Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder, soundtrack/pop/avant-garde composer, music producer, session player and sometime actor Ryuichi Sakamoto has carved out numerous careers for himself over the past three decades. His short U.S. tour in support of “BTTB” and “Cinemage” (two instrumental discs on Sony Classical) delivers a 90-minute show that’s unclassifiable by any concert norm. Sometimes gorgeous, sometimes just “interesting,” it suggests that an artist this devotedly oblivious to musical trends or genres requires live presentation as idiosyncratic as his sensibility.
On that level, this “back to the basics” performance — centered on Sakamoto’s earliest musical focus, the piano — scores only middling success.
S.F.’s fabled Fillmore, a midsized rock venue, proved atmospherically less-than-ideal. Despite a sold-out aud’s hushed, respectful attention, the program would have been more effective in a formal, sit-down setting. (Later Stateside dates include, more suitably, Boston’s Berkelee College of Music.)
Sans fanfare, the black-clad musician commenced matters with a 25-minute turntable improv under lone white spotlight. The spare initial effect of spoken-word loop and heartbeat pulse grew eventually to encompass chamber/symphonic samples, as well as various “found” sounds. Effect was occasionally intriguing, more often ponderous; like much of subsequent program, it seemed to beg for a stronger accompa-nying visual factor.
Moving to one of two grand pianos, Sakamoto next played several of the dolorously pretty, melancholic themes that have dominated his work since scoring 1983’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (which he also starred in). Though sometimes featuring Far Eastern motifs, these overwhelmingly reflect the influence of French late-Romantic/early-modernist composers like Faure, Ravel, Debussy and particularly Satie — the latter occasionally “referenced” to a discomfiting sound-alike degree.
These pieces are all individually lovely, if perilously slight at times. At their best — particularly in Sakamoto’s inspired primary themes for three Bertolucci films, “The Last Emperor” (the score of which won an Oscar), “The Sheltering Sky” and “Little Buddha”– they boast indelible melodies, intelligence and depth that can reward in any number of arrangements.
Nonetheless, such pastel lyricism grows repetitious fast, especially in solo piano format. For pacing’s sake, it was a relief when the musi-cian moved to his second, “prepared” grand for a lengthy, eventually cacophonous piece that incorporated gamelan-like sounds, string-scraping, even a small ball dropped on the piano interior. It’s doubtful many in the primarily youthful crowd knew that such experimental techniques date back to Henry Cowell in the 1910s.
Returning to his “straight” keyboard for the majestic “Emperor” and ravishing “Sky” themes, Sakamoto cranked up the energy again on “1919,” an intensely rhythmic exercise in Philip Glass-like minimalist chord progressions. (He prankishly dropped a “Day Tripper” ref in its midst.)
This ended the set on an exhilarating note.
Encore dipped back into the Satie-esque well for “Energy Flow” (a TV-commercial ditty turned improbable Japanese platinum single) and “Mr. Lawrence” theme “Forbidden Colors” thrilled fans. Yet, again, they underlined how one can get too much of this good thing — such limpid, pearl-like miniatures become monotonous when heard back-to-back.
Uneasily hovering betwixt pops, avant-garde and ambient terrain, the concert could have used design elements more emphatic than its plain, gel-free lighting and cryptic rear projections of haiku-like phrases (“a strange glow,” “the smell of sulfur” etc.) to deflect from the material’s lean toward semipreciousness over a long haul. The performer acknowledged his aud with just sheepish grins until a few brief, late remarks.