Kodo’s Rigorous Drumming with Carnival Trimmings

Kodo's "Hekireki [photo (c) Takahashi Okamoto]

Kodo’s “Hekireki” [photo (c) Takahashi Okamoto]

For several decades, the popular Japanese performing ensemble Kodo has coupled the austere traditional discipline of taiko drumming with the requirements of commercial entertainment. Friday (Feb. 6) this enterprising team brought its latest traveling show One Earth Tour 2015: Mystery to San Diego’s Balboa Theatre, courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society.

Since the ensemble’s last visit in February 2011, many things have remained unchanged, including the military precision of these athlete musicians, the verve with which they execute each work, and their evident reverence for the spiritual aspect of the taiko tradition.

Stately processions brought drummers, flutists, and players of curious handheld percussion instruments onto the stage; various permutations of round dances heightened the energy of Kodo’s brilliant ensemble drumming.

Kodo's "Ajara" [photo (c) Takashi Okamoto]

Kodo’s “Ajara” [photo (c) Takashahi Okamoto]

Following Kodo’s own performance traditions, the pulse of the program’s second half built steadily until the largest drum was brought forward to anchor the explosive finale, “Hekireki” with mussic by Masayuki Sakamoto, which not only thundered sonically, but sent propulsive physical vibrations that each audience member experienced in their solar plexus. I kept thinking of the William Kraft Timpani Concerto that Ryan DiLisi, the San Diego Symphony’s Principal Timpanist, performed with the orchestra last fall in Copley Symphony Hall. When it comes to sheer power, these ancient Japanese drums make western orchestral timpani sound modest indeed.

And the changes since 2011? Most noticeably, five female drummers have joined the previously all-male troupe. The newcomers’ well-honed skills, as well as the entire ensemble’s new uniform, sleek black costume design, have successfully integrated the women into many of the company’s 18 works on Friday’s program.

When members of the troupe intoned a chant or sang in austere three-part harmony (e.g., Eri Uchida’s “Harewataru”), the texture brightened with the addition of the higher female voices. But two of the works, especially “Chit-Chat” with music also by Uchida—four women striking small, handheld percussion instruments to simulate a female gossip session—portrayed the women in what struck me as overly stereotypical skits. But, as a colleague pointed out to me, these scenarios may have roots in traditional Japanese stage or folk culture.

The subtitle of Kodo Artistic Director Tamasaburo Bando’s touring program is Mystery, which he explained in an introductory note, “the mood of mystery that theatre-goers experience when they meet at a temple or a shrine, or . . . in the forest—places that are removed from daily life.” Bando evoked this sense of mystery by keeping the Balboa stage dark or dimly lit while processions of drummers illuminated by hanging lanterns (cleverly suspended on invisible wires over each drummer’s head) traversed the stage in cleanly delineated cadences.

Complementing mystery with dazzle, Bando added brightly colored, massive serpent puppets that sported fierce dragon heads; they slithered in kaleidoscopic formations stage center, while the drummers worked their magic in a large semi-cricle behind them.

"Hekireki" with drummer and serpent [photo (c) Takahashi Okamoto]

“Hekireki” with drummer and serpents [photo (c) Takahashi Okamoto]

The cumulative experience an entire evening of this kind of drumming can indeed be profoundly spiritual. In his program note, Bando expressed the hope that his audiences would “leave with a sense of purification.” I pray that he understands how even the few cute carnival additions to this year’s tour diminish a sense of purification.


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Balboa Theatre
868 Fourth Avenue San Diego CA 92101
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