«Pictures at an exhibition»: A promenade in Shoma Uno’s «Oboe concerto»

At the grand staircase: Introduction

The past off-season of spring-summer 2020 saw the introduction of a new program into Shoma Uno’s repertoire: one that was immediately nicknamed «Oboe». Originally, it was choreographed by Kenji Miyamoto to become the skater’s short program for the upcoming 2020-21 season — due to various reasons, however, this idea remained dormant until the start of the next Olympic season, and so the program was temporarily transformed into an exhibition piece for ice shows and post-competition galas.

Musically, «Oboe» is divided into two contrasting parts, each based on its own concerto: Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for oboe, strings, and continuo in D minor S D935 (second movement) takes up the first part of the program (hence the nickname «Oboe»), while Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for cello, strings, and continuo in C minor (RV 401) forms the basis of the program’s dynamic finale (the step sequence and the final spin). The two pieces are stylistically close, as both were written at around the same time (the late baroque era — the first half of the 18th century), and place (Venice).

Shoma Uno and Kenji Miyamoto’s «Oboe» debuted only near the very end of 2020, first at the «Medalists on Ice» show that followed the 89th edition of Japan Figure Skating Championships in December 2020, then just a couple of weeks later at the Nagoya Figure Skating Festival in January 2021.

It was only at the beginning of the 2021-22 Olympic season that this program finally became what it had originally meant to be — his short program. In its new old shape, «Oboe» made its appearance at the Skate America and NHK Trophy during the first half of the season, and finally at the very recent Japan Nationals.

From its first showings in late 2020 – early 2021, «Oboe» impressed with its sharp expressivity and the skater’s ability to conform to the intricate musical and choreographic material of the program. Even though it had been known before that baroque music in general and specifically the warmer tones of string instruments, such as violin or cello, fit Shoma’s style really well (think of the 2017-18 Vivaldi or the 2014-15 «Kreutzer sonata»), «Oboe» still managed to make a few steps forward in that direction.

Baroque excessiveness and decorative extravaganza are on full display already in Shoma’s costume created by the designer Mathieu Caron.

credits: @yawning_shoma

The program itself, too — its musicality, colourful contrasts, and statuesque posing — suggests a lot of analogies and associations with the late Renaissance-baroque art of the latter half of the 16th-beginning of the 18th century. In this article, I wanted to gather together some of these associations, group them by medium (music, painting, sculpture), and guide the reader through this imaginary exhibition of the «Oboe».

Now please put on your FFP2 masks and prepare your COVID certificates — we are about to enter our museum!

Exhibition room #1.

Venetian baroque music: On musicality

«[He] has given me so much joy on so many occasions and in so many godforsaken parts of the world»

Joseph Brodsky — on Antonio Vivaldi

We have just entered the first exhibition room — or rather a small narrow corridor with a few glass cases inside. The first thing we see is the title that says ’Venetian baroque music’. Let us first move to the first glass display case located near the entrance. Under the glass, we are presented with several dusty yellow pages covered with peculiar musical notation — pages that seem to come from some old manuscripts and printed editions. Look closer — the first few pages bear the names of Alessandro Marcello and… Johann Sebastian Bach!

top: J.S. Bach’s arrangement of Marcello’s Concerto, a later copy; bottom left: the first edition of Marcello’s Concerto (oboe part); bottom right: another copy of Bach’s arrangement

These pages are filled with the slow movement from the famous Oboe concerto in D minor that is now more or less securely attributed to the Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello. This attribution is fairly recent — in fact, the authorship issue has been solved fairly recently. In the past, this piece was ascribed to several other composers, including Alessandro’s brother Benedetto, Antonio Vivaldi, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Johann Sebastian Bach. This was mostly because the earliest source of the Concerto, dated around 1715, transmits what we now knows as Bach’s arrangement of the piece. In the 1710s, Bach frequently transcribed the Italian music of the time, mostly Vivaldi’s concertos. Rather curiously, Bach made this transcription before the first printed edition of Marcello’s work had come out ca. 1717 (this page is presented alongside one of Bach’s copies above), which means that Bach must have had direct access to as a manuscript copy of Marcello’s as yet unpublished piece. This explains all the misattributions and confusions of the earlier editions and discussions of this work.

