Mexico and Japan make beautiful music together

by Chiho Iuchi

I n September 1609, when a Mexican sailboat ran ashore in a typhoon near the village of Onjuku in today’s Chiba Prefecture, local fishermen and ama (female divers) rescued 317 souls from the angry ocean. That was Japan’s first contact with Mexican people.

“I learned about that only recently,” said Mexico-based Japanese violinist Yuriko Kuronuma, organizer of a classical-music festival commemorating 400 years of Mexico-Japan relations that was sadly canceled Tuesday due to the escalating swine-flu outbreak in Mexico. Kuronuma spoke before the outbreak occurred.

“It’s good to rediscover the history of each other’s country through the anniversary,” she continued.

Kuronuma took up music at the age of 8 when her father, a lover of classical music, bought her a small violin. That was Christmas 1948, when her family and many others in Tokyo were still enduring severe postwar hardship.

At age 11, the talented and soulful girl won first prize in the elementary-school division of the NHK and the Mainichi Newspapers company’s National Student Contest. Then, at age 16, she came first — against adult competition — at the Japan Music Contest.

In 1958, shortly before the end of her high-school course at Toho Gakuen School of Music, Tokyo, Kuronuma went to Europe and continued her studies at Musical Arts Academy of Prague in the present-day Czech Republic. There she fell in love with a Mexican student of cultural anthropology, who would become her first husband and lead her to his home country, where she settled in the 1970s.

From her base in Mexico, Kuronuma has performed as a soloist in Asia, Europe and North, Central and South America as a soloist with leading orchestras under the baton of such maestros as Mariss Jansons, Vaclav Neumann, Kurt Mazur, Hiroyuki Iwaki and Yuzo Toyama.

“I am so thankful to life in Mexico for showing me the real situation of society, which gave me a different view of the world, changing my way of thinking. I just wanted to do something in return for this country. And the only thing that I could do was to teach violin,” explained Kuronuma about Academia Yuriko Kuronuma A.C., her private music school for Mexican children, which she founded in Coyoacan in Mexico City in 1980.

In 1982, economic conditions caused a shortage of small-size violins for children in Mexico. Kuronuma initiated a campaign to obtain such instruments through donations in Japan, which enabled her to bring about 100 to Mexico so her students could continue their lessons.

In the spring of 1985, Kuronuma took 12 of her students, aged 9 to 14, on her school’s first Japan tour, giving concerts titled “Thank you for the Violin.”

Since then she has undertaken similar tours four times; and in 2008 she produced a Japan tour of the opera “Yuzuru” (“Twilight Crane”), based on a play by Japanese playwright Junji Kinoshita with music composed by Japan’s Ikuma Dan. Local audiences were impressed to see an opera performed in perfect Japanese by an all-Mexican cast.

“The music-festival plan was realized from these continual footsteps. It is not possible to achieve this in one day or one night,” emphasized Kuronuma. “There are various official cultural-exchange events, but those transient events do not have a lasting effect.”

Through the Mexico Music Festival 2009, Kuronuma intended to build a new bridge to help unite Mexico and Japan by performing various short Mexican pieces, which Kuronuma likens to a Japanese makunouchi bento (assorted lunch box).

The works by Mexican composers were to include “Minuet for Strings,” by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907); the renowned symphonic piece “Huapango,” by Jose Pablo Moncayo (1912-58), arranged for strings; and the world premiere of a work by Mexico-based Colombian composer Leopoldo Novoa Matallana (b. 1958), which was commissioned for the festival.

“These pieces are composed in a European style,” explained Kuronuma. “For example, Castro’s work sounds similar to Chopin, yet it contains some Mexican taste. These pieces became gradually popular among European people seeking fresh yet not overly discordant music. It is not so inaccessible.”

As Mexico was colonized by the Spanish in 1521 and didn’t achieve independence until 300 years later, its history boasts a rich tapestry of assimilation that has resulted in a mixed-race, multicultural society.

“For Mexican people, cultural mixing is good,” said Kuronuma. “They welcome anybody who will enrich Mexican culture, even a foreigner. So many foreign artists have lived in Mexico. I have never been treated badly in Mexico.”

The program was also to include Mexican folk songs and popular numbers featuring Latin-flavored melodies.

“There is no strict boundary between classical and pop for Mexican people,” commented Kuronuma. “It is normal for opera singers to sing pop music as well. They just enjoy music.”

Many of the performers at the would-be festival have studied and/or taught at Academia Yuriko Kuronuma. Kuronuma beamed with pride as she introduced her former students. “Adrian Justus was 14 years old when he joined the first Japan tour in 1985. He held a violin in his left hand and a tennis racket in his right, as he was a good tennis player, too. But the experience in Japan made him decide to become a professional violinist.

“The children came to me because they liked violin. As a teacher, I tried to make them love violin more and more. I think that’s our task. How? By performing close in front of the student. They can feel the quality of the sound the teacher is producing, or they wish they were able to perform that well,” said Kuronuma. “Show your love for music through your live performance. That’s the point.”

On April 24, Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova declared that a new breed of swine flu that had been infecting people in Mexico was an “epidemic.” Despite this, on April 26, Mexico’s foreign ministry cleared Kuronuma and her troupe to fly to Japan. Then, the next day, the World Health Organization raised the pandemic alert level from Phase 3 to Phase 4, meaning that transmission of the virus between humans has reached a sustained level. As fears about flights in and out of Mexico heightened, Kuronuma decided to cancel her trip to Japan.

“It is a real disappointment,” Kuronuma said by phone on Tuesday morning (Monday night in Mexico). “Until this afternoon, we were packing and about to leave. But the situation changes every moment. . . . Japanese residents are advised to return to Japan, as Mexican airplanes may soon be blocked by most airports worldwide.

“And so I decided to cancel the event this time. We could fly to Japan, but we might be unable to come back to Mexico. Also, on humanitarian grounds, it would not be proper to hold a festival by artists from Mexico in a closed space such as a concert hall.

“I feel bad for the Japanese ticket-holders who had been looking forward to our music festival. But we do not yet know when the crisis will be resolved. If the situation returns to normal soon, and if any venues are available for us, we would be delighted to perform in Japan.”

Mexico Music Festival 2009 has been canceled. For refund information, call Arts Island on (03) 3205-2032.