Japanese guitarist Shin-ichi Fukuda, highly acclaimed in Europe and Asia and a favorite of composer Leo Brouwer, is less well-known in the U.S., despite being at the peak of his career. In a much-anticipated second San Francisco appearance on Saturday night, following his debut in 2008 when David Tanenbaum invited him to perform at the Guitar Foundation of America Festival, Fukuda impressed and moved the audience with an uncommonly substantial program, presented at Herbst Theatre by the Omni Foundation and San Francisco Performances. The highlights included the San Francisco premiere of Brouwer’s El arpa y la sombra, two substantial works by Bach, and a late work by Toru Takemitsu, and were further enlivened by the heartfelt Romanticism of Enrique Granados and stirring renditions of classics by Joaquin Rodrigo and Astor Piazzolla.
The program began with the Sixth Cello Suite, the last and grandest of Bach’s music for solo cello. The Prelude begins as a joyous exploration of resonating open strings, then flowers into an exultant cascade with spiritual overtones. Fukuda pulled listeners into this world with a sensuously beautiful tone and kept them engaged with color and dynamic changes that clearly delineated Bach’s intricate design. Bach’s cello suites are exquisitely paced, and I was disappointed Fukuda didn’t play the Allemande or Courante. That said, his performance of the Sarabande, meant to be the emotional heart of the piece, was both lyrical and sublime. The Gavottes and Gigue, while lacking the implied folklike dance energy, were fleet and impressive. Fukuda’s second set of Bach excerpts, this time from the Second Violin Sonata, had similar highs and lows. The opening Grave and Fugue were omitted; the idyllic Andante created a hypnotic effect with a constant pulsing beat in its lower voice; and the concluding Allegro was given a bravura performance that lacked dance energy but was a model of dynamic control and formal clarity.
Fukuda impressed and moved the audience with an uncommonly substantial program.
Takemitsu’s In the Woods is inspired by a subtle, contemplative vision of nature, and achieves a remarkable synthesis of traditional Japanese music, the French Impressionism of Claude Debussy, and American jazz. Each of the three movements, “Wainscot Pond,” “Rosedale,” and “Muir Woods,” is named for an American site of natural splendors. Fukuda gave a beautifully improvisatory performance infused with melancholy and created a feeling of great spaciousness in a short time span with his meticulous attention to nuances of color, duration, dynamics, and silence.
The two halves of the concert were linked by Brouwer’s Homage to Takemitsu, El arpa y la sombra (The harp and the warrior). This major work, written in Brouwer’s idiomatic, passionately emotional, and programmatic late style, was given an excellent San Francisco premiere by Fukuda, who is also the work’s dedicatee. I hope a San Francisco orchestra will soon program Brouwer’s related work, Concerto da Requiem, in Memoriam Toru Takemitsu, a work also dedicated to Shin-ichi Fukuda.
Fukuda met every demand of this difficult work with aplomb.
The remainder of the evening was dedicated to more-familiar repertoire. Granados’ lyrical and romantic Valses poeticos was an excellent choice to follow Brouwer’s intense modernism, and Fukuda perfectly captured its veiled references to Scarlatti Sonatas, Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Fukuda began Rodrigo’s magnificent homage to Manuel de Falla, Invocation y danza, with great subtlety and proceeded to weave an impassioned, intricate pattern of melody and broken chords that he finally released in a fiery Spanish dance. Fukuda met every demand of this difficult work with aplomb, from the demanding tremolo and brilliant runs to the conclusion’s sparse harmonics and final murmuring arpeggio. The last work on the program was Piazzolla’s El muerte del angel. Fukuda infused the mysterious tango, about a purifying angel defeated in a fight with a local villain, with streetwise energy.
The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with encores of the Prelude #1 and Choros #1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Estrellita by Manuel Ponce.