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Symphony No.6 "Birds and Angels," Op.113 (2013)

I. Bird in Right

II. Forgetful Angels

III. Bird in Left

What is a Symphony? 


From its early Baroque origins, the symphony is an evolving form. Finding clarity in the Classical four-movement scheme, the Romantic symphony brought emotion-driven ambiguity. Beyond the 20th century, the symphony becomes a broader term, but the many composers who have made their mark with it, continue to give the form a benchmark for serious musical work. It is the equivalent of the literary novel, a form for the composer to express their vision in a substantial medium across multiple movements. Takahashi Yoshimatsu has answered the question with six symphonies, each one different. He writes:


"I have a couple of answers to the question 'What is a Symphony?' It is a structure of sound having tremendous mass and energy, spun out by a system for synthesizing aural effects called an orchestra. It is also a composite of all the musical memories within the human being who composed it. Every human being has in his mind a vast mixture of such passions as hope and longing for harmony, as well as hate and the impulse to destroy. Born in Japan in the latter half of the twentieth century, I possess memories of classical western and eastern music, along with such representative twentieth-century memories as rock, jazz, ethnic music, the avant-garde, computer art, etc. A symphony is a type of format, using the music stave as the software and the orchestra as the hardware, into which are released all one's emotions and memories."


With six symphonies, Yoshimatsu is a bonafide symphonist. His Symphony No. 1, Op.40 (1988-90) of five movements parallel the five cosmic states of Creation. Symphony No. 2, Op.43 (1991-92), subtitled "At terra," frame the composer's thoughts on humanity and earth with requiems in the Asian, European, and African styles. Contrasts of shadow and light are recurring themes in the stormy Symphony No. 3, Op.75 (1997-98). Symphony No. 4, Op.82 (2000) taps into remembered sounds, a musical image of "children at play in the new century." Symphony No. 5, Op.87 (2001) takes a Faustian spin on fate found in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.


Yoshimatsu's sixth and most recent entry, Symphony No.6, Op.113 (2013), offers an autobiographical perspective, a summation of all the composer's prior symphonies mixed with his love and fascination for birds. The Sixth Symphony carries the descriptive subtitle "Birds and Angels," which the composer explains is "a symphonic image of toys related to ʻbirds’ and ‘angels’, a toy box [jack-in-the-box] that I've imagined as a child, the origin of my music, an image of my childhood. It was an idea that I thought could be made into a symphony, a symphony of rural toys that fly like a bird and smile like an angel." Yoshimatsu conceptualized the Sixth as an image of himself opening a toy box on his 60th birthday. The 30-minute work consists of three movements and is a kind of concerto for chamber orchestra with the music depicting a free bird flying in the sky and a transparent angel floating and observing humans.


Departing from the large orchestration of his earlier symphonies, the Sixth calls for a smaller intimate chamber-like orchestra. "There are many excellent small orchestras in Japan," explains Yoshimatsu, "and I wanted to compose works for these groups, so I set towards a symphony that included elements of the countryside and toys, rather than a heavy worldview." To evoke the sound of childhood nostalgia, the percussion section uses ocarina, whistle, naruko shell, and toy piano, giving the central angel movement a unique ethereal atmosphere. "It does not feel symphonic, it's more like a toy box with sound than a toy box symphony, and there is an image of birds and angels on the box. If there is a picture of a monster or spider, they may pop out. But for my toy box, nothing scary will come out," Yoshimatsu assures. "Beethoven, Mahler, and my childhood influences will also pop out in various ways."


The number six has particular significance, a highway to exploring relationships with the sixth symphonies of other composers. The Sixth of Sibelius, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky are quoted as musical recollections of the number six. At 60, the composer commemorates his sixth decade with an autobiography, self quotations. The music still coveys a neo-romantic predisposition, but the music teeters with moments of modernism. Yoshimatsu writes, "the sound of modern music is mixed in, music from the time of my training, rock and jazz writing, and several fragments of my own works. It is a work that contemplates a ʻbirds-eye’ view of my musical life in a sense."


The symphony begins with bird-like calls, trills, quivering fragments, and dance-like gestures in the piano and winds. Sustaining string harmonies swell and recede as gentle breezes. A pulsing harp ostinato leads the work toward rhythmic activity and syncopated punctuations. Eventually, a groove begins, and the entire ensemble enters in various combinations. Over its 13-minute flight time, ʻBird in Right’ is music that escalates into an animated frenzy. If toys in a store could come to life, this music is the sorcery that awakens the dolls, trains, planes, and figurines, first in a poetic ballet of sorts, then with a growing cacophony of mischievous mayhem.


Yoshimatsu begins the 8-minute middle movement with bird songs, trills, and flutters. The solo flute, oboe, bassoon, and harp passages give voice to the avian airs of ʻForgetful Angels.’  Strings linger with mists of sustained harmony, and the percussion instruments evoke childhood nostalgia, elevating the movement into an ethereal sonic kingdom. After a climactic surge, the harp and piano waltz together. Strings take over in an aching chorale; this music comes from Sibelius's Sixth Symphony. Shortly after, the strings speak again; this time with the sorrowful Adagio of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.


Symmetrically, the finale, ʻBird in Left,' mirrors the opening ʻBird in Right' in form, creating symphonic wings in the big picture. Woodwind murmurations prance above sustained strings, and where the second movement gave voice to others, Yoshimatsu gives the last word, quoting his Fourth Symphony and Saxophone Concerto "Cyberbird." When the drum set kicks in, a musical swarm begins. Trumpets sneakily throw in a few whimsical bits from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. It will hide in a swirl of kaleidoscopic activity, and its appearance is tastefully inserted; a proper chuckle is in order if heard. The sequence gradually builds to new levels of avian rapture and pandemonium, culminating in a soaring brass fanfare. A brief coda of swirling woodwinds propels the 8-minute flight to its final destination, one last dive towards landfall, then a final swooping skyward takeoff.


The score calls for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, piano, harp, percussion, and strings. The work was commissioned by the Izumi Sinfonietta and first performed on July 13, 2013, with the sinfonietta conducted by Norichika Iimori at Izumi Hall in Osaka.

© Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai


Enter the animated, pastoral, and psychedelic world of birds, angels, and toys in the music of prolific Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. Maestro Keitaro Harada returns to lead your Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in the final indoor Masterworks concert of the season, including Yoshimatsu’s homage to rock, Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1, the celestial Symphony No. 6 “Birds and Angels,” and the U.S. premiere of Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin’s jazz-fueled Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra with Todd Yukumoto. 

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