Kishi Bashi with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra | 09.17.21, Powell Symphony Hall

Photo of Kishi Bashi courtesy of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

One silver lining of living through a pandemic is the joy of reintroducing old favorite activities. Things we assumed were a normal part of life that were brutally ripped away from us are slowly trickling back into our lives. Things like gathering with other adoring fans to heap appreciation and encouragement on our favorite artists. While shows may look a bit different right now, the experience of a unique, live performance and the opportunity to heap praise on performers (in-person, not just via live chat) is reemerging into our lives. This is a major life enhancement for spectators as well as musicians, many of whom spent the pandemic toying with innovative ways to scratch the live audience itch and generating new material during all that homebound time.

Kishi Bashi’s performance with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was a conglomeration of so many firsts that the tears in my eyes were probably a mix of many parts joy and a few parts remorse. It was the first performance of the full SLSO in 18 months, having kept themselves busy with smaller chamber concerts when deemed safe to do so. It was Kaoru Ishibashi’s first time performing with a full orchestra, finally bringing his imagined sounds to life. It was the first time he presented his composition titled, “Improvisations on EO 9066″—a film to accompany songs from his most recent album, Omoiyari. And for many of us, it was the first time we really considered the experiences and feelings of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were ripped from their homes and confined to Western wastelands as a result of FDR’s executive order during the nationalist hysteria that marred our history from 1942-1945.

To start, Ishibashi (or K, as his collaborators call him) heaped accolades on our beautiful Powell Symphony Hall and its respected history as home to exceptionally talented musicians as well as Conductor Leonard Slatkin, whose recordings he listened to as a child. Dressed in a muted blue suit, light paisley shirt, and bowtie, he told us how spoiled he felt, having his compositions first performed by such legendary musicians, and continued to commend them throughout the night. His vocals initially seemed to suffer under the intimidating weight of expectation, sounding muffled and restrained, but it only took a few songs before he settled in and loosed the vibrant emotion of his voice.

The set opened with a few familiar favorites, including the apt opener “Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her,” and his favorite song to perform live, “In Fantasia.” Of course, every selection now backed by an orchestral arrangement is rendered a bit mightier than its original recording. But “Am I the Antichrist to You” was where I really noticed the remarkable accents the arrangement added, in terms of sounds available as well as the visual element of so many instruments in synchronized motion. A personal favorite, the song opened with delicate, intricately staggered plucking across the strings section like so many raindrops falling, and expanded to incorporate xylophone, piano, and delicate woodwinds. It was chills galore as each new section got swept into the mix.

After a few orchestral numbers, the musicians sat back while Ishibashi picked up his acoustic guitar. For “Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear,” the hall was quiet save the sound of strumming and a little stomping. He encouraged the crowd to clap along, and we tried (with mixed success) for a few bars. Followed by “Angeline,” these selections from Omoiyari shifted us to a softer, more somber mood and appropriately transitioned us to Ishibashi’s multimedia creation.

Japanese internment is one of those atrocities in American history that we look back upon and shudder, acknowledging it was an ugly, shameful mistake, but that’s where we stop. We collectively devote little energy to unpacking the meaning of that abomination. As a matter of fact, “Improvisations on EO 9066” was borne of Ishibashi also realizing how little he knew about this experience. He told us that once he started overturning the stones, he felt compelled to invest his talents into putting a face and a feeling to the events that occurred, which from his perspective told a story of paranoia, oppression, confusion, despair, and resilience.

The video elements showed a mix of Ishibashi playing his violin at the markers of former internment camps he had visited, along with images of life in camp—people boarding the train to their relocation site, children at camp school, couples holding hands, young men hanging out and smoking cigarettes. It reminded me of Life is Beautiful, with people attempting to live life despite the absurd and outrageous treatment they received from the government. The immersion in songs and images of daily life emphasized how real the horror was for so many and how little consideration we had given it up to that point, followed closely by the realization that these images are at once completely foreign and uncomfortably familiar. One particular quote to come across the screen—Mark Twain’s famous “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”—roused a murmur from the audience, which was otherwise eerily silent. Throughout the composition, we weren’t sure whether or not to break the silence with applause, so we didn’t for a stretch of songs, so sickening and chilling was the visual component.

When the composition concluded, Ishibashi and the orchestra left the stage, some taking their instruments with them. We thought the performance was over. And you know what—it made sense to me. We sat in our seats for a moment, pondering. Eventually, we made our way to the lobby and found the lights flickering, the bell chiming. There had been no announcement of an intermission, so we were not alone in thinking the evening had concluded, as ushers advised people not to leave but to return for the second half.

The second set covered more classic Kishi Bashi territory, with a lively “Philosophize in It! Chemicalize with It!” and Ishibashi at the keys for “Can’t Let Go, Juno.” I’ve seen him perform several times before, and one on my favorite aspects is how he recreates his carefully recorded harmonies via vocal arrangements across the touring band. The orchestra certainly filled this space with elaborate and gorgeous sound, but that element of voices in chorus was still noticeably absent. Apparently, Ishibashi felt the absence, too. His effort to guide us in three-part harmony was more successful than the earlier clapping, and we filled the space in “Honeybody” with a cheery singalong. 

Word of advice: find someone who looks at you the way Norman Huynh, guest conductor, looks at Ishibashi. Conducting in an unconventional black Nehru jacket, Huynh is known for bringing classical music to nontraditional venues. Their mutual appreciation for innovating on classical art forms was apparent in the way Huynh, with rapt attention, seamlessly managed one eye on Ishibashi behind him and another eye on the entire orchestra before him. His smizing nod at the end of each selection shone with pride and appreciation at their collaborative accomplishment.

And while some enthusiastic applause onstage suggested there were Kishi Bashi fans among the musicians, the admiration became apparent when Ishibashi stated, “Norman wants to know when I’m going to do some looping.” Finally giving us a taste of the intricate sound layering for which he is renowned, he closed with an incredible version of “Atticus, in the Desert.” Musicians in all sections craned their necks around one another to watch the process in action. Now in his element, Ishibashi alternately tickled and sawed away at his violin, tapping pedals, replaying and altering sounds, piling them up, wiping them away, and building them back again. It felt like so much pent-up nervous energy finally released in a crashing wave of victory. And to Ishibashi and Huynh, I have to say—mission accomplished. I left in that gleeful daze of satisfaction at how I spent my Friday evening—enriched by a glorious musical feat, determined to learn more, and inspired to spend more time at Powell, basking in our world-class symphony orchestra. | Courtney Dowdall

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