There are a lot of capital letters in TAIKOPROJECT. Part of me wishes this talented company could have put a little more of that same show-biz OOMPH in the concert performance it brought Saturday night to the Shaghoian Hall.
Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t looking for “STOMP,” the long-running Off-Broadway smash which has perfected a musical-theater-style percussive extravaganza over the years. I realize that TAIKOPROJECT is a more seriously musical endeavor — a much more defined ensemble using bona fide instruments (instead of garbage can lids, say) and drawing upon the rich cultural heritage of traditional Japanese drumming.
But, like it or not, TAIKOPROJECT is doing its thing in a world accustomed to the high production values and theatrical through-line of “STOMP.” And it’s clear that TP, which is what I’ll call the company for short to preserve precious capitals, aspires to at least some of that entertainment gloss. Choreography, lighting design, costumes and humor all play a role. This is no staid chamber music concert.
That said, I walked away from Saturday’s performance (sponsored by the Lively Arts Foundation) completely impressed by the musicality of the event and not so much by the presentation.
One factor was the Shaghoian itself. While the acoustics are marvelous, the infrastructure just isn’t there in terms of the lighting grid. TP needed more a more sophisticated lighting design — one that could help differentiate individual performances and sway the audience’s attention from one character on stage to another. I think this hall is a marvelous place to hear music, but I question its suitability for professional touring acts with more significant production values.
I’d also love for TP to step it up when it comes to its choreography. Perhaps it was just the way the evening’s program turned out, but the physical movement of the musicians didn’t have the polish I was expecting. This was mitigated somewhat by the cheerful stage demeanor of the company members, but, again, I wanted a little more visual punch.
All that said, Saturday’s event really had a fine musical sensibility. I was intrigued by the varying percussive sounds that seemed to float into the audience: a rustle here, a whish there, a slap, a thud. Most of the pieces on the program ebbed and flowed in terms of dynamics and intensity, with many ending in a near hush — which was extremely effective.
I was also impressed by the sophistication of the rhythms. There was something gentle about the way the arrangements slowly built, layer upon layer, almost like the reverse of peeling an onion, until eight or 10 instruments were interacting with flawless synchronicity. There were times when I thought to myself: “What in the world is making that particular noise?”, and it was great fun scanning the ensemble pairing up the musicians with the sounds they were making.
By the end, when the TP musicians dragged out an enormous 330-pound monster of a drum, I finally found myself connecting with the performance on an emotional level. When the woman banging the big drum put down her two medium-sized mallets and substituted them for a baseball-sized implement, you could hear the crowd murmur appreciatively. When it comes to drumming, perhaps size does matter?