning performance of Early Music and of dance and… well, of everything… that I can remember being able to witness.

The gentleman who had given me directions to the Place of the Green Gate had asked me what it was that was happening at the Peace Church. I told him it was a concert of Baroque music with Japanese theatre. He asked if it were a free concert. I told him that I didn’t know. I was a guest. He smiled one of the biggest smiles I had seen in a long time. “Ah”, he said, “so that’s how you do it?” Something told me he had his own way to sneak into concerts without having to pay for a ticket. Without giving it much more thought at the time I did expect that he might somehow show up at the concert. Now, though, I am quite sure he did: El Duende was never so alive, never so present, as at the Ausonia concert in the Peace Church at the Place of the Green Gate, in the grounds of The Palace Without Concerns.