Reviews on “Parhelion -piano music inspired by Iwate folk songs” by Sumiko Sato

Folk Songs that Live on – in the Piano Music that Convey the Voices of People’s Lives
Shinya Matsuyama (Music Critic)

Taking on traditional music or folk songs is risky business. This is because, like ethnic dress, they are born out of the history, climate, and culture of local communities. They are then nurtured and passed down through repeated polishing and cultivation. They contain the memories, thoughts, and wisdom of countless ordinary people, and at the same time, they have an extremely coherent beauty. In a sense, they are the ultimate pop music. There are countless musicians across all genres, including rock, jazz, and classical music, who have attempted to perform some of the best of traditional or folk music, but without considering the weight of it. It is only when a performer confronts the essence of tradition with his or her own way of speaking, without plagiarism, or pretensions, that it will resonate in the hearts of listeners.

Born and raised in Iwate, Sumiko Sato is a composer and pianist who has thoroughly studied classical, contemporary, and experimental music, but is well aware of the beauty and wonder of traditional and folk music. This is because the climate, smells, and wind of Iwate run through her blood. In this album, she doesn’t just take the best of the folk songs, but she vividly reveals their essence using her own language. Although it has the appearance of Western music, the voices of people’s daily lives can be clearly heard in her music.

Review of Sumiko Sato: Parhelion―piano music inspired by Iwate folk songs
Lynette Westendorf, M.M., D.M.A.

Congratulations to pianist and composer Sumiko Sato on a brilliant new release Parhelion―piano music inspired by Iwate folk songs. Dr. Sato made the recording for solo piano at the Iwate Kenmin Kaikan Hall, Feb. 22 and 28, 2021, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The hall’s sound quality is beautifully clear and the acoustics are alive.

“Homage to Deer Dance” is a work of six movements, inspired by the rhythm and songs from Sato’s transcription of the performance “The First Garden” of Hanamaki Kasuga-style deer dance. It was composed in 2016 for a concert commemorating the 120th anniversary of Kenji Miyazawa’s birth.

The six movements (Prologue, In the Moonlight, Fun Play, Journey to Repose, From Afar, and Epilogue) range from sublime simplicity to dramatic virtuosity, all developed from the opening melody of the Prologue.

Prologue opens with a beautiful simple melody that develops into rhythmic march-like energy. Ms. Sato’s control of tone at the piano is evident from the first phrase. The next movement, In the Moonlight, contains quiet and arpeggiated melodies, the repeated patterns tender without sentimentality. Fun Play is energetic and syncopated, followed by Journey to Repose, which demonstrates depth of strength in a repeated rhythmic motif, developing from the bass to the treble with clustered harmonies. Each movement is a logical transition into new compositional ideas and technique, rendered elegantly in both composition and performance by Ms. Sato.

From Afar carries a mysterious mood from a simple pattern into a dramatic chromatic shift before returning with a short coda of the initial tune. The Epilogue is a full, active and virtuosic work encompassing the entire range of the piano, demonstrating Sato’s sure mastery of the instrument. A live audience―prohibited by the Covid-19 pandemic―would have been mightily impressed.

The next set on the CD is “Variations of Nanbu Cow-herding Song,” in seven movements (Theme, Fugue (Sage), Man, Deity, Madness, Ogre, and Woman). This set of songs develops the melody of Iwate folk songs in various styles. Each title is taken from the program of Noh play; “Nanbu” is a former name of the Iwate prefecture.

The Theme is simple and short, followed by a contrapuntal development in the Fugue, performed with a vibrant sense of line and development. Man is an active and lively short movement in triple meter, very tuneful. Deity begins with a single melodic line, gradually introducing lovely harmonic details, in a gentle echo between the hands, thoughtful and delicate. Madness is active, but perhaps not quite insane. The virtuosic melody is intertwined between the hands before giving way to a set of rich chords at the end. Ogre is an energetic and dynamic movement with angular melodies and driving rhythm, but the creature is spent rather quickly in the short piece. It is playful and fun, in spite of the ominous title.

The last movement, Woman, is a thoughtful waltz, both wistful and of strong character. The recurring melody wafts into varied arrangements and leaves the listener with the lovely tune in mind. The last movement of the recording is Kuriyagawa bushi, arranged by Sato. The traditional melody is a perfect ending for this mature and dynamic recording by Sumiko Sato. Her compositional creativity combined with her ever confident and vibrant virtuosity will bring repeated joy to the listener. Her treatment of traditional melodies in a modern vernacular is brilliant.

A final word of compliment goes to the creator of the CD artwork and designer of the CD cover. It pays perfect homage to the character of the music―elegantly modern within the scope and depth of the traditional.

Halida Dinova, pianist (Steinway Artist)

The first cycle (Homage to Deer Dance) is so much more Japanese and technically difficult. The Variations (of Nanbu Cow-herding Song) can be a delightful separate pieces, in the style of Prokofiev “Mimoliotnosti”, some are sounding so warm with gorgeous harmonies and some are in Bartok- Prokofiev rhythms.

Bravo, Sumico, these are high level pieces and your performance is superb.

excerpted from the journal, ‘Kouyuki’ of May 17, 2021, on Morioka Times
Ken Terui, owner of Cafe Jazz Johnny of Kaiunbashi

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this album. The more I listen to it, the more I realize that this CD, composed and performed entirely by herself, is the essence of her work.

One could say that the melodies are those of folk songs, but the performance style could be said to be jazz, classical or contemporary music as a whole. However, really, it is none of the above. It is music born from the unique world of Sumiko Sato.

The music is the result of her endless efforts to compose freely, without sticking to a certain form or style.