Toru Takemitsu, nearly a decade after his death at 65, remains Japan’s best-known composer. His many concert pieces and more than 90 film scores echo Debussy, Messiaen, and Webern, as well as traditional Japanese music. But the largely self-taught Takemitsu maintained that his ultimate masters were Duke Ellington and nature.
Saturday night, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project presented a stirring tribute to Takemitsu, including two memorial pieces, one by up-and-coming Japanese-American composer Ken Ueno, the other by well-known, Chinese-born Tan Dun.
The concert opener, the world premiere of Ueno’s Kaze-no-Oka (Hill of the Winds) (2005), featured Japanese masters Kifu Mitsuhashi on shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and Yukio Tanaka on biwa (Japanese lute).
The piece began with the orchestra alone. Dense, slowly shifting microtonal sound-masses -- earthy rumblings against ethereal chord-clouds -- painted a vast, brooding aural landscape.
The shakuhachi and biwa kept quiet until the orchestra faded. Then, like a cinematic far-shot cutting to an intimate close-up, Mitsuhashi and Tanaka began a hushed, urgent colloquy, their nuanced brush strokes stark against silence.
Dun’s gimmicky Water Concerto (1998) came next. The soloist was the accomplished Boston-based percussionist Robert Schulz, who had a field day performing this literally splashy piece. Using his hands to drip and slap the water contained in large bowls, then plunging various objects in and out of them, he created a full array of aquatic sounds. Unfortunately, Dun’s broad orchestral backings evoked generic film cues.
The concert’s second half was all Takemitsu. The strikingly unified and richly chromatic Requiem for Strings (1957) was caressed to haunting life by conductor Gil Rose and the BMOP strings. ‘Three Film Scores, a suite spanning 30 years of Takemitsu’s work, was nothing more or less than movie music of the very first order.
Finally, November Steps (1967) brought the Japanese instruments back. Takemitsu considered this to be his first fully successful merging of modern Western and traditional Japanese idioms. The hard-won secret was to juxtapose rather than blend. Each tradition is rendered both more strange and more familiar as it successively bows and makes way for the other.
Takemitsu’s sweet clash of cultures, shot through with silence, was engagingly embodied with gentle ferocity by Mitsuhashi, Tanaka, and the BMOP.
By Kevin Lowenthal, Globe Correspondent