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Music After the Tohoku Disaster (1) Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra 仙台フィルハーモニー管弦楽団

March 5, 2012 at 10:58 AM

March 2012 has arrived and for many of us with links to Japan thoughts inevitably turn to the anniversary of what has become known as “3/11”, the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and atomic reactor meltdown. Last year I posted the programme of a charity concert for victims of the Meiji Sanriku tsunami in 1896. This month I’ve finally got round to reading the articles I found in the string magazines “String” and “Sarasate” when I was in Japan last December. I wanted to find out about reactions to the disaster in the musical world. Back in 1896, charity concerts were still a novelty for the Japanese, but not any more. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Tohoku disaster didn’t produce something like a new record. Japan is a global musical as well as an economic power, and Japanese musicians in Japan and abroad organized charity concerts in the wake of 3/11. And of course they have musical friends worldwide who did the same.

First, to the Sendai Philharmonic, which Buri brought to our attention in his blog on last year. “String” published a 4-part series in its June-September issues paying tribute to the orchestra’s resilience and resourcefulness. As you might remember, the members and their instruments were unharmed. They were rehearsing in a hall in Sendai when the quake hit, and had to evacuate the hall. The hall and other venues were damaged during the quake and the orchestra had to cancel all its regular concerts until July. But that doesn’t mean the members stopped playing. They established the "Center for Recovery Through the Power of Music" and organized performances in evacuation centres as well as charity concerts. By 2 July they had organized 8 orchestral concerts, 32 ensemble performances in evacuation centres in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures, 112 concerts in the town of Sendai and 6 in places like hospitals, as well as 7 orchestral performances outside Tohoku. Smaller delegations from the orchestra had joined in concerts outside Tohoku on 9 occasions.

Here are three of several links to Youtube clips of concerts by members of the Sendai Philharmonic, a string quartet on 3 May 2011:

and 2 undated clips from one of their concerts in the AER building by Sendai station:

“To be honest, watching you all, one can’t help thinking you might be doing it for the sake of the players,” the music journalist Watanabe Yawara asked the violinist Ogawa Yukiko, proving that Japanese journalists can be just a blunt as their Western counterparts. “I can’t deny it,” was her answer, but then why should she deny it? She and her colleagues in the Sendai Philharmonic escaped largely unharmed, but they were close to the scenes of suffering. Shock and survivor’s guilt are natural reactions, and if performing has a therapeutic effect on the players as well as their audience, so much the better.

A mere 15 days after the earthquake, the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra even performed together as an orchestra, albeit on a reduced scale, in Kenzuiji Temple, near Sendai Station. They played Barber’s Adagio for strings which, as the news item on the Sendai Phil homepage reminded its readers, was also played at the funeral of President Kennedy. But the concert was as much about hope as about mourning the dead, and it ended with the audience joining in the song “Furusato” (Homeland), which has become part of many a concert played in support of Northern Japan. The Orchestra even resumed something approaching the format of their regular concerts, performing regularly in a school hall.

Meanwhile, other orchestras around the country showed their solidarity by inviting members of the Sendai Philharmonic to join them for concerts. Among them were the orchestras of Gumma, Shizuoka and Kanagawa and the Ensemble Kanazawa.

On 21 April the Sendai Philharmonic was invited to play in a big charity concert in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. The musicians from Sendai were joined by high-profile musicians including the violinists Tokunaga Tsugio, Miura Fumiaki, Katô Tomoko, Takashima Chisako, Urushihara Keiko, Fujiwara Hamao and Iso Eriko.
In the wake of the disaster the word “kizuna” (bonds between people) has gained currency – the Chinese character it is written with has even been designated “kanji (Chinese character) of the year.” The solidarity shown by musicians from other parts of the country with their colleagues from the Sendai Phil is a prime example. “Kizuna” even transcends national borders. The Sendai Philharmonic and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra were both invited to Tokyo for the Asia Orchestra week, a regular event held since 2002.
Christchurch, like Sendai, was devastated by earthquakes in 2011 – reason enough for the CSO to extend its first foreign tour northwards and to join the Sendai Philharmonic for a concert in Sendai on 5 October. The day before the CSO Brass Quintet gave performances in various locations in Sendai.

On 22 July the Sendai Phiharmonic Orchestra could finally resume its regular concerts. For their 257th regular concert they played Mahler’s 5th Symphony and his Rückert-Lieder. This marked the return to some kind of normality, but of course the rebuilding work will continue for many years to come. Still, the experience of “kizuna” and of making a difference together is one of the good things that have come out of the disaster. The tsunami broke down high walls, supposedly designed to resist the force of the sea. Its aftermath may be bringing down barriers that serve no useful purpose, as musical outreach takes on a wholly new meaning.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 6, 2012 at 4:24 AM
timely and important blog.
Can`t say I was too impressed with the journalists comment either. Not much better to my mind than asking `How do you feel?`
We play music for ourselves as well as other people anyway and I don`t think one necessarily neess to assume a proximal relationship between `survivors guilt` and distance. People from hundreds of kms distraught enough to pack their company trucks with food, house building equipment and the like and just go.
It is sort of reminicsent to me of the many Japanese who told me they were embarrased and ashamed because I spent time in the zone when they just sent packages. I always emphatically dismiised such fears and feelings of @guilt@. At that time we all had differnet and diverse obligations that all had their own value and significance. For the average Japanese where I live the point was to reassure locasl children who were so traumatized they were afraid to walk to school in case walls collapsed on them. For teachers it was to carry on with childrens education while helping children stay calm and come to terms with the situation. Shopuld a teacher , or mother, or musican go down and sling garecki around? Not really. The possibility of serious injury was exceptionally high and eartquakes were still occuring daily.
People`s responsibilities were simply to keep the country running, keep stable so as much help as possible could be offered in the right way. That goes for musicinas to and that is what the musicians of Sendai did and are doing.
We are musicians. We play for others, oursleves, our country the world and peace. We do it because that is what we are.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 6, 2012 at 6:25 AM
Thanks for the blog! The quartet touched me deeply. I feel I know them, or have a much closer tie to them because now that these people have the real faces to us far away in distance. I know they are still struggling and still need whatever help they can get, including internal support in ways most suitable individually, as Buri described. March 11 is right at the corner, what should we do to help and honor these strong people in Sendai?
From Margaret Mehl
Posted on March 6, 2012 at 11:05 AM
Dear Buri,
I could not agree with you more! Sometimes the best reaction to a disaster is to stay put where you are and continue doing your job. There is no one right way to respond. As for ambiguous feelings about surviving, Ogawa-san did mention such feeling in the interview and added that her household was even one of the first to get electricity again. Maybe it's about gratitude as much as "guilt".
Gratitude, I believe, has also been the motive for many foreigners trying to help. Some Japanese might feel it's odd that a foreigner heads up north when they don't, but there can be many reasons for this. One of them is a feeling of wanting to give something back after years of receiving favours and enjoying hospitality during visits to Japan. For anyone interested in reports about (non-musical) volunteer activities in Tohoku, I recommend the following:
Best wishes,

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