It is important to remember that Shoma’s program is composed of two musical parts, of which only the first makes use of Marcello’s Oboe concerto. At the beginning of the step sequence, we are transported into a different world that belongs to the great Venetian master Antonio Vivaldi.

Come and take a closer look at the second glass case!

Turin, Biblioteca nazionale universitaria, Giordano 28: the beginning of the 1st movement (top) and the finale (bottom)

Here, we have a few manuscript pages from the manuscript that is rather well-known among Vivaldi scholars: Turin, Biblioteca nazionale universitaria, Giordano 28. These pages transmit the first and final movements of Vivaldi’s Concerto for cello, strings, and continuo in C minor (RV 401). it is the final movement that we hear in the second part of Shoma’s program, from step sequence onwards.

If you want to hear these two pieces, just grab the headphones attached to the glass cases! Remember, our exhibition is fully interactive, as is customary these days: not only does it allow you to look at the exhibited items, but you can also touch them, listen to the music, and even smell some of the objects, if you wish so.

Did you finish listening? Now, have a look at the screen located nearby! There, you can «see» the same music on the ice — it is kindly visualised for you by a certain skater that immediately draws your full attention. This skater is, of course, Shoma Uno.

Shoma’s musicality and his ability to express any musical style do not require a detailed explanation or apology here. Instead, I will only point out a couple of particularly telling details. The first brief example that you see on the screen is all about structural coordination between choreographic structure and musical phrasing. Here, Shoma performs his first jump of the program (triple axel at the MOI gala / quad flip at NHK Trophy):

This first jump is positioned differently in the two versions of the program — understandably, as the quad flip requires a little bit more time for preparation and execution than the triple axel. This does not affect the overall musico-choreographic structure, however. In both cases, the first jump emphasises the dividing line between the two musical phrases, with 3A putting more emphasis on the end of the first, 4F — on the beginning of the following, phrase. Which one is better? I would probably prefer the former (gala) version, considering the similar positioning of the second jump of the program (also 3A).

The latter (NHK) version, however, could be even clearer to the judges — it looks and sounds like a more conventional ‘jumping to the music’ (with a very precise landing on the strong beat) which judges must award with one extra GOE bullet.

The second example that the screen is currently playing does not look particularly impressive at first glance. It does require some understanding of musical phrasing to get to the bottom of this one. Once you start noticing certain smaller details, however, you get a better sense of the deeper and more fundamental layers of Shoma’s musicality. This is the first (introductory) section of Marcello’s Concerto. As it is about to end, right before the start of the oboe melody, the skater makes an elegant turn on the ice, ending up facing forward in order to gain some speed before the first jumping pass of the program: the one that we saw earlier. There is nothing special about that turn per se, it is but one of the many conventional turns and steps of this program. What makes it special is the way it is coordinated with the end of one section and the beginning of the next — this is where it shows the skater’s sensitivity to his music and his ability to hear and express.

When big elements (jumps or spins) are performed to the music, it creates the «straight in your face» kind of musicality. Yet it does not necessarily mean that the skater is particularly sensitive to the music, since tricks of this sort can be easily timed to perfection by multiple repetitions during the training period. Subtler and deeper layers of musicality reveal themselves in less straightforward ways: in the rhythmical pace of smaller steps and turns, in the quick neck and head movements that accentuate local musical accents — tiny creases and folds in the musical texture and melodic line of the piece. Musicality — the impression that the skater is skating to music, and not through it — reveals itself in the details like this; in Shoma’s skating, they are plenty. He may miss a big and important musical accent due to some unforeseen circumstances from time to time, but he never falls out of his music. He never fails to express the music.

On this high note, let us move to the next section of our exhibition.

Exhibition room #2.

