Otakon 2007
Eminence Concert Part 2

by Jonathan Mays, Aug 20th 2007

After a break for applause, Marciniak picks up where Ito left off: a half step lower in the same octave and with the same nostalgia. Yura gently introduces the first verse of Totoro's theme as Ito decorates each short phrase. Just as Choe teases the first notes of the main theme, three sheets of Yura's music catch a draft from stage left, and the pages sail over his head. He doesn't flinch. Choe finishes the tease and launches into a series of rapid eighth notes, setting the new double-time tempo for Ito, who takes the melody for a moment before returning it to the cellist.

Yura punctuates the handoff and sneaks off to recover one of the missing pages under Kao's competent cover. He's back just in time for his own melody line. Choe's having a grand time, bobbing her head with every note she plays. Yura can't help himself either: his hair waves wildly as he drives a long slur of notes into a joyful string theme.

Not content with three or four good theme arrangements, the strings use the repeat for tremolo and trills under Ito's brisk piano work. Kao and Marciniak play a brief duet, and Yura senses the opportunity to retrieve another missing music sheet. Ito glances over and smiles to herself. Marciniak's eighth notes get slower and slower: changing the mood, or simply buying time? Yura hurries back, looks to the audience, and puts his index finger to his lips. Seconds later, he reaches down and secures the final rogue sheet, signaling his success with a thumbs up to the crowd. What a shame that the sideshow came in the middle of a splendid moment between the viola and piano.

How many spins can the Eminence quintet put on Hisaishi's themes? I've counted six in Totoro alone. And gosh, they're all so good. The latest one gives Yura and Kao's highest strings a workout: both instruments soar through a stratospheric scale while Ito takes the melody and Choe minds the low harmony with Marciniak. All the strings get into the melodic action when the key kicks up from G to E major. Marciniak wraps the refrain on his own, launching into a double-time descending scale with eighth note support from Choe. The second pickup is sloppy: Yura, Kao, and Ito are maybe a quarter of a beat apart in the harmony. Ito joins the scale fun for the third repetition, and Yura ends the piece on four scales in the opposite direction, each one higher, louder, and more out of control than the last. When he hits the final note, Yura tears his bow away from the string. That deserves a standing ovation, and the audience knows it.

Marciniak and Kao leave the stage in the middle of the delirium. Squall enters and crushes the mood: “Bathroom break, maybe? No, this next piece is for some different instrument combinations. But Hiro, if you're having a problem with your sheet music, you know I can just stand here and just—” Yura slides into Kao's chair.

“The next piece we're going to hear today is a lesser known work by the master Hitoshi Sakimoto from his soundtrack Lia: 'Kanransha', which means 'Ferris Wheel' in English, followed by, from Gundam Seed, 'The Song,' and finally, another piece from Princess Mononoke, 'Beyond the Clouds.' Enjoy.” Terrence, now a page-turner, takes a seat next to Ito.

“Sorry, Michael,” Yura says. “'Beyond the Clouds' is from Beyond the Clouds.” The audience chuckles, taunts, and applauds.

Written for solo vocals and piano, “Ferris Wheel” translates nicely for Yura and Ito. She opens straight into the melody, and he follows about ten seconds later. The piece is not a technical challenge, but Yura does his best to sell each octave-spanning phrase. He moves up a half step into the chorus, which does wonders for the depth of the piece. Choe, after adding barely a note of accompaniment so far, joins Yura for a unison verse. Ito's bridge is fine but leaves little room for expression. Yura repeats the verse a third time an octave higher and in the chorus's key, and twice more from F, with the piano descending by half steps the final time to add tension. The one-beat bail out to the chorus in its original key leaves Ito in an impossible position, but she suffers the jump and reunites with the others. Perhaps to make amends, it is she who gets the final crack at the chorus. Ito ends the piece on a long, patient arpeggio.

"Ito wraps the melody in symmetry, and the piece comes to a close with a building storm of tremolo from the strings."
Applause, and Marciniak returns to teases of “Arrr!” from the audience. Kao reclaims his seat from Yura. The violist opens an instrumental cut of “Anna ni Issho Dattanoni,” the same one that started Chiaki Ishikawa's concert at Anime Expo three weeks ago. The violins pick up the brisk G minor fugue before returning it to the Marciniak and Choe and opening the first verse, which they then hand to Ito, who then returns to the fugue. It's kind of convoluted, but I guess it works.

Even as Ito, Yura, and Kao soar on the melody, Marciniak's line cuts through the chorus. The entire piece is dominated by one little phrase that wasn't even in Kajiura's original score. As if to drive the point home, the fugue line folds into a unison phrase that produces more sound than even the last repetition of the chorus. But it's not over yet: there's one more run of the fugue, starting with Marciniak and building to Ito once again. The quintet is flawless. The arrangement, maybe not so much. Far be it for me to pick apart an accomplished composer like Toshihiko Sahashi, but it seems clumsy to throw a fugue on top of a pop anime theme. Either way, the audience loves it.

The lights go red for Tenmon's “Beyond the Clouds,” which Yura opens with a faint tremolo at the tip of the bow. Ito marks each note change with a single tap or terse arpeggio. Marciniak joins the tremolo for two cycles. They maintain their speed into the second phrase, cruising at more than half a beat per second faster than the soundtrack recording. It's a good move; the soundtrack starts to drag there. The string players perform with Baroque discipline, allowing a pause between each note. Yura climbs the scale in part three of the introduction, moving one step higher every three beats as Kao, Choe, and Marciniak swell underneath him. They hold on a high G, waiting for Ito to meet at the end of a long arpeggio.

