Saturday, April 30

On Cherry Blossom Lane

Despite all the programmatic abuse they have been put to, down the centuries, songs or poems written with the intent to praise or embody that which is local, even where this means "characteristic of an entire nation," have often impressed me. I have a weakness for songs infused with a love of country, songs that cultivate all that is deemed national in character, whether it be particular objects or, less concretely, types of observations or manners of expression. This is true no matter where the particular songs emanate from.
Of late, I have been listening to Japanese folk and art songs. One particular performance had me in a trance: the counter-tenor, Yoshikazu Mera, performing Yoshinao Nakata's "Cherry Blossom Lane" (さくら横丁). Japanese lyrics about cherry blossoms have always inspired me with indifference, irritation, or outright repulsion, despite or also because of the fact that I find cherry blossoms to be enjoyable. My response is generally similar to the annoying tendency of certain Japanese to claim distinction for their country's having "four seasons."

Mera, however, knocks the cherry blossoms aesthetic down to the dimensions of an individual's emotions. His counter-tenor voice is equal parts lightness and power. Its intensity creates and sustains a vivid impression of walking under cherry blossoms on a mild evening of spring, conversing with the leaves in lieu of an absent lover. Although that is, perhaps, the stated scenario of the song lyrics, Mera reproduces it with a vocal vivacity that is neither affected, conservatory, or strained.

In the liner notes to "Nightingale: Japanese Art Songs," one reads of this song that it "expresses a typical Japanese sense of beauty." I might receive this claim with skepticism, feeling perhaps that a cherry blossom boast was lurking within it, if I did not know the work that inspired it. And, precisely, this made me wonder what exactly this "typical sense of Japanese beauty" might be.

It is true, for one, that when he sings European music, Mera's voice does not really shine. The Bach Collegium with which he performs produces too much amplitude. Next to Mera, all its calculated cadences and rule-tested harmonies distract and bore. Mera is not given the full command he deserves. Perhaps it is also true that Mera excels at performing Japanese compositions. Why might this be, I wonder?

As for "Cherry Blossom Lane," after a few introductory arpeggiated piano variations on A minor that add a seventh note or reverberate an E in the bass, the first note that is sung -- an F -- lands atop an A minor chord before resolving downward to an E. This way of beginning a melody on a dissonant, falling half-step conveys the sorrowful mood of the entire piece. The downward step is sung to the two-syllable word for "spring" (haru, 春). The aspirated syllable, an apparent gasp, further marks the emotion of the piece with perfect economy. The element of intrigue builds as the word "spring," sung in this dark manner, is followed by that for evening (yoi, 宵). Subsequently, the scene is set with the word "sakura" (さくらが咲くと), which, in English, would have to be translated in the long-winded and somewhat fumbling and obtrusive words "cherry blossoms bloom."

Rather than drawing out my appreciation of this piece line-for-line as I am tempted to do, I will leave it to others to listen to this or other performances by the brilliant Mera, a singer whose career seems to have been brief.