Classical: In the Moog

ISAO TOMITA ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LONDON
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The Independent Culture
ABBA AND Tubular Bells we recognise, but what about Isao Tomita? In the 1970s, his synthesiser versions of the classics were huge: first out of Japan was a Debussy album, Snowflakes are Dancing, then a spectacular re-imagining of Holst's Planets swept the West. Later he disappeared into film and television studios. The recordings vanished too, their technology soon sounding quaint. Now here he was in London, back not only with updated equipment but with the full London Philharmonic Orchestra, a line-up of Japanese string and wind instruments, and a 48-section video wall.

This new toybox was partly a showcase for Pioneer, sponsors of the concert, which drew a large and inquisitive audience, not all from the audio business. No doubt about it, the wall was the highlight. It blasted into action with the launch of a space shuttle and for the next half-hour showed brilliant, high-resolution, slow-moving shots of planets and nebulae. For this Future Space Fantasy Tomita took the stage alone, adding live sampling to the pre-programmed sequence.

It's that "future" in the title that gives the authentic 1970s flavour. Tomita dipped in and out of his Planets favourites, orchestrating them with a quirky but fetching mix of ancient Moog sounds and inventive echoes across the loudspeakers all round the hall. His linking soundscapes sprang from the old spaced-out style and gradually took on more definition. About half-way through, his style seemed to be gelling, like Prokofiev's, with soaring violin tunes and ticking accompaniments. Except that this was real Prokofiev, a symphonic slow movement matched to a long-held view of Earth from space. All you needed were some interesting substances to smoke, but it created its own magic anyway.

The main event, The Tale of Genji, was subtitled a "symphonic picture scroll". The tale is an 11th-century epic, recently popularised by the writer Jakucho Setouchi, who showed her face to rapturous applause from those in the know. To those who weren't, the elliptical music-and-picture version needed reference to the crib sheet. This wasn't a major obstacle, since mood and atmosphere were both sharply delineated.

Conducting his score, Tomita proved a master of the long phrase and the exquisitely orchestrated sound, in an idiom not so far from Prokofiev. Except that this was Western-sounding only on the surface: as with Takemitsu, the music's sense of continuity and timing follows other rules. The Japanese instruments, including a king-size koto with 25 plucked strings, took solos from time to time; the electronic enhancement was discreet.

On the screens, images of classical art gave way to frames of flowers and wildlife. An hour of it had its narcotic effect, especially since the music lingered too. The project pandered rather easily to a heritage Japan, yet Tomita can scarcely imagine an unlovely sound, the visuals were intensely beautiful, and the whole performance crept under the skin with a lasting impact you might not expect from the sum of the parts.

Robert Maycock

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