Koto master Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto is featured in the San Francisco Symphony’s “Niji.”

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Symphony “Currents” concert series just released a free virtual concert curated by Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, long-time koto musician based in Northern California, titled “Niji” (Rainbow) for free viewing.

After the pandemic shut things down in March 2020, Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland Symphony, and who died on Aug. 20 this year, came up with an idea of presenting a video series and companion podcast series. The CURRENTS series would tell stories and share the music of Bay Area communities, by highlighting classical music’s changing and symbiotic relationship with vital influences and influencers in Chinese, jazz, Mexican, and hip-hop cultures.

Given the opportunity to assemble a program featuring the Japanese koto, Muramoto saw a chance to present music on this traditional instrument in a more contemporary and modern setting. She transcribed some of the koto music from Japanese notation to Western notation due to her background in violin, which she learned in Oakland public schools during her youth. 

For the piece “Nagare” (Flow), originally composed by Chikushi Katsuko, noted taiko performer and arranger Kaoru Watanabe, who has worked on music for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad and Jason Moran, was tasked with writing the arrangement for the orchestra. 

Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto (koto) and Destiny Muhammad (jazz harp).

For the jazz number “Niji,” composed by Muramoto and Ben Paderna, jazz pianist and composer Matt Wong, who has done arranging for Jon Batiste, was tapped to write the arrangement for the San Francisco Symphony. This number would include eclectic guest performers Destiny Muhammad on jazz harp, Vince Delgado on Egyptian tabla, and Muramoto’s son, Brian Mitsuhiro Wong, on shakuhachi (bamboo flute). 

Conducting honors were given to Ming Luke, whose performances include working with the San Francisco Ballet and the Berkeley Symphony.

At a time where there is much unrest and negativity, Muramoto felt that performing “Niji” would be a perfect representation of how music brings us together and connects us all. “Music is a conversation that everyone understands. It’s a way to convey feelings without saying anything, to interact on a spiritual basis. Whether it’s solo or with others, it’s a way to express one’s feelings, to feel enriched and comforted, as playing music has made me feel during the shelter-in-place.”

Muramoto learned to express herself on the koto in many genres using traditional techniques and tunings to keep the voice of the instrument. She is humbled and feels fortunate to have the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of koto music by working with these special musicians and artists.

Brian Mitsuhiro Wong appears in three of the four numbers presented in the 26-minute concert, playing bass koto and shakuhachi.

Recorded at Davies Symphony Hall, the audio recordings are released in high-quality digital formats. Part of the filming also took place at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The concert also includes short interviews with Muramoto and S.F. Symphony violinist Sarn Oliver intermixed in the music offerings, and a short podcast following with Muramoto and Destiny Muhammad.

The program can be viewed for free at this link: https://www.sfsymphonyplus.org/niji-rainbow

About Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto

For over 60 years, Oakland native Muramoto has been playing and performing koto. She has been instrumental in keeping alive a musical tradition with roots in the U.S. concentration camps of World War II.

Her mother, Kazuko Muramoto, learned the koto as a young girl, while interned at Topaz camp (in Utah) from teacher Haruko Suwada, and at Tule Lake (in California) from Mitsuko Sanemitsu Oda.

Shirley Muramoto began to learn at the age of five from her mother, who had a koto school in Northern California, and achieved her own shihan teaching credentials in 1976, with yushusho honors, from the Chikushi Kai in Fukuoka. She earned her daishihan masters credentials in 2001.

Muramoto also produced the documentary film “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the WWII Internment Camps,” which includes interviews revealing the experiences of former internees and some of their students in the American concentration camps. For more information, visit: https://jcalegacy.com/

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