Seattle Symphony with Guest Conductor and Composer Joe Hisaishi: Performing Ghibli Works

A couple of weekends ago I had the pleasure of experiencing Joe Hisaishi live in concert with the Seattle Symphony and Chorale. His works encompass many of Studio Ghibli’s films directed by Hayao Miyazaki. We had originally purchased these tickets for April of 2020, which as you will notice was right near the start of the pandemic. Like most everything else around that time, the concert was postponed and as the threat of COVID became more apparent I expected outright cancellation. Miraculously, the concert rolled forward two years to today, and I, along with the rest of the sold out seats, experienced a journey both nostalgic and unforgettable.

Call it cliche, but Studio Ghibli films were my gateway to anime. Growing up, I had always associated the medium with the few glimpses I saw on tv or on someone’s t-shirt. Think shows like Pokemon, Digimon, and Sailor Moon. It wasn’t until I hit college and came across students with different backgrounds and passions that I realized anime was so much more than just cartoons for kids. Spirited Away was my introduction to Hayao Miyazaki, leading to my discovery of Joe Hisaishi. I fell in love with his soundtracks, and would play them on loop to fall asleep at night. And while I’m much older now than I was then and have tasted my fair share of other works, his music still transports me to a feeling of magical wonderment.

Joe Hisaishi Symphonic Concert: Music from the Studio Ghibli Films of Hayao Miyazaki. Performance by Seattle Symphony and Chorale, and Joe Hisaishi, 2, Jul. 2022, Benaroya Hall, Seattle.

Soloists

I would have been more than happy with just the symphony and chorale, but we were also gifted with soloist pieces both instrumental and vocal. Several of the symphony members had stand out moments, like the horns trumpeting from the balconies for Castle in the Sky. Perhaps most unique and surprising was mandolinist Joseph Brent who strummed along to songs from The Wind Rises. I have to admit to this film being one of my least favorite of Studio Ghibli’s, but the instrumentation does not disappoint and Brent’s musicality reflected the hopes and dreams of the characters involved.

A fair few of the film section included vocalists, much for which was presented by soprano Amanda Achen–her aunt noticed me reading the program while in line for the wash room and proudly informed me that she was her niece. Achen positively glittered on the stage in her silver dress–I can’t imagine anyone more appropriate to serenade us through Ponyo. The other vocalist turned out to be Hisaishi’s daughter, Fujisawa Mai. When she walked out on stage, she glowed in a different but equally confident way from Achen. Her flowing purple dress fit the whimsy of Spirited Away. Hisaishi paused afterward to remind us of the fact that she is his daughter which was endearing in its hiccup of momentum.

While the entire concert was a priceless gift of music, I still had some favorite moments to take away: Hisaishi simultaneously sitting at the piano while conducting, Fujisawa and Achen singing as “sisters” for Totoro’s “Hey Let’s Go,” the entirety of the Princess Mononoke section featuring varied and empowering percussion instruments, and the multiple encores performed after subsequent standing ovations. I would have happily stood up 10 more times for additional pieces. And the best decision? Starting the concert out with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, whose heroine is still and will forever be an inspiration of mine. The projection of Nausicaa walking along the golden fields of ohmu almost made it feel like we were coming out of the fear and isolation of the pandemic into a renewed spirit of community and growth.

“After a thousand years of darkness, he will come, clad in blue and surrounded by fields of gold to restore mankind’s connection of the Earth that was destroyed.”

MacNeille, Tress, performer. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, music by Joe Hisaishi, Studio Ghibli, 1984.

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