After Ito resets the pace for four measures, Yura introduces the long awaited melody. Ten seconds later, Marciniak takes over with a brisk development section. Yura and Kao weave through the harmony, handing it to Ito in time to join Marciniak for the repeat. Then Yura puts his own low-register spin on the melody. The development breaks down, leaving the string players with a single, soft chord. Ito wraps the melody in symmetry, and the piece comes to a close with a building storm of tremolo from the strings.

Cheers and applause. Then Terrence: “Backstage you can actually see those big screens from the other side, and I was just noticing, and I've noticed this before, and what I'm about to say I'm probably going to get killed for after this, is that, when you look at Minah on the screen, she's always got this pretty, cheerful face when she plays music. Have you noticed that?” Applause and acknowledgment. Choe looks for somewhere to hide.

“I think some of the other musicians could take a lesson from this. I think you guys need to look a bit happier”—Yura fakes a smile—“'cause we are playing some really cool music. It's better than all that classical stuff that you trained with.

“The next four pieces come from the Studio Gonzo animation Romeo X Juliet, so at this point in time, I'd actually like to bring out, again, our star of the day: Hitoshi Sakimoto.” Applause. “I'm going to ask him a few questions, and we'll just see what he says.”

Yura, preparing to translate: “Testing…”

Terrence: “So, welcome to Baltimore. Welcome to Otakon 2007. First question: Have you been to Baltimore before, and is this your first anime convention?”

Yura: “This is the first time he's been to Baltimore. He says it's a very clean city and—” Much laughter.

Terrence: “What's your impression of Otakon in general?”

Yura: “It's really, really lively. He's heard of how crazy it can be, but it's exceeded his expectations, and cosplay and stuff like that is cool. Apparently he went down to the dealer's room and bought a lot of t-shirts, but I saw him buy a lot of yaoi—” More laughter. “He bought two t-shirts of hentai, and then after rehearsal yesterday afternoon, he went, 'Look, Hiro, I think I'm gonna get another one.'”

Terrence, joking: “I cannot officially endorse that Eminence likes hentai and yaoi and things like that. Okay, on to business. Romeo X Juliet was Hitoshi Sakimito's first large-scale anime project. My question is: how did you feel receiving such a large commission? That is, in job, not pay.”

Yura: “He said something like it was a huge commission and he was very excited. Because it's Romeo and Juliet, he had to put a lot of elements of love into it. Since there's an element of love, he thought he couldn't do it with a synthesizer. So he was looking for an orchestra, and he knew me from before, and he said he loves my violin. It's not because he's used to my music flying everywhere, but he actually plays with good sound and good performance.” To Sakimoto: “Thank you.”

Terrence: “We've had a long relationship, Eminence and Hitoshi Sakimoto. Professionally, we've had many memorable moments on stage, in concerts, and in recordings. But we've also have many memorable moments behind the scenes. Could you give us some insights into some behind-the-scenes memorable moments, off stage, after work, off duty perhaps? Either on Romeo X Juliet or just in general.”

Yura: “Eminence understands a lot of anime and game music very well. So when we did a project before, I actually got a screen to show some scenes of the upcoming show for which we were recording. In a normal orchestra, they'd just look at it and go on. But for Eminence, there was a lot of reaction among the musicians. Apparently we liked it very much and made fools of ourselves.”

Terrence: “Finally, do you have any comments you'd like to make to everyone in the crowd?”

Yura: “I'm very happy to be here.” Applause. “Today, hand-picked players from Eminence are playing. The normal players are very good, but these are the best of the best. So I'm very excited, and I'm sure you're enjoying it, too.”

Terrence: “Thank you, Mr. Hitoshi Sakimoto.” The composer leaves to a standing ovation.

“If you would really like to get in his good book, bring a lot of beer to the autograph table. And also bring a lot of beer for him, too. Our next four pieces are four tunes from Romeo X Juliet.”

The first piece, like “Beyond the Clouds,” is in triple meter and revolves around a brief melody. Ito introduces the wistful theme after a five-second introduction. Yura and Choe respond, and then Yura takes the melody, with Ito answering the call. Marciniak and Choe break up the action with a descending scale, but Yura resets the melody within a few seconds. Ito introduces a fresh melody, which Yura and Kao repeat several times as Marciniak blurs the line between harmony and counterpoint. Two unison chords bring the short piece to a swift end.

The second…movement, I guess, is a minor key variation on the first. Ito sits this one out, placing the burden squarely on Yura. Marciniak also fills in more of the melody, leaving Choe to the harmony and descending scale. Otherwise, the two-minute piece plays about the same: balanced, understated, and simply beautiful.

Ito returns for the third movement with a graceful solo melody. Yura and Kao bow their heads as Ito rolls through mid-range eighth notes, slowing slightly from time to time. A little more than a minute later, the strings join with long harmony notes, tremolo, and eventually development. After a full repeat of the first passage, Ito reaches for a B flat, marking a sudden change to a new melody. Yura follows in unison through a glowing partial scale in the new E flat major key. He and Ito play the last eight notes of the melody four times. Marciniak, Kao, and Choe meet them at the long final note, and Ito makes one last pass with an apreggio. Hesitant applause, as if to stay out of the way.

Terrence leaves his station by the piano. There will be no page turning help for the final movement. Ito opens with a steady series of notes, perhaps a bit faster than the ones that opened the concert. Yura bounces through the frantic, chord-heavy melody. Marcinak, then Kao, take over with considerably easier arrangements. Ito holds the pace, moving hand over hand as Yura tears through chords, breaking only for an interlude alongside Marciniak's tremolo. Yura's performance is confident and pitch perfect even in difficult passages. Marciniak gets in a few good chords, too. The piece ends in spectacular fashion: Yura crashes on a chord, and Marciniak, Choe, and Ito stomp the last few beats.

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