Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

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makoto nakura, as personable as virtuosic

December 20, 2008

These comments are a bit belated, and I apologize, but I have an explanation, if not an excuse. This is a busy time of year for us all, I’m sure, and, on top of it all, I’ve had a computer glitch to rectify. But, all’s well that ends well…

We were among that multitude at Royce Hall last Sunday evening who leaped to their feet in spontaneous applause at the conclusion of the US première of Pierre Jalbert’s marimba concerto. I can only say “Right on!” to Richard Ginell for his excellent review in the Los Angeles Times. Also, I concur in David Garcia’s desire, expressed in his “LACO Newbie” blog, for a “third encore”; I was hoping for one of Nakura-san’s transcriptions of Bach, perhaps the first Gavotte from Bach’s sixth cello suite…

But mostly, I wanted to share with you my perception of Makoto the person. Besides the interview with him, we were privileged to attend his Musicale on Wednesday evening and the LACO rehearsal on Thursday evening, and we were among the guests who dined with him after Sunday’s concert.

Makoto is as personable as he is virtuosic, as genuine and humble as you would hope a world-class artist to be. Here is an example:

Unlike many piano virtuosos, Makoto does not travel with his own instrument; he plays whatever marimba his hosts around the world provide for him. There is a risk to that practice, however: being handmade, each marimba is different; the “keys” vary in width from instrument to instrument, and the space between the keys may be narrower or wider. Therefore, when he is playing with four mallets, for instance, they need to be held and spaced differently, depending upon the instrument upon which he is playing. The “muscle memory” gained from hours of practice on his own marimba is thus of limited use when playing another instrument. Makoto had only one hour to practice on this instrument, and to attain new “muscle memory,” before rehearsing with LACO for the first time on Thursday! Yet, he took this obstacle humbly and uncomplainingly in his stride, as I’m sure he does repeatedly.

Another example: The rapport Makoto had with LACO’s music director Jeffrey Kahane was instant and readily observable; no prima donna* he. As the two of them worked out the details of the concerto (and of communication), Makoto was obviously accommodating and flexible; both he and Jeffrey confirmed tempos and interpretation on several occasions with Pierre Jalbert, the composer, who was in attendance. His admiration for LACO’s musicians was genuine and generous. Parenthetically, LACO musicians are incredibly good readers and “quick learners”; I don’t think I have ever seen a first rehearsal of a difficult and unfamiliar work go more smoothly.

At the Musicale, Makoto demonstrated himself to be warm, gracious and approachable, and enthusiastic and knowledgeable as a teacher, not in the least patronizing. In answer to a question, he assured us that, due to the size and insulating qualities of the wooden “keys,” the marimba resists the effects of temperature and humidity and stays quite well in tune. He further stated that the marimba is an ancient instrument, its actual age, unknown. The first examples consisted of a piece of wood placed over an open hole in the ground, which served as a primitive sounding chamber. Eventually, pieces of wood of different sizes were tuned, and hollow tubes of different lengths were used as sounding chambers. Makoto explained that the marimba belongs to a group called “mallet instruments,” made with “keys” arranged in the pattern of those of a piano, and played by being struck with mallets, often made of hard rubber and covered with wool or cotton strands. The group consists of small and large instruments with wooden keys (the xylophone and the marimba), and small and large metal keys (the glockenspiel and the vibraphone). After being struck, metal keys continue to vibrate and make sound much longer than do wooden keys. Therefore, the vibraphone has a foot pedal to dampen the sound when desired; a foot pedal for this purpose is unnecessary on a marimba. (The vibraphone also has a series of oscillating discs that alternately open and close its sounding chambers, producing the instrument’s characteristic vibrato.)

Since the sound made by striking a wooden key extinguishes so quickly, a marimba player must be creative to maintain a longer, continuous sound. He does this by striking the key repeatedly and rapidly, called “tremulo,” giving the effect of a legato tone. In Sunday’s concert, Makoto demonstrated this effect beautifully in Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” At low volume, one could hear an almost continuous sound; the percussion of the mallet striking the key was nearly inaudible.

Makoto explained that the sound of a marimba is almost infinitely variable, depending upon the characteristics of the mallet used to strike it. Mallet heads can be small, firm and hard, making a sharp, crisp, bright sound; they can be large, of softer rubber, and wrapped with a thick layer of wool or cotton thread, producing a sound that is softer, warmer, darker; or they can be anywhere in between. They can even be differently shaped, like an oval, a sphere, or even a mushroom. Makoto shared that he has more than 400 different mallets for a variety of different sounds. In fact, he chooses mallets very carefully, delaying the final decision until the sound check before each concert; the mallets he selects depend upon the sound characteristics of the concert hall in which he is playing. For Sunday’s concert, he had preselected 20 mallets.

He makes all his mallets himself and is meticulous in their preparation and care. Unfortunately, one of his mallets was inadvertently destroyed during his stay in LA, but Makoto accepted the fact with his accustomed grace and good humor. How, you may ask, was the mallet destroyed? Well, that is a story for another time…

*I am using the term prima donna in its broader sense as “a vain and temperamental person,” not as in the Italian: “First Lady.”

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