When the final chord of the fiery Spanish-flavored “El Camino Real” by U.S. composer Alfred Reed echoed throughout Suntory Hall, it was a great moment for 16-year-old Mayuko Kawai.
“I was thrilled by the audience’s stormy applause,” she says.
Kawai wasn’t in the crowd, though, she was on stage with the Michinoku Wind Orchestra, which comprised 126 students from junior and senior high schools from Miyagi Prefecture. This one-off event was the culmination of a charity effort to help young musicians who were victims of last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake.
When the quake and tsunami devastated the country’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, along with the enormous loss of life came the loss of property, including a lot of musical instruments. For musicians, the loss of instruments meant the loss of livelihoods, and for children in school bands, the loss of a crucial part of their everyday lives.
Help for the students came in the form of an e-mail offering a donation of instruments three weeks after the disaster that led the Miyagi Band Association to launch the Miyagi Prefecture Instrument Bank. The bank has since organized support activities for schools in need by delivering donated instruments.
“Some members of our club lost their homes or families (in the disaster),” says Kawai who plays saxophone at Ishinomaki Nishi High School. “So we felt really happy when we received the instruments and grateful for the goodwill from across Japan.”
Donors include the nonprofit organization Musicians without Borders, led by singer Mayo Shono, and Carnival Company, a group organized by clarinet player Keiichi Hashizume and his wife, music producer Eriko Shiomi.
“In the aftermath (of the quake), I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what,” Shiomi says. “I thought that if I were to simply donate some instruments, then perhaps I could help.”
Shiomi was able to get her instrument drive covered by the media, which led to her being contacted by Akiko Kono, programming director at Suntory Hall. The Tokyo venue was willing to help, but couldn’t quite decide how.
Meanwhile, more offers of help came in via the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff), which is organized by independent think tank the Tokyo Foundation. Among ideas offered came a suggestion that young musicians from overseas perform with the students affected by the disaster as a show of support, but the Tokyo Foundation had never hosted a music event before. Through person-to-person networking, Tokyo Foundation was put in touch with Suntory Hall and together they decided to organize a special concert performed by Miyagi Prefecture students for an audience that included people who had donated instruments.
“We didn’t want this to just be about receiving the instruments, but we wanted the donors to see the happiness that those instruments brought the students,” says Noboru Endo, who is in charge of the instrument bank and is a teacher at Tohoku High School. “But we never imagined performing at Suntory Hall!”
Overseas, Barli Nugent, a flutist and the assistant dean at the Julliard School in New York, quickly assembled the nine-member Sylff Chamber Ensemble, which consisted of herself and musicians from Julliard, the Paris Conservatory and the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. When that ensemble met up with the young recipients of the donation drive, the Michinoku Wind Orchestra was born.
In preparation for the Suntory Hall concert, Michinoku members gathered at Tohoku High School in Sendai in mid-August. The students, many of whom came by themselves, were “shy on the first day, but much relaxed on the second day,” according to oboist Merideth Hite from Julliard. “On the final day, they were amazing.”
On Aug. 16, the foreign musicians visited areas of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, that were devastated by the disaster and performed at a community center there.
Finally, the big day arrived. On Aug. 17, the Michinoku musicians took the stage of Suntory Hall and began their concert with the slow, emotional melodies of “The Sun Will Rise Again,” composed by Philip Sparke for the victims of the Tohoku quake. They followed this with a cheerful “Disney Medley” and the melancholic “Elegy for Tohoku,” under the baton of conductor Kazufumi Yamashita.
One of the highlights of the show was an energetic performance of “Prism Rhapsody II,” composed by pioneering Japanese marimba player Keiko Abe. She explained that the piece, “expresses the coexistence of nature and human beings.” At Suntory Hall, the solo parts were performed by the 75-year-old Abe herself, along with percussionist David Panzl from Vienna, and 18-year-old Manami Kawana, who won a percussion competition in Miyagi Prefecture.
After the performance of “El Camino Real,” 80-year-old maestro Seiichi Mitsuishi took the baton and conducted the finale, the “Radetzky March.” At this point, everybody in the audience joined in with the musicians by clapping or using instruments they had brought along at the invitation of the concert organizers. Shiomi pointed out that there was a strong feeling of oneness in the hall.
“It’s really the power of music,” she says, “that can unite people together from across borders.”