Late Renaissance painting: The effects of chiaroscuro

«This step sequence is really beautiful! it has so many chiaroscuri [achieved] with [different] movements, with his quickness and speed [in executing] various important and original turns — I like it a lot!»

Franca Bianconi — on Shoma Uno’s «Oboe» at the NHK Trophy

The well-known figure skating coach and RAI commentator Franca Bianconi had a lot of nice things to say after Shoma’s skate at the NHK, but one particular word stands out for me: the noun ‘chiaroscuro’, used in its plural form {‘chiaroscuri’). Here, the intended meaning must have been a more general «shade» or «contrast», but the word’s etymology brings us back yet again to the late Renaissance-early baroque periods, where chiaroscuro had a more technical meaning. Originally, it referred to a particular mode of painting, in which the effects of light were used consistently to achieve a sense of volume and shape in figures and objects, as well as for creating dramatic contrasts between light and darkness on a wider compositional level, particularly in the later mannerist and baroque periods.

Chiaroscuro, «light-dark», is indeed a fitting and helpful metaphor for understanding and visualising Shoma’s step sequence in the «Oboe». Which is why we now find ourselves surrounded by Caravaggio’s paintings.

Caravaggio, John the Baptist in the Wilderness (The Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum, Kansas City)

How and by what means can chiaroscuro be achieved musically and choreographically though? To create chiaroscuro/i, one needs strong contrasts: for instance, between a slow and a fast tempo, or between a smoother (legato) and a staccato articulation, or it could imply rhythmic or melodic contrasts, and so on. Vivaldi’s music that accompanies Shoma’s step sequence is in fact full of contrasts of this sort.

To express all these contrasts of light and darkness choreographically, the skater would need to master an equally wide range of expressive means: dramatic changes of speed and rhythm whenever music calls for it, excellent upper body flexibility and soft arms to express the nuances of musical texture and harmony, particularly all the sharp dissonances of Vivaldi’s music; finally, different types of movement that would correspond to ‘legato’ and ‘staccato’ types of articulation in the music. To transfer Vivaldi’s chiaroscuri onto the ice, the skater would need his entire body — not just arms and feet, but literally every single part of the body — to become the expressive means through which the sense of music is faithfully conveyed.

Let us go to one of the screens set up in our exhibition room and have a look at a few interesting details. Fragment #1 is all about the expressivity of a sharp dissonance and the way this dissonance is highlighted choreographically. It consists of two renditions of the same musical idea: one is taken from the earlier gala version of the program (MOI, December 2020), the other — from the later competitive shape that this program assumed during the Grand Prix series.

The original gala version conveyed this dissonance by an expressive head roll, whereas the short program switched to a more conventional hand gesture. Whichever version you prefer (I find the original version more expressive), it is clear that this particular dissonance is one of the most important highlights of the entire step sequence — like a ray of light drawn against a black background of the painting, it creates a much wished-for dramatic contrast, tension, volume, and shape.

Fragment #2: fluctuations of tempo (I chose the original gala version here mostly because the camerawork makes the contrast more visible).

What strikes me here is what is known in film industry as «overcranking» — it is almost as if this particular movement was shot with a higher frame rate than usual and then played at a normal speed, which the audience then perceives as slow motion. Shoma’s movement is complete and finished, but made with visible effort, as though the skater had to overcome some sort of material resistance while performing it. Against the faster-paced background, this fragment clearly stands out, creating yet another dramatic «chiaroscuro» within the step sequence.

It also encapsulates one particularly important aspect of the entire program — its leaning towards ‘freezing motion’ and the abundance of sculpture-like poses.

With this, let us move to the final room of our modest exhibition.

Exhibition room #3.

Sculpture: Mannerist Florence

«In Kenji Miyamoto’s Oboe concerto, there are many poses that resemble museum sculptures»

Shoma Uno — at the Colantotte fan meeting in May 2021 (link)

Many Shoma’s programs feature some sort of expressive posing here and there, but the «Oboe» pushes this trend much further by making expressive, sculpture-like, posing one of its most characteristic traits. With the unusual configurations of hands, legs, and upper body that they create, as well as their sheer quantity, these expressive poses immediately draw our attention and challenge us to think more about their origins and possible sources of influence. They also play a vital compositional role in the otherwise extremely «fluid» and seamless — truly ‘baroque’ — choreographic fabric of the program.

