Pulling a few strings for teens

by Kana Ishiguro

Last summer, at his annual Saito Kinen Festival in Nagano Prefecture, maestro Seiji Ozawa chose to perform the opera “Peter Grimes,” in which the sea imagery represents the protagonist’s emotions. Harpist Naoko Yoshino, one of the invited guest musicians, contributed greatly to the opera’s success by weaving the sounds and colors of the ocean into the tapestry of the music. For those who attended, it surely must have left an impression that lingered long after the performance.

Yoshino is hoping to have a similar effect on young listeners. Ever since the Nagano festival, this world-class harpist has been helping high-school students from various schools organize a special Teenagers’ Concert, targeted at high-school students.

Over the past decade, Yoshino has often played in concerts designed for teenagers. She says she has always been intrigued by the honest reactions she received from young audiences, especially when she played contemporary harp pieces that she thought might be too difficult for young listeners to appreciate.

“I find they like these pieces more than the conventional repertoire. So a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that with a good selection of pieces, I could get young people interested in the harp. Then I must have said something like ‘It would be nice if they were actively involved in creating a performance and not just listening.’ “

With support from concert director Kazumi Minoguchi, Yoshino’s wish eventually bore fruit in the form of the ongoing Teenagers’ Concert project.

With this experimental project, which is being directed by Minoguchi, Yoshino aims to bring young audiences into the concert hall and expose them to classical music. In the process, the participants are learning what it takes to put together a concert.

At a typical project session, the young participants divide themselves into small groups according to their roles, such as planning, PR or backstage work. In addition to brainstorming sessions and a lecture on art management, the students were invited last November to Yoshino’s concert to see what a top-level classical concert is like, before producing their own.

Triton Art Networks, a nonprofit organization, is sponsoring this project, which involves students from Toyama, Kinjo, Fuji and International Christian University high schools in Tokyo. To explore their own ideas, the students are making the first part of the May 10 concert completely their original creation. They will be showing photos that they took to illustrate different emotions, such as anger, frustration and hope, based on the main theme of “growth and realization.” In accompaniment, Yoshino will play several harp pieces that the students selected to match each feeling.

“‘We didn’t want to make the message too obvious. That’s why we didn’t use words in these slide shows — just images, lights and music,” said Takumi Naganuma, a student from Toyama High School, and leader of the planning section. His job was to select pieces to use in the concert, and that was not easy. “All of her pieces sound so good,” he said.

Commenting on the originality of this project, music columnist Atsushi Yamao said, “Often in these kinds of projects, the artist [when he or she plays at the international level] is the one who decides which pieces to play and so on — or if not the artist, the management will step in and decide. But this time, Yoshino is willing to play practically anything [the students] request. This is rare.”

The students involved in this project are not necessarily music students, but Yoshino believes anyone can benefit from this kind of experience. “No matter what kind of job you’re going to do in the future, the skills of communication and teamwork will always be fundamental,” she said.

When she herself was a high-school student in 1985, Yoshino won first prize in the ninth Israel International Harp Competition, but she claims that, otherwise, she was just an ordinary high-school student. She says she has a lot in common with the participants in her project, partly because she studied at ICU High School and ICU University and majored in art history, instead of locking herself up in a conservatory.

Despite her years of experience and musical knowledge, Yoshino listens to the high-school participants’ ideas openly. She places equal importance on each student’s input, which gives them confidence to express what they truly wish to do. Yoshino mentioned that she feels pressure to represent them all, but she added with a smile, “They are not shy nor hesitant to ask anything of me.”

Yoshino and the TAN staff’s approach to the project shows that with enough time and mutual respect, it is possible to draw out individuality and confidence in Japanese young people. As long as adults step back and give them space, they can grow into whatever they wish.