By Chris Barylick
For The Diamondback
Dozens of audience members gathered Sunday for the University of Maryland’s annual spring koto recital at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
The recital — a collaboration between the university’s Japanese Koto Ensemble and the Washington Toho Koto Society — was directed by Kyoko Okamoto and introduced audience members to traditional koto music, complete with players dressed in traditional Japanese attire.
The two-hour concert was a celebration of spring and nature. The group played traditional instruments including the koto, the shakuhachi and the sangen while incorporating vocal performances.
Bill Hickman donated his late wife’s koto. He attended Sunday’s performance because he thought it was time to see a koto concert again.
“It was heartening to see new students and I thought they performed well and of course the ones who are more senior, including teachers and so on, I thought they did a spectacular job,” Hickman said.
Between performances, Ilsa Yǐn, a doctoral student in the university’s ethnomusicology program, explained the cultural significance and history behind each song and shared facts about the instruments.
Those involved in the production encouraged students to look into the koto classes this university’s music school offers, even if they don’t have much music experience.
“I do hope students could, even if they can only take it for a semester, could come have a hands-on experience and try it,” Yǐn said. “The way East Asian traditional music is taught, the aesthetics, the notations, the playing skills could be completely different from what they have known.”
After 51 years, Sunday’s performance was Okamoto’s last time directing the annual spring koto recital. She is retiring from her position as lecturer and director of the Japanese Koto Ensemble at this university, but will remain director of the Washington Toho Koto Society.
“This has been such an incredibly unique experience,” said Indy Dorman, a senior Japanese major who performed at the recital. “Okamoto Sensei is one of the best senseis that I’ve ever met just as a teacher, as an instructor and as a person.”
George Mobille, a university alum who plays with the Washington Toho Koto Society, said koto class and its recitals exposed him to a new genre of music.
“It’s a really special sound that the instrument has, and the whole process of learning how to read the score in Japanese, and then learning their different musical style … just grew on me,” Mobille said.
Mobille also said that although koto music can be seen as a very traditional genre, there’s still room for creativity. Traditional koto scores don’t have much direction about tempo, dynamics or techniques, leaving pieces open for interpretation by teachers and players, he said.
For others, like Stevens Miller, a lecturer in the university’s computer science department, the concert was an opportunity to reconnect with his upbringing.
“I thought it was awesome. I was born in Japan, and I don’t remember anything about it,” Miller said. “In a way, I feel a distant connection, but it’s only made real when you’re actually hearing or seeing something like this, so it was beautiful and uplifting.”