When Japan first opened its doors to European music in the late 19th century, it was love at first sight — first with the great Romantic-era composers, and soon with the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. The romance has endured, and Thursday night at the Freer Gallery, the young Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio (with Katherine Chi on piano) explored its legacy, turning in rich, full-blooded accounts of two works by Brahms, some wildly colorful Ravel and music by contemporary Japanese composers that showed how interconnected the two musical cultures have remained.
Still in her 20s, Kamio is a world-class virtuoso — she won a gold medal at the 2007 International Tchaikovsky Competition — with exceptional power and a fine sense of drama, as she showed in the Scherzo movement from Brahms’s “F-A-E” Sonata. It’s an early work, but still full of Brahmsian melancholy and rolling pathos, which Kamio brought off with great sensitivity. Brahms’s more mature Sonata No. 1 followed, delivered with a ravishing tone and polished to gleaming perfection. Perhaps, to some ears, even a little too perfect. For all the power and virtuosity of Kamio’s playing, she never really seemed to reveal much about herself, and there was little of that sense of spontaneity — the intimate, risk-taking depth — that can make Brahms such a profound human experience.
Toshio Hosokawa’s 1994 “Vertical Time Study III” is a rather severe and academic work, built out of spare musical gestures punctuated by periods of silence. It’s unmistakably rooted in late 20th-century European modernism, but it has a distinctively calligraphic and Zenlike beauty, which Kamio brought out in a limpid reading. More immediately charming, though, was Shinichiro Ikebe’s music for the film “Catharsis” — evocative melodies for solo violin that combined folklike simplicity with great sophistication.
But the showstopper of the evening was Maurice Ravel’s gypsy-flavored “Tzigane,” a tour de force for violin full of bluesy bent notes and lavish exoticism. It’s a piece that begs to be played extravagantly, and Kamio and Chi pulled out the stops for a bravura performance that brought the Freer audience to its feet.
Brookes is a freelance writer.