Harpsichordist takes on nukes with global peace concerts

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo News

NEW YORK — Harpsichordist Yasuko Mitsui has promised to keep organizing concerts around the globe through her foundation until the world has gotten rid of nuclear weapons

“Until nuclear weapons disappear, I will keep doing this because it is my goal,” the Tokyo native said in a recent interview in New York. “Everyone wants peace.”

The 59-year-old Mitsui was speaking out not only as a musician internationally known in classical music circles, but also as founder and chair of the Harmony for Peace Foundation.

Her organization aims to promote cultural understanding through music and recently put on a concert in Carnegie Hall that was five years in the making.

Born in Tokyo five years after the war, Mitsui’s family had roots in Hiroshima. When the city was hit by the atomic bomb in 1945, her grandmother and aunt were killed and the family home was destroyed.

Her grandfather and uncle survived. Instead of becoming bitter, she said, they rebuilt their lives and didn’t harbor any hatred toward the U.S.

Nearly 65 years after the attack on Hiroshima unleashed the horrors that now symbolize the dawn of the nuclear age, she wants people to view the city differently — as a beacon of hope and possibility.

“Look at Hiroshima. We have created a new city, not a negative city,” she said. “It is important to create a peaceful world for the children.”

For nearly two decades she has worked closely with musicians in Japan and Europe to promote her vision, and coordinated with U.N. agencies to hold concerts in Vienna and Paris. Building on her network, she has also lobbied to raise awareness and funding for the victims of Chernobyl and those exposed to fallout from Soviet nuclear tests conducted in Semipalatinsk, in present-day Kazakhstan.

And now, she and Tomoko Torii, the foundation’s executive director, have taken another step by putting on the inaugural Harmony for Peace: Benefit Peace Concert earlier this month in New York City.

The kick-off concert, which raised funds for the Hiroshima International Council for Health Care of the Radiation-Exposed, was attended by about 450 people, including U.N. diplomats, in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall.

The event was highly symbolic because it involved artists from Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — the five declared nuclear-weapon states — and Japan, the only victim of atomic bombings.

It was timed to take place in the midst of the nearly monthlong meeting of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, which takes place every five years. The treaty came into force nearly 40 years ago.

In addition to organizing the event, Mitsui also performed several pieces on the harpsichord, including her own composition, “Sakura Variations,” based on the popular Japanese folk song “Sakura, Sakura.”

The performances at the benefit ranged from songs by the Long Island St. Aidan Girls Choir to poetry readings presented by Christopher Ravenscroft of the Royal Shakespeare Theater.

The British actor gave a dramatic reading of Sadako Kurihara’s poem “Umashimenkana” (“We Shall Bring Forth New Life”) and Edmund Blunden’s “Hiroshima.”

Representing China was the soprano Yunhong Zhao, while from France, noted composer Hacene Larbi appeared on stage with members of the Paris Chamber Orchestra.

Baritone Philip Zawisza represented the United States while Sergei Markarov, who is also a UNESCO artist for peace, performed on the piano for Russia.

The program concluded after each performer from the nuclear-weapon states was presented with 1,000 paper cranes folded by Japanese schoolchildren. The cranes are to be delivered to students in the performers’ respective countries to promote peace.

Commenting on the program, Philippine Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, who is presiding over the review conference as its president, praised the efforts undertaken by Mitsui for organizing the event.

“It is really good to have something like this,” he said. “It is major and that is why the initiative of Japan about disarmament education and nonproliferation is very important.”

In remarks during the program, Ambassador Shinichi Nishimiya of the Japanese Consul General in New York stressed the importance of music as a means of inspiring individuals.

“I hope today’s music will reverberate beyond this great hall to inspire us all to work together to bridge cultures, to build mutual understanding and to achieve the dream of world peace,” he said.

Fresh off the success of her first Carnegie Hall concert, Mitsui is already planning more projects in Hiroshima. She is even looking into the possibility of inviting Iranian and North Korean artists to participate in future concerts.