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SCRUTINY | Composer/Conductor Joe Hisaishi And The TSO Create A Magical Night In Toronto

By Denise Lai on June 21, 2024

Conductor/composer/pianist Joe Hisaishi and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
Conductor/composer/pianist Joe Hisaishi and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Hisaishi Conducts Hisaishi – Joe Hisaishi: Symphony No. 3 “Metaphysica”; Ravel: La valse; Joe Hisaishi: Spirited Away Suite. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Joe Hisaishi, conductor, June 20, 2024 at Roy Thomson Hall. Repeats June 21 & 22; a handful of tickets remain, check here.

Imagine the scene at Roy Thomson Hall last night: scores of young concert fans cheering loudly for their idol. This same demographic would be expected at a Taylor Swift concert, but instead, they had paid a premium price to see a septuagenarian with almost the same rockstar status.

Joe Hisaishi — legendary conductor, pianist and prolific composer — hailed as the “John Williams of Japan,” he is most known for his compositions of musical scores for anime films produced by Studio Ghibli. Because of his Ghibli fame, it might be a surprise to many that he has composed three symphonies. Last night, he conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the first of three sold-out performances, opening with his third symphony, composed in 2021.

Symphony No. 3 “Metaphysica” was commissioned to commemorate the New Japan Philharmonic’s 50th anniversary. Hisaishi wrote that the symphony is “structured around the movement of sound itself.” He is said to be inspired by Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which uses the same quadruple woodwinds instrumentation.

Tonally, however, Hisaishi’s three-movement symphony employs no fixed key, and many atonal elements that bear little resemblance to Mahler. This symphony combines influences of jazz and electro-pop, creating a unique sonic landscape. The overlapping of instruments and dissonant sounds evoke the feeling of chaos, yet somehow an underlying order seems to exist.

Conductor/composer/pianist Joe Hisaishi and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
Conductor/composer/pianist Joe Hisaishi and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Under Hisaishi’s methodical conducting, the TSO was up to the technical challenge, yet the sense of connection between them seems missing. Although the symphony’s title suggests metaphysical exploration, inviting reflection on existence and reality, it is not an easy piece to comprehend. But, perhaps, like the mysterious nature of metaphysics itself, it leaves room for listeners to find their own meaning and emotional resonance within its harmonies.

The second half of the program opens with Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.” Despite its name, it begins ominously with the quiet rumbling of double basses. Various instruments are gradually layered on, until the principal waltz theme emerges like a blooming bouquet. Hisaishi lead the TSO through an articulate and energetic reading, drawing robust dynamic contrasts. Bringing life to Ravel’s romanticism and lyricism, the almost-100 full orchestra transformed Roy Thomson Hall into a grand Viennese ballroom.

The best was yet to come. The concert’s most anticipated highlight was, undoubtedly, Hisaishi’s signature Ghibli music. On the program was the “Spirited Away Suite” from the Academy Award-winning animated feature film of the same name.

Conductor/composer/pianist Joe Hisaishi and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
Conductor/composer/pianist Joe Hisaishi and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Allan Cabral/Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

When Hisaishi sat down at the piano, the audience erupted in the loudest cheers I have ever heard in Roy Thomson. As he played the first chord of “One Summer’s Day,” the audience breathed collective whispered excitement. The enchanting score contains elements of Hollywood, Disney and traditional Japanese music, along with lush orchestration and piano melodies that sound whimsical and delicate at the same time. The suite’s secondary theme, “The Reprise,” is a deeply intoxicating melody that I am sure brought a few misty eyes. The only thing missing was live projected images from the movie to complement the score, the addition of which would have elevated this experience even more.

At age 73, Hisashi is a slight but spright figure. There is nothing more special than a living composer playing his own work. When Hisaishi plays Ghibli music on the piano, he is completely in his element, giving a performance that is very intimate and personal.

After a long standing ovation, the audience went wild when he sat down for an encore, playing “Merry-Go-Round of Life,” perhaps his most famous piece, from the film “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Again, the mesmerizing music transported us all to the magical world of anime.

There could not have been a better finish to such a sublime evening.

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Denise Lai
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