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Uniting Tohoku with the World: The Sylff Chamber Ensemble and the “Power of Music”

Tags: Sylff , Earthquake-Tsunami , Music , Reconstruction

The Tokyo Foundation

October 04, 2012

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Donation Drive

Middle and high school wind ensembles in the Tohoku area were devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake, in which a countless number of instruments and many school buildings were swept away or badly damaged. Being unable to afford new instruments, most school ensembles were forced to suspend their activities.

School officials were eager to restore post-tsunami life to normal, though, and asked for help. The Miyagi Association of Wind Ensembles and the Tokyo-based nonprofit Musicians without Borders, as well as the Carnival Company group of musical artists responded by launching a donation drive. People from all over Japan sent not only brass and woodwind instruments but also recorders, keyboard harmonicas, reeds, and mouthpieces. The instruments were delivered to schools in the disaster areas by the Tsubasa, a truck owned by Musicians without Borders that can also be converted into a concert stage.

Help from Abroad

Immediately after the 9.0-magnitude quake struck Japan in March 2011, Sylff fellowship recipients from around the world contacted the Tokyo Foundation with offers of donations and support. Among them were young musicians from three of the world’s top conservatories—the Juilliard School in New York, the Paris Conservatoire, and the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna—who voiced their desire to support young survivors through music.

These fellows—many of whom are also active as young professionals—may have been thinking back to their own youth in offering to visit Japan as volunteers to perform alongside budding artists from tsunami-devastated areas in Japan.

The Michinoku Wind Orchestra is the crystallization of these two initiatives, bringing together students aided by the donations and the Sylff fellows wishing to offer their support. Suntory Hall and the Tokyo Foundation thus collaborated to organize a unique, one-time-only concert in Tokyo, along with a series of workshops in Tohoku led by the fellows.

Building an Orchestra

There was considerable concern, though, about whether enough students from tsunami-affected areas would apply to create an orchestra—particularly in mid-August, at the height of the Bon holidays in Japan to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. Such concerns turned out to be ungrounded, however, as more than 120 students—far more than initially anticipated—from not only high schools but also middle schools, sent in applications.

The Sylff fellows were led by flutist Bärli Nugent, assistant dean and a faculty member at the Juilliard School in New York. Having led chamber music workshops for high school students from around the world for 30 years, she quickly contacted two other Sylff music schools in Paris and Vienna to put together the nine-member Sylff Chamber Ensemble.

Support came from other quarters as well. Upon learning of this initiative, several top musicians stepped up to offer their help, including conductors Seiichi Mitsuishi and Kazufumi Yamashita and internationally renowned marimba soloist and composer Keiko Abe.

The 130-plus-member Michinoku Wind Orchestra was thus born, comprising young musicians from Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, as well as music schools in New York, Paris, and Vienna.

The Road to Suntory Hall

The next task was creating a music program for this large wind orchestra. This time, assistance was provided by saxophonist Shin’ichi Iwamoto, associate professor at the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, who since last year had been working with associations of wind ensembles in tsunami-affected areas to organize joint concerts. He selected and personally arranged pieces that would enable the Tohoku students to perform ably on their instruments, highlight the skills of the Sylff fellows, and achieve successful collaboration with renowned supporting artists.

Rehearsal rooms were provided by Tohoku High School—alma mater of well-known athletes like Major League pitcher Yu Darvish, Olympic gold-medal figure skater Shizuka Arakawa, and professional golfer Ai Miyazato—on its spacious and hilly campus of northern Sendai.

The workshops were held there for three days from August 13 to 15, with local students and young foreign musicians groping for ways to navigate the language barrier and differences in practice methods to rehearse the songs to be performed in Tokyo. It turned out to be an invaluable experience for the young students, who got to not only practice with and hear the virtuosic solos of the Sylff musicians but also to relate to them personally and to perform with marimba legend Keiko Abe.

On August 16 the nine Sylff artists visited central Ishinomaki, one of the most heavily damaged areas along Japan’s northern coast. In addition to performing a heartwarming concert for local residents at a community center, they paid a visit to several decimated areas, including a school that was destroyed by not just the tsunami but also a fire. They also spoke with a piano shop owner who is spending his time and money to restore mud-covered instruments to concert-ready condition.

On August 17 these efforts came to fruition in a triumphant concert at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. The outpouring of cheers and warm applause from the audience, which included the donors of the instruments the students were using, offered solid proof that music has the power to unite people of all ages and backgrounds and to lift the spirits of the survivors of the worst natural disaster in Japan’s history.

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