It was almost the wrong venue.
Before Yoshiki—classical pianist and co-founder of Visual Kei pioneers X Japan—took the stage at Carnegie Hall for his latest concert with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra as part of their international tour, a short film featuring footage from previous engagements was shown. In Hong Kong, waves of fans in crazy outfits mobbed the stage. In Europe, sold-out stadiums of half-naked fanatics cheered and danced. In Costa Mesa, California, Yoshiki draped a fan-made American flag around his shoulders and did a victory lap around the stage.
Cut now to Carnegie Hall, one of the most distinguished—and intimate—venues for classical music and jazz on the continent. There were one or two fans who came with crazy wigs and spandex leggings. A handful of schoolgirls and Gothic Lolitas snuck in during the intermission. But the vast majority were older men and women dressed as they would for a night of Mozart or Bach. He was going to find none of the shrieking adulation of his previous stops: this was an audience that had to be won over.
The first half of the program was comprised mainly of the various themes Yoshiki had been commissioned to write since the break-up of X Japan in 1997. For an opener they played “I’ll Be Your Love”, the theme for 2005’s World’s Fair. It was a fine, if somewhat tedious pick: there was just enough gentle, crooning brass and strings to distract you from the fact that the piece meanders around with no real end in sight. Later came his theme for the 69th Golden Globe Awards, a piece that almost trips over its own pomp and circumstance—it’s perfect for 10 second snippets of celebrities walking on and off stage, but a bit of a drag to sit through in its entirety. They closed the first half with his lauded theme for the tenth anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s enthronement. For a celebratory anthem, it was surprisingly maudlin and mellow.
The two best pieces of the first half were “Forever Love”, his theme for Rintaro’s X (1996, CLAMP), and “La Venus”. The second song was when the show stopped feeling like a classical recital and started evolving its own identity. Written for Stephen Kijak’s We Are X (2016), a documentary about X Japan, it was accompanied with a touching montage of footage surrounding the tragic, unexpected death of their lead guitarist hide in 1998. Yoshiki introduced the song with stories about the losses in his life—the early loss of his father, hide, and the recent suicide of X Japan bassist Taiji. Personal loss and pain was a re-occurring theme during the performance. (Before performing a rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” he recounted how when he first heard the song as a child, it “taught [him] the word ‘pain.’”) By the second act, the concert had become a musical confessional, a cry of fear, sadness, yet ultimately hope.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the second act when Yoshiki unexpectedly changed the program, giving an impassioned speech about America, of all things. Explaining how the “American Dream” was real all over the world, he shared his hopes that “your new President” will continue preserving that dream for “all countries and all peoples.” He then played a piece entitled “The American Dream”, “essentially a dressed up Star-Spangled Banner”. But damned if it didn’t make me misty eyed.
But overall the second act was vastly superior to the first. Having unburdened himself of the expected classical standards, Yoshiki’s demeanor was more casual and relaxed. He even stopped the show to meekly ask a stage hand to move one of the lights that was obstructing his vision. But at no point was he anything but gracious, sincere, and achingly endearing.
I said that Carnegie Hall was almost the wrong venue for Yoshiki and his Classical Tour. But as the night went on and the songs became more personal, the concert achieved the kind of hushed, awed intimacy one finds in a church. It’s an experience alien to stadium seating and outdoor concert venues—it was a kind of musical communion. Take the closing number, “Endless Rain”—one of X Japan’s biggest hits and most famous ballads. A simple, straightforward plea for healing and closure following tragedy, the song reaches an emotional climax at the end with the repeated refrain of “Endless rain/Fall on my heart/Let me forget/All of the hate/All of the Sadness.” And as Yoshiki sang it again and again, suddenly he wasn’t singing it alone. A chorus of trembling voices emerged from the rafters, from the mezzanine, from the front rows. They came so softly, so gradually that at first I thought they were pre-recorded. But no, the elderly woman down the row was singing. The teenagers in frilly lace and stockings were singing. And by the end, everyone was singing.
I pity the people at the stadiums. They have no idea what they are missing.