March 10, 2012 at 4:30 PMIn the wake of the triple disaster in northern Japan last year, many foreigners fled Japan in panic. This was understandable, but still deeply demoralizing to the Japanese who did not usually have the choice to leave. Where would they have gone?
Of course visiting foreign musicians had a good reason to leave or stay away in the first place in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe. Many scheduled concerts were cancelled and they had no good reason to hang around. Whether there was justification for panic later in the year is a matter of opinion. According to the magazine “Sarasate,” Japanese fans of the Bavarian State Orchestra were shocked to hear that several of its members did not want to come and play in Tokyo in September because of radiation fears. The tour did take place though, and “Sarasate” reported that members of the orchestra put on an extra charity concert while they were in Tokyo. The orchestra had already taken part in a charity performance in Munich.
Ivry Gitlis, on the other hand, far from panicking, made it known to his managers in Japan, Tempo Primo, that he wanted to come and play for disaster victims as soon as possible. Tempo Primo have his letter of condolence displayed on their webpage:
Oh well, some will say, Gitlis’ll be 90 this year, so what’s he got to worry about. And maybe post-tsunami Ishinomaki was only marginally more dangereous than Paris truck drivers. But for the Japanese this kind of response meant a lot, and not just to people who suffered most. The August issue of “String” reported his visit to the town of Ishinomaki on the first inside page under the title “Gitlis’ Tears,” with a photograph of him surrounded by Japanese children in school uniforms. He told “String” that as soon as he heard the news, “I immediately wanted to visit the areas affected by the disaster and bring music to them.” Gitlis performed in the gymnasium of Ishinomaki High School for Girls on 1 June, and talked to a group of kindergarten children he met by chance. Among his pieces he played was an improvisation on “Hamabe no uta” (Song of the Seashore). I found an earlier performance (2008) of this song by Gitlis on Youtube:
Other pieces he played are said to have included Elgar's "Salut d'Amour." I guess not many people in Ishinomaki at the time were in a position to video his performance and upload it on Youtube, so here is an older performance by Gitlis (1985, pianist Neriki S.):
Gitlis has been visiting Japan regularly for the last 30 years “Until now id did not understand Japan’s true nature and how wonderful it is,” he told the interviewer of “String.”
“Sarasate” too carried pictures of Gitlis in Ishinomaki on one of its front pages, including one of him playing in the gymnasium of Kadowaki Middle School, where he was joined by the violinist Waseda Sakurako. The reporter for “Sarasate” began her article by contrasting Gitlis’ behaviour with that of several musicians who cancelled their visit to Japan. When she met Gitlis, he had himself felt and earthquake the previous night in his hotel in Tokyo; a “huge vibrato,” he called it. His interviewer underlined Gitlis’ courage by telling readers how he played for people in England during WW2 as well as working in a factory, and how he joined soldiers in the front line during the war in Israel and braved the barricades during the May Revolution in Paris in 1968 to play for the people in that town. Gitlis’ advice to Japanese musicians not knowing what to do in the midst of a mood of self-restraint and cancelled engagements was, “follow the voice of your own heart.”
Tomorrow, on 11 March 2012, Ivry Gitlis will be the first to perform on a violin partly made of tsunami driftwoold by Nakazawa Muneyuki in a relay that will take the instrument around the world to a total of 1,000 violinists. The inaugaral concerts will take place in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.
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