Koto Meets Quartet: Yumi Kurosawa and the Lark String Quartet
Yumi Kurosawa, koto
Deborah Buck, violin
Basia Danilow, violin
Kathryn Lockwood, viola
Caroline Stinson, cello
Midare (Disorder) (1661–73)
Yumi Kurosawa, thirteen-string koto
Yumi Kurosawa, twenty-string koto
|Daron Aric Hagen
Genji, a concerto for koto with string quartet or orchestra (2011)
Maiden on the Bridge
Floating Bridge of Dreams
Vanished into the Clouds
Kengyo Yatsuhashi (1614–1685)
Midare (Disorder), for thirteen-string koto
This composition played a decisive role in establishing the koto as a solo instrument. It demands a free and unrestricted interpretation, which shows that, although the composer lived in a feudal society, he possessed a strong sense of freedom. This piece is called Midare (Disorder) because it does not have a standardized number of notes in every part.
Yumi Kurosawa (b. 1975)
GreenPt, for twenty-string koto
The composer notes, “When I wrote GreenPt, four years had passed since I had moved to New York, and I was thinking about my nature. Born into the Japanese traditional music environment, I grew up listening to rock and pop and other genres as well as hearing my sister play classical piano in the next room. I wrote this song, combining my personal tastes at random.”
Daron Aric Hagen (b. 1961)
Genji, a concerto for koto with string quartet or orchestra
Daron Aric Hagen is best known as an opera composer. Perhaps not surprisingly, this almost operatic concerto is based on one of the great works of literature, the eleventh-century Tale of Genji. The son of a Japanese emperor, Genji is relegated to commoner status for political reasons. The long and complex story of his life unfolds during the course of the novel, partly through a recounting of his relationships with women. The concerto follows the seminal story of how Genji falls in love with a woman not by seeing her but by hearing her play the koto from afar for many years. As a result, the concerto is in five “scenes,” each three to five minutes in length, with the conceit being that their love is never consummated.
This commission is Hagen’s first venture into writing for an instrument from a non-European culture. He immersed himself in the repertoire and traditions of the koto and combined “the koto’s magisterial past” with his own musical experience, using the long life of this instrument to convey new ideas and emotions for a twenty-first-century audience. As he explains, “Music’s subtlety and abstraction are, for me, ideally suited to an exploration of Genji. Although certain extra-musical associations are inevitable when one has chosen chapter titles from a book as movement titles as I have, I’d like to stress that this concerto is not a programmatic work. Rather than constructing a through-story or narrative for the piece, I have chosen five psychological situations from the novel and explored them as one might explore them in an opera without words.”
Among Hagen’s other major commissions are Philharmonia, for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic; Much Ado, for the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute of Music; and The Waking Father, for the Kings Singers. Other commissions include the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Milwaukee Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Seattle Symphony. He has written major concertos for Joel Fan, Gary Graffman, Soren Hermannsson, Sara Sant’Ambrogio, Jeffrey Khaner, Jaime Laredo, Michael Ludwig, and Sharon Robinson. Among his other compositions are works for the Amelia Piano Trio, the Borromeo Quartet, Music from Curtis, Present Music, and Voxare String Quartet.
—Notes on Hagen's Genji adapted from notes by Meg Fagan
—Notes on Midare and GreenPt by Yumi Kurosawa
Yumi Kurosawa was born and raised in Japan and began studying the thirteen-string koto at the age of three under her parents’ instruction. She added the twenty-string koto at the age of fifteen and studied under Nanae Yoshimura. She earned first prize at the national competition for students in 1989 and 1992 and received a scholarship from the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan in 1998. She appeared with the Prague Cello Ensemble at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, in 1996 and on the NHK television program Genji-Wakana in 2000. Kurosawa also studied computer music while attending Keio University.
In addition to many performances in Japan, Kurosawa has toured in Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Russia, and the United States. In 2002 she moved to New York to broaden her range of collaborations and has since appeared at the Apollo Sound Stage and Joe’s Pub, on WNYC radio, and at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Her first CD, Beginning of a Journey (2009), features her own compositions. This year she appeared as the soloist for world premieres of Daron Hagen’s koto concerto Genji with the Lark Quartet in New York and with the Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom. She is a member of the Hougakuten Concert, Tokyo, and has achieved master qualification in the Seiha school (style) of koto.
The Lark Quartet delights audiences with its energy, passionate commitment, and imaginative artistry. The members, all soloists in their own right, form a “polished and warmly communicative ensemble” that delivers “a performance of grace, proportion, and burnished brilliance” (Washington Post).
The Lark has recently embarked on several new ventures, such as The Lark Quartet + Friends, inspired by the quartet’s collaborations with percussionist Yousif Sheronick and the Ethos Percussion Group; its CD Klap ‘Ur Handz; and commissions of new works by Paul Moravec, Giovanni Sollima, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. With the quartet at its core, the Lark has furthered its collaborative aims with programming that features Stephen Salters (baritone), Sheronick (percussion), and guest artists Jeremy Denk and Gary Graffman (piano). These programs incorporate a broad range of styles that includes elements of music from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as jazz, minimalism, and classical Western chamber music.
The Lark has long been active in commissioning and premiering new music. Many of these works have become mainstays of the chamber music repertoire and include Aaron Jay Kernis’ Quartet no. 1 (Musica celestas) and Quartet no. 2 (Musica instrumentalis), a 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner; Peter Schickele’s Quartet no. 2 (In memoriam) and Piano Quintet no. 2; Jennifer Higdon’s A Poet’s Dream; Early That Summer, by Julia Wolfe; and Viaggio in Italia, by Giovanni Sollima. Upcoming commissions include William Bolcom’s Billy of the Darbies, for baritone and string quartet, and a new work for string quartet and percussion by Glen Velez.
Like American composer Daron Hagen, whose concerto for koto and string quartet is heard on this podcast, visual artists in the West have long turned to Japan for inspiration. One of the first to seriously embrace Japanese aesthetics was James McNeill Whistler. He produced a fusion of East and West while searching for a new form of artistic expression in the 1860s. Here, young women dressed in kimonos are surrounded by Japanese objects and framed against the river Thames. One figure poses with a Japanese shamisen (lute). Whistler probably drew upon his personal collection of kimonos and Japanese woodblock prints, notably Torii Kiyonaga’s Twelve Months in the South (1784), for this composition.
Yumi Kurosawa (center) performs koto with the Lark Quartet at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Washington, DC, premiere of Daron Hagen’s concerto Genji. From left to right are Deborah Buck, violin; Basia Danilow, violin; Yumi Kurosawa, koto; Caroline Stinson, cello; and Kathryn Lockwood, viola.
Yumi Kurosawa performs koto with the Lark Quartet at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Washington, DC, premiere of Daron Hagen’s concerto Genji. From left to right are Deborah Buck, violin; Basia Danilow, violin; Yumi Kurosawa, koto; Caroline Stinson, cello; and Kathryn Lockwood, viola.
Pictured are Yumi Kurosawa (center) and the Lark Quartet following the Washington, DC, premiere of Daron Hagen’s concerto Genji. From left to right are Deborah Buck, violin; Basia Danilow, violin; Yumi Kurosawa, koto; Caroline Stinson, cello; and Kathryn Lockwood, viola
Podcast, notes, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. Web design by Liz Cheng and Melda Washington, audio engineering by SuMo Productions and Andy Finch, photography by Neil Greentree, image management by Cory Grace, and text editing by Joelle Seligson. Special thanks to Yumi Kurosawa and the Lark Quartet for granting permission to podcast their performance at the Freer|Sackler.
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