Okeanos Reviews

Praise for Tokaido Road

‘…Tokaido Road is an existential journey in speech, song, mime and dance…LeFanu’s sensitive use of the combined western and Japanese sound palette of the Okeanos ensemble…is meticulously thought through, with spare instrumental lines exquisitely woven with the voices. Every word is audible, every movement is eloquent, and Kimie Nakano’s design remains long in the mind’s eye.’ 
Hilary Finch – ★★★★ The Times

‘Staged at the Parabola Arts Centre, the first performance of Nicola LeFanu’s new music-theatre piece Tokaido Road was a festival highlight.  Librettist Nancy Gaffield provided a text based on her own collection of poems.  Incorporating narration, song and mime, the exquisite results were based on the life of the Japanese landscape artist Hiroshige’s woodblock print series 53 Stations of the Tokaido, and images of these pictures were screened above the live performance, adding another layer to the experience.

The principal protagonist is Hiroshige himself (baritone Jeremy Huw Williams), who appears as a young man, Hiro, making an epic journey and also as an old man recalling the trek. The women he encounters are Kikuyo, an apprentice geisha (soprano Raphaela Papadakis) and Mariko, a teahouse mistress (mezzo Caryl Hughes) and his memory is embodied by a mime artist (Tomoko Komura).  At the end, the mime leaves as the old Hiroshige sings his own epitaph.

Written for the ensemble Okeanos, the instrumental accompaniment consisted of oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, viola and cello, together with sho (Japanese mouth organ) and plucked koto.  These forces, effectively blending western and Japanese instruments, were used sparingly, always adding point and colour, and sensitively conducted by Dominic Wheeler.  The staging was meticulous and atmospheric, with director Caroline Clegg keeping the narrative flowing and allowing space for every character to communicate meaningfully.  Tomoko Komura’s mime, combining grace and energy, was a particular delight.  Tokaido Road was a true collaboration of several talents and a particular triumph for Nicola LeFanu, whose wisdom and experience illuminated this, her ninth score for the stage.’
Paul Conway – Musical Opinion

‘…(The Composer’s) response managed not only to reconcile east & west but also to convey simultaneously both propriety & passion. Hiroshige’s longing to revisit & relive the past—replete with pleasure & pain in equal amounts—was palpable; yet this felt like a fundamentally ordered act of anecdote, the slightly hard-edged nature of LeFanu’s music echoing some of the spare writing with which Britten furnished his church parables. Gaffield’s text, no doubt informed by the immediacy of Japanese poetry, cuts out all superfluities, & LeFanu’s music did the same. It never became outright ritualistic, but the work’s presentation—cushions & banners, subdued lighting, back-projected images, the ensemble at one side—didn’t feel that removed from a kind of stylised temple setup… the kind of safe space needed for LeFanu’s introspective drama to play out; reminiscence, regardless whether the memories are good or bad, is invariably painful in some way, &, although cathartic, there was an omnipresent sense of melancholy.

It’s not often one experiences a piece on this scale that’s so emphatically intimate throughout. Everything about the work, from its soundworld to its modus operandi, takes some getting used to, but the combined effect is of a delicate & rather beautiful honesty. One of the closing scenes, where the character of Mariko sang to her baby while the koto made soft sounds akin to a western harp, was just one of many such exquisite moments. It may all be in the mind of an old man from a far-off land, but the stuff of memories at the heart of Tokaido Road is something to which we can all very intimately relate.’

‘…The composer describes this as a hybrid work not shaped solely through the singing voice but with both aural and visual elements including dance…Not every composer who attempts to marry eastern and western is successful, but I had no such reservations about Nicola Lefanu’s efforts. The strong Oriental character of the music reinforced the stylised nature of the drama…the musicians of Okeanos…are past masters of blending eastern and western instruments…

There is always a danger of drifting into a mood of nostalgia for the good old days, but Tokaido Road avoids portraying an idealistic version of Old Japan.…Tokaido Road deals with a world very unlike our own, this original and unusual work speaks with an honesty and clarity which I found profoundly moving. A Japanese lady I met afterwards was similarly impressed.’
Roger JonesSeen & Heard

Other reviews

 ‘…never less than intriguing, and often entrancingly beautiful. Dai Fujikura’s Okeanos Breeze is a brilliantly virtuoso use of Okeanos’s rich palette…’
Ivan Hewitt – The Telegraph

‘…most mysterious of all the Okinawan lute. This was played by Robin Thompson, who also sang an ancient Okinawan vocal form. The spectacle of such exotic sounds emerging from this tall, studious-looking Englishman was just as moving as the music itself.’
Ivan HewittThe Telegraph

