When it comes to J-music bucket lists, seeing Joe Hisaishi live in concert easily tops my list. For a long time now, I figured my only opportunity to hear him perform his Ghibli music would be to go to Japan. But the combination of Hisaishi’s advancing age and a low likelihood of me taking an overseas trip in the near future meant that my being able to check off that item would not come to pass. So when the announcement came out that Joe Hisaishi would be coming stateside to conduct and perform with Symphony Silicon Valley, taking the trip up to the San Francisco Bay Area was a no-brainer.
The somber passages from Nausicaa’s “The Legend of the Wind” that opened the concert signaled that I’d be in for a treat. The piece carried a powerful current of nostalgia that swept its way from Joe Hisaishi’s piano to the audience. As the images from the film flashed across the screen up front, I was enthralled by his performance and teared up as the sentiments from Nausicaa bubbled up the surface.
Never mind the fact that Hisaishi, at 67 years of age, no longer has the supple fingers needed to dance on the piano like some hotshot virtuoso. What the concert lacked in technical perfection it made up for in its heartfelt mixture of awe, wonder, and delight! Joe Hisaishi, backed by the Symphony Silicon Valley, would unleash melodies that endured in their timeless expressions of grandeur and representations of humanity.
The former was on display through works like Princess Mononoke’s “The Legend of Ashitaka”. The Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale plunged us into the depths of the film’s magic and mystery, setting the tone for the adventurous motif. The motif then segued into the “Demon God” with its concentrated intensity and dreadful vigor. Ponyo’s “Deep Sea Pastures”, with its outpouring of color, was equally grand in its vivid visual accompaniment. But what truly brought both suites to life was Soprano Lisa Vroman. Her beautiful voice gave Princess Mononoke its hallmark haunting tones and wrapped the audience in a soothing, motherly atmosphere when she sang Ponyo’s “Mother’s Sea”.
However, it was Hisaishi’s melodic depictions of humanity that proved most riveting in its live setting. Kiki’s Delivery Service was jubilant as the string section bounced and rolled along in “Town with an Ocean View” before it capped off with “Mother’s Broom’s” sentimental violin solo. The music of The Wind Rises took a different angle, beckoning to dreams tinged by bittersweet sorrows. But the most emotional piece the Symphony Silicon Valley performed was the romantic “Bygone Days” from Porco Rosso, which whisked along to bring out the characters’ dreams, desires, and doubts.
Mai Fujisawa, Hisaishi’s daughter, also performed at the concert with a beautiful refrain during Spirited Away’s “One Summer’s Day”. But where she excelled most was when she sang “Hey Let’s Go” and “My Neighbor Totoro”. The buoyant, happy melody brought a smile to my face, and I found myself bobbing along to the delightful theme. The students of the Reedley High School Symphonic Band also made an appearance when they marched in to perform “Doves and the Boy” from Laputa. Though their inclusion was probably the biggest head-scratcher of the evening, they acquitted themselves well with the fanfares before letting Hisaishi usher in the soulful “Carrying You”.
The encore also proved to be a must-see. Porco Rosso’s “Madness” made its thematic component known, creeping in through Hisaishi’s lyrically seductive phrasing. That was followed by “Ashitaka and San” from Princess Mononoke to close out the concert. Its melody was fitting, offering a sense of finality, but also a warmly inspiring feeling of renewal which had the cheering audience out of their seat in exuberant applause by concert’s end.
Note: Joe Hisaishi will be performing in Los Angeles on September 21 at the Microsoft Theater. Ticketing information can be found here for those interested in seeing him live.