One particular pose stands out from the rest by its unconventional hand gesturing and right leg lift.

It is truly a happy coincidence that the only clue about this program’s imagery or ideas that we have ever received from the skater himself concerns precisely this abundant posing: that this posing is somehow related to unusual museum sculptures. But what sculptures — and in what museums are these expressive hand gestures to be found? If this is supposed to imitate sculpture, then it must be the sort of sculpture whose expressivity is far from the classical canons of beauty and proportion. Broken asymmetrical lines, unusual configurations of hands and wrists, instability and ‘lightness’, as though these sculptures are trying to resist gravitation — these are some of the main characteristic traits of the Italian mannerism if the mid-to-late 16th century. Apart from one famous Giambologna’s sculpture, all other items presented in out final exhibition room come from the workshop of Benvenuto Cellini — one of the most peculiar goldsmiths, sculptors, writers, and adventurers of the mid-16th-century Florence.

Needless to say, there is no point in arguing that Kenji Miyamoto wanted Shoma to create a literal ‘copy’ of one or another sculpture. Instead, all I am trying to say here is that between these sculptures and some of Shoma’s poses there is enough stylistic closeness that reveals itself in certain arm, leg, head, and upper body shapes and angles to argue more or less convincingly that the former may have been an inspiration behind the latter.

Many of the poses created throughout Shoma’s program would not look completely out of place in a stylistically relevant museum context — say, in the well-known «Bargello» museum located in Florence.

Small bar in the vicinity of Bargello: An afterword

December 2015, a small bar at the Piazza San Marco — the one located in Florence, not the famous Venetian piazza. In fact, it is located not too far from the Bargello museum. I will long remember one evening that I spent there with a hot aperitivo and a glass of Chianti. While I was having my modest dinner, the six best skaters of the 2015-16 season were competing at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. Of course, I was following this event, refreshing the results page over and over again. And they were getting some scores! At some point, it had become increasingly clear that this event featured some of the best skates ever produced by these skaters, and that quality-wise, this event was truly a historic one, perhaps one of the best in the recent history of this sport. Immediately upon its completion, I started to search for videos and streams, already foretasting the masterpieces created by the likes of Patrick Chan, Javier Fernandez, and Yuzuru Hanyu. And then something unexpected happened. A tiny figure dressed in green stepped on the ice and froze in the opening pose. I heard the first few parallel octaves from Puccini’s «Turandot». And all of a sudden, this tiny green figure metamorphosed into a big skater whose overwhelming expressivity, whose passionate and uncompromising ‘verismo’, immediately filled up the entire arena and made me speechless. I tried to remain doubtful and compose myself through the major part of this program, but the final cantilever sealed the deal. On that day, I fell in love with Shoma’s skating.

Today, six years almost to the day after that memorable aperitivo in Florence, having gone through all the highs and lows of his career and having completed so many travels all across Europe and Russia just to see him skate and compete, I can only repeat with all the frankness and all the passion of my heart what Brodsky said when he came across the small Venetian church of San Giovanni in Bragora in which the great Venetian master Antonio Vivaldi had once been baptised — when he remembered Vivaldi’s music and all the joy that this music had brought to his heart in the moments of spleen and desperation; I can only readdress his words to describe Shoma and his skating, and the impact he had on my life, on this day of his birthday:

«[He] has given me so much joy on so many occasions and in so many godforsaken parts of the world».

Happy birthday, Shoma!

P.S. This is the English translation of the article originally published in Russian here.

I wholeheartedly thank @alchemist_irina for kindly allowing me to use her collage for this article’s featured image, but most importantly for promptly creating it upon request that contained nothing but this author’s vague and rather wild fantasies.

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