‘…the players were wonderful and it was great to hear this Japanese traditional music presented so simply and unpretentiously. It made an ideal intro to Okeanos.’
Sarah Bruce – Lomonaco Artists Management

‘…the evening had a really nice atmosphere and was quite enjoyable. What I thought was really great about the event though, was that the performers themselves reflected the influences both countries have had on each other. With foreigners playing, dancing and singing in Japanese, and in turn Japanese performers singing in English…you honestly couldn’t celebrate 400 years of friendship any better way.’
Nihon in London

‘I fervently hope that there will be an opportunity for audiences farther afield
to savour what these adventurous musicians are now doing, and its real
Musical Pointers

‘This early evening concert of unknown music was a high point of the City of London Festival.
It was superbly conceived…Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Galaxy for sho made a powerful effect played by Robin Thompson up in the organ loft. The concert finished with the UK premiere of his work for a trio of Japanese instruments, played to superb effect by three British players, Bell and Thompson with Melissa Holding koto virtuoso. They had earlier been combined variously with oboe (Jinny Shaw), clarinet (Kate Romano) and viola (Bridget Carey) with complete success. Dai Fujikura’s Breeze Trilogy…has grown into a viable tri-partite work with movements for plucked viola and koto and a third for sho, clarinet and viola, delectable combinations. Judith Bingham’s new The Cruelty of the Gods effectively featured koto with oboe, and her Guildhall School of Music & Drama pupil Mai Fukasawa provided Forgotten Psalm, an ambitious celebration of the Tanabata (Star Festival) about the annual reunion across the Milky Way of legendary lovers each July 7th; auspicious for London’s anniversary of its 7/7 tragedy marked by a nation-wide two minutes silence that morning.’
Peter Graham Woolf – Musical Pointers

‘The finale was a five-section work in which Okeanos demonstrated how East and West can create instrumental synergy…the sho was magnificent, taming the oboe, clarinet, and viola with its ancient, petrified purity.’
Michael Church – The Independent

‘A recital by the Okeanos ensemble brought the premiere of Anthony Powers’s Riverwork, a setting for the fetching combination of mezzo-soprano (Karina Lucas), oboe, viola and harp of a short poem by Irene Noel-Baker. Powers’s sinuous counterpoint beautifully captured the ripple and cascade of water. The piece was ravishingly well heard and all too brief.’
Paul Driver – The Telegraph

‘The full repertoire of Okeanos contains the names of composers who would be unknown to many of us, thus making it clear how faithful this group is to its intention of ‘creating opportunities for young composers and initiating pioneering performance events’. They further fulfil this by the quality of their performances. They are a group who have fully mastered the technical demands made on western instruments by contemporary classical composers, along with the special skills required to play a number of traditional Japanese instruments. Their concert at the Du Pré Building included two premiere performances, one UK premiere and the personal appearance of three composers, which made it a unique event in the world of new music in Oxford.’
Paul Medley – The Oxford Times

‘Friday’s late-night concert, in the more intimate St Paul’s Hall, continued the east-west theme, as the chamber ensemble Okeanos shifted the focus from China to Japan…the fleeting Touch of Breeze by the young Dai Fujikura, whose Okeanos Breeze closed the concert. This was a compelling and original finale from this talented Japanese-born, UK-reared composer.’
The Observer

‘…a kaleidoscope of vivid colours and some wonderfully lyrical writing. Dai Fujikura’s Okeanos Breeze. Full of tension, colour and ensemble drama, the work is recognisably Japanese from a mile off, but it was Fujikura’s first work to include traditional instruments.’
The Wire

‘The new music heard is a little hard to characterise and, for those of us who have devoured non-Western music over the years, the excitement was the natural blend with Okeanos’s core instrumentation, and not the exoticism of the mixture. One surprising innovator was the Japanese born Dai Fujikura, now well established in international new music circles, who told us that he had never heard traditional Japanese instruments until he heard them at a Darmstadt summer school when he was 20!’
Musical Pointers

‘The combination of western instruments with the Japanese koto, sho and shakuhachi…inevitably produces a sound tapestry that places both new horizons and particular constraints on a composer. The first three pieces by Dai Fujikura showed immediately how bright, varied and energising the possibilities are.’
The Oxford Times

‘Probably the most mouth watering new music programme in this year’s (Hereford Three Choirs) Festival…Okeanos Ensemble gives premieres of works by Judith Bingham, Birmingham-based John Joubert and Leamington-based Howard Skempton, as well as compositions by Judith Weir, Nicola LeFanu, Elizabeth Maconchy and Priaulx Rainier.’
Christopher Morley The Birmingham Post