Review: Gagaku, Festival Theatre

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Apparently the oldest form of orchestral music still surviving anywhere in the world, the Gagaku tradition as experienced at a packed Festival Theatre last night is a million miles away from that of the Cleveland Orchestra playing along the road at the Usher Hall.

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Not just instruments, but dancing, masks and costume, too, the spectacle of the Imperial Court Music and Dance of Japan transported to Edinburgh was visually breathtaking.

Ritualistic, slow-moving and disciplined, the instrumentalists sat kimonoed and cross-legged within a sort of red-lacquered square fenced pen, on a grass-green brocade mat. Fifteen players strummed, plucked, struck and blew a whole range of traditional Japanese instruments, the double-headed kakko drum a mesmerising front-line presence.

Strangely spellbinding to Western ears unaccustomed to ancient Far East tonalities, a choral chant started with a mournful sounding solo before repeated tutti sections from the all male performers.

With the addition of sumptuously dressed dancers for the second half of Bugaku, another facet of the ensemble’s artistry was opened up.

Stylised and deliberate in peachy colours, every step or arm movement was considered and meaningful, whether masked as dragons or with swords, spears and shields in a pre-battle dance for good luck.