Naoko Takada may be among the best classical marimbists on the planet, but, as she showed at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night, she has the heart of a jazz musician, too. In a recital that ranged from Bach to tangos to complex contemporary works, Takada seemed to dance with her marimba as much as play it, and she brought a kind of spontaneous, playful charm — maybe even a little flirtatiousness — to almost everything she played.
There’s not a lot of classical music for the marimba, but its woody, soft-edged sound translates well, and “Choro No. 1” — a jazzy work originally for guitar by the Argentinian composer Augusto Marcellino — took on a rich, sensual power in Takada’s hands. Her own improvisations on the familiar Japanese folk song “Sakura” (“Cherry Blossoms”), though, were even more impressive. Shimmering, impressionistic, delicately colored, Takada’s playing seemed to conjure a whirlwind of petals in a weightless and constantly changing dance.
Not everything worked quite as well. Her reading of the gigue from Bach’s Suite No. 2 for cello was rushed and a bit disappointing, especially since it followed a riveting account of Bach’s magnificent “Chaconne” (from the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin), to which she brought thoughtfulness and depth.
But the most striking works of the evening were the ones Takada had commissioned over the past decade. She brought a lyrical touch to Joseph Pereira’s haunting but dancelike “Five Pieces for Solo Marimba,” while Chin Cheng Lin’s “Tango for Naoko” was colorful and almost cinematic in scope, giving Takada a chance to put her virtuosity on full display.
It was Paul Fowler’s “Michiyuki” (“The Road to Death”), though, that provided the most emotionally intense music of the evening. Built around an ancient Japanese tale of a double suicide, it’s a shadowy work full of tolling bells and murmuring ghosts, and at its climax, Takada drew her mallet across her throat as if it were a knife — a theatrical touch that she pulled off with chilling perfection.
Brookes is a freelance writer.