By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Joe Hisaishi, famous for his work with Studio Ghibli, returned to the Seattle Symphony in January for a week-long residency, something Hisaishi has never done before with any orchestra. During the residency the week of Jan. 8 through Jan. 14, Hisaishi led the way with activities and performances, both of his own work and works close to him through his Music Future program.
Seattle Symphony Vice President of Artistic Planning Raff Wilson told the Asian Weekly how this historic residency came about after a 2022 appearance. Hisaishi had originally been slated to visit Seattle in 2020, when “the COVID-19 pandemic made this impossible.” At that time, Seattle’s loyal audiences “held onto their tickets for more than two years,” until the Symphony could find a window to present Hisaishi and his music in 2022.
“The concerts were very special,” Wilson continued. “We knew how beloved Joe Hisaishi’s music is, but the concerts were still overwhelming and emotional as a result. Everyone had waited for so long for him to come! When those concerts were done, we immediately re-invited Joe Hisaishi to come and share more of his brilliant music.” Thus the residency’s origins.
Hisaishi, born Mamoru Fujisawa in Nagano, Japan, became famous for his work with filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, starting with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984. He has since worked with Miyazaki on several films, including the most recent, The Boy and the Heron. Anyone will quickly tell you, though, that while the Studio Ghibli scores are more than enough to comprise anyone’s career, Hisaishi is much more. Known as a minimalist composer, and famous for the emotion he imbues into his work, especially piano, Hisaishi has creations outside of Studio Ghibli, which he shared with Seattle as part of “Joe Hisaishi Presents Music Future” on Jan. 10.
The Asian Weekly was able to sit in on the rehearsal for this concert, particularly as the musicians practiced MKWAJU for MJB, one of Hisaishi’s own compositions. Hisaishi, who did not use a translator, was nevertheless able to efficiently communicate his desires for the piece to the musicians, who in turn rapidly picked up on all of his suggestions. The hour-long rehearsal demonstrated the professionalism and expertise of both the Symphony players and Hisaishi.
“I probably watched the Ghibli movie, Spirited Away, at least 26 times with my son, who is now in college. If Hisaishi’s music wasn’t in the movie, I don’t think I would have watched it that many times,” Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, principal trombone player at the Seattle Symphony, told the Asian Weekly. Yamamoto performed with the orchestra during “Joe Hisaishi Returns” Jan. 12 through Jan 14. His favorite piece, Symphony No. 2, was on the schedule, along with two other pieces: I Want to Talk to You, almost wholly played by strings; and the famous Princess Mononoke Symphonic Suite, with soprano Serena Edjule singing the wistful lyrics.
“His musical works have no borders,” said Yamamoto. “His talents are so extraordinary and rare. Not only for the Asian communities here, but for all, I would highly recommend everyone to come and see his works performed live.”
Shows were sold out as those aforementioned loyal audiences showed up in droves. Many wore or carried trademark Studio Ghibli gear, and more than one tear was shed during the performance of these pieces which mean a lot to so many people.
“There are just a handful of living composers who have become truly ‘iconic’ and Joe Hisaishi is one of them. The world first came to know his music through the way he perfectly matched it to the whimsy and drama of the Miyazaki films,” said Wilson. “This residency will showcase other facets of his amazing career.”
While in Seattle, Hisaishi also gave his time to our youth. On Jan. 11, he participated in a “Youth in Conversation” panel, which involved aspiring musicians from SAM’s Teen Art Group, TeenTix, Coyote Central, ArtsCorps, Key to Change and Speak With Purpose and the 2022/2023 Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop.
There is something special about witnessing someone truly passionate about what they do. On Sunday, Jan. 14, Hisaishi bounded onto the stage, dapper in a black suit, and immediately took up the first piece of the concert, Symphony No. 2. Comprised of three parts, the music could be likened to accompanying a roaring river on its descent from majestic mountains. Along the way, you will encounter rapids, twinkling fish, and animals coming alongside to drink. There might be a lull, somewhat melancholy, when you will find someone lolling in a boat, but then there will be a rushed flurry as a flock of birds takes off, and you revel as you pan out to see the entire landscape below you. The point is, Hisaishi’s music tells stories. Whatever his original intent, the mind and imagination cannot help but create images as the evocative music plays.
On Sunday, Hisaishi generously gave the eager audience not one but two encores, the latter of which, Merry-Go-Round of Life from Howl’s Moving Castle, caused a spontaneous audible rush of excitement to erupt from the listeners. While the hall still reverberated with applause and cheers, Hisaishi walked away with a wave. Coming away from a Hisaishi performance, you realize you have been in the presence of a living legend.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.