When Hayato Otsuka plays drums with the taiko ensemble Kodo, he tries to clear his mind of any extraneous thoughts to immerse himself in the moment and absorb the audience’s reaction. Judging by past concerts, that reaction will mirror the infectious enthusiasm of Otsuka and his fellow virtuosic performers as they pay often heart-thumping homage to an ancient art form.
Founded in 1981, Kodo is as much of visual spectacle as it is aural tour de force. The troupe will command the stage in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert on Feb. 28. Part of Kodo’s 2019 “Evolution” tour and featuring two North American premieres (the works “Spiral” and “Ayaori”), the current program was crafted by Kabui actor Tamasaburo Bando; it showcases a mix of drumming, dance and song — everything from the intricate and understated to the visceral and eruptive, all of which requires extreme fitness of mind and body.
“My motivation to keep my mind and body in shape is gratefulness to others who are preparing for the concert and also to myself,” Otsuka says through a translator. “The regimen to keep my body in shape [involves] a lot of stretching and also core exercises, so I can be in the best condition when I perform.” (As is abundantly clear in the program’s less-clothed portions, taiko drumming puts tae-bo to shame.)
Upon joining Kodo, the 23-year-old Otsuka and his fellow percussionists apprenticed on Japan’s Sado Island, where they live in a 13-hectare area known as Kodo Village. (The 33-member group is about 25 percent female, with 15 or 16 drummers on the road at a time.) Besides eating, sleeping and socializing there, they practice taiko for more than nine hours a day. “Since we spend a lot of time together, we do have conflicts,” Otsuka says. “We fight sometimes, but we try to understand each other. There is a lot of connection between each other. It’s more than just friends and somewhat closer to a family.”
That close personal connection translates to a tight artistic one onstage, as each player must be unerringly in sync with his mates or risk tanking the whole enterprise. During one of Otsuka’s favorite parts of the “Evolution” concert, he is alone in the spotlight and playing a piece called “O-daiko” on a monster drum that measures 47 inches in diameter, is 70 inches deep and weighs roughly a half-ton.
In the past, “O-daiko” has been done with three performers, each hitting his instrument with explosive force, so Otsuka’s rendition is a significant departure. “Our artistic director wanted to make this spectacle more rich in musical aspects,” he explains of his more nuanced one-man version. “That was the most difficult for me,” he says, “and the biggest challenge.”
On why it’s so important to keep taiko drumming alive, Otsuka speaks of it as just that — alive. “This art form has been around since way before [us],” he says, “and it’s been evolving. The drum is made out of living nature: the body of tree trunk and the head of cowhide. And the sound of taiko can reach anyone. There’s no boundary between taiko and the person who hears it. It’s very international and borderless.”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.