Fukushima kids compose for Philharmonic

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

The Sony Music Foundation took the opportunity of the New York Philharmonic’s current Asia tour to organize a special event on Feb. 11. The concert aimed to provide Japanese youth — some of whom were from Fukushima Prefecture — with first-class live performances by a top-rate orchestra.

Fukushima is still recovering from the Great East Japan Earthquake, which struck on March 11, 2011.

The night began with Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” led by assistant conductor Joshua Weilerstein and narrated in Japanese by music director Alan Gilbert, whose mother, Philharmonic violinist Yoko Takebe, is from Japan.

This led into a special feature, “Music for Fukushima,” which comprised short pieces composed by students between the ages of 10 and 15, and is the result of an ongoing project between Fukushima and New York youth.

The Japanese pieces were written by students studying composition under professor Takehito Shimazu of Fukushima University, who also teaches at the institution’s attached junior high school. Inspired by these compositions, the New York-based students of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program wrote their own compositions in response, resulting in a symphonic back-and-forth.

“Wave,” a somber piece by Karin Utagawa that uses quintuplets was countered with Julia Arancio’s “Unity”; “Flowers of Four Seasons” by Yuki Iwamoto motivated Austin Celestin to compose “City Life”; and “Happy Life” by Hiroaki Iwamoto, which features something of a traditional Japanese melody, was answered with Jake O’Brien’s jazzy “Traffic Lights.”

“Music composed by children is wonderful, honest, and more complex than we might think,” said Jon Deak, who is in charge of the project. “They have their own language. In the scores they wrote, there were many parts that might seem strange to adult ears, but we try not to edit or ‘correct’ them. We need to hear that fresh voice of the child, I believe it is vital for the future of music.”

Deak mentioned that the Fukushima compositions were not confined to painful themes. Shimazu explained the students aren’t defined by the disaster, “(they) are concerned about a dream for their future, the same as any other child.”

The night came to a close with Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” and George’s Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which were both conducted by Gilbert, and the latter featuring pianist Makoto Ozone.