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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Tokyo Summer Festival: Gilles Apap


The Tokyo Summer Festival is a renowned name in world music festivals with a history stretching back to 1985. Imaginative programming, high quality acts, and marketing flair have made this festival a summer institution in the Japanese capital.

A look at themes from past years reveals a history of academically-inspired eclecticism, leaning, if anything, towards nationality. The very first Festival in 1985 was ‘”Music, Exoticism and Orientalism” – The Maturity and Transformation of Occidental Music’, and since then it has covered the music of Russia, the USA, Paris, German Romanticism, the Gypsies, Italy, India, as well as such approaches to music as comedy, ballet, cinema, women, literature, and, last year, the ‘cosmos’.

The organization behind the Festival is the Arion-Edo Foundation headed by Ms. Kyoko Edo and deriving its classical appelation from the 6th century Greek poet Arion, whose singing so enchanted the dophins within earshot that they saved his life after his being cast into the sea by barbaric sailors. The Foundation is devoted to making extraordinary music as widespread, accessible and understandable as possible, and sponsors an annual young musician’s award for that purpose.

The theme for this year's Tokyo Summer Festival, the 22nd, is 'Songs of the Earth/Music in the Streets', focusing on the music of the people as opposed to the music of the privileged. I, however, was privileged to attend one of the Festival’s concerts this afternoon, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ “reinvented by Gilles Apap”. Vivaldi’s music made a comeback in the 20th century partly because it was precisely what this year’s Festival is all about: music that rebels against intellectualism, appealing directly to the senses.

Gilles Apap, introduced in the program as ‘the violinist of the 21st century’, is a much-feted violin 43-year old prodigy who studied under the late Yehudi Menuhin. I too the JR Chuo line to the Musashino Civic Cultural Hall in Musashino City, Tokyo, to see him play.

‘The Four Seasons’ was performed by the Zappa-esque-sounding ‘Colors of Invention’, a quartet consisting of a violin (Apap), an accordian (Myriam Lafargue), a contrabass (Philippe Noharet) and a cembalo (Ludovit Kovac). It began with a foot-tapping rhythm beat out on the body of the contrabass, was taken up by the players whistling while they worked, Apap playing his violin like a banjo, getting up and walking around to jam with the other players, and more.

The sound was pure magic, not only in its imaginative eclectism of area, age and style, but in its execution too. There is something of the joker and the demon in Apap. He is the life and soul of his ensemble, and his simply getting up and wandering over to the other players visibly imbued them with an extra dose of verve. He smiles – he almost winks. He transmits himself through his eyes and demeanor every bit as much as through his music.

And what music! Throwing the ettiquette of musicianly form out the window he embodies only the essentials of what form it takes to perform his art. In other words, no coat and tails, semicircle of black chairs, or po-faced 'maestro-ism'. Rather, humor, repartee, and comaraderie allied with a perfect piston of a bow arm and a posture built around evoking beautiful sound from his instrument.

Apap’s range is enormous. There is a ruthless element to his playing, free of vibrato, where he almost seems to sit back from his instrument and watch it. The violin is unerringly swiped and fingered, producing a tone as sharp and glistening as broken glass with the power of something electric. Then there are those passages where he leans right in, listening to the heart of his violin as does a lover or a doctor, and with that unerring right arm and that dancing left hand drawing out of it long licorice sweetness.

I was surprised how perfectly the accordian complemented the sound of the violin. Reeds and strings have more in common than I had imagined. The astonishingly agile Myriam Lafargue on the accordian engaged in a solid-hued partnership with the virtuosity of Apap’s violin. The contrabass did exactly what its name says: it counterpointed, and with an aptness that at times spilt over into the droll, drawing chuckles. The cembalo was almost a world of its own that adorned the rest of the ensemble with an extra dimension of soft, starry sound.

Thank you Vivaldi, ‘Colors of Invention’ and the Tokyo Summer Festival for expanding the world of my musical experience! There is still more. Performances go on until August 5. Go here for more details of the Tokyo Summer Festival.

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