Mu­sic men­tors half a world away

Vis­it­ing Ja­pan’s Fukushima area, mem­bers of Youth Orches­tra L.A. in­spire and learn from their peers.


SOMA, Ja­pan — A sleek bul­let train pulled into a city in north­ern Ja­pan re­cently with 15 Los An­ge­les teenagers aboard. They looked like typ­i­cal school kids ev­ery­where, in the uni­form of T-shirts, hood­ies, jeans and sneak­ers. The city like­wise ap­peared un­re­mark­able, although the snow-capped moun­tains in the dis­tance were pretty.

But this was the city of Fukushima. And the stu­dents were mem­bers of YOLA, the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic’s Youth Orches­tra L.A. pat­terned af­ter Venezuela’s El Sis­tema mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram.

Fukushima has be­come an in­ter­na­tional syn­onym for dis­as­ter four years af­ter a 9.0 off­shore earth­quake, ter­ri­fy­ing tsunami and melt­down at the Fukushima Dai­ichi nu­clear power sta­tion. The YOLA con­tin­gent was on its way to the coastal town of Soma to spend two days re­hears­ing with a lo­cal chil­dren’s orches­tra in prepa­ra­tion

for a high-pro­file public re­hearsal in Tokyo with Gus­tavo Dudamel, the L.A. Phil­har­monic’s mu­sic direc­tor.

Never hav­ing been to Asia, the An­ge­lenos hardly knew what to ex­pect. The first thing they were handed on the long bus ride to Soma was a book­let in English with car­toon il­lus­tra­tions ex­plain­ing the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion on the body, an at­tempt to com­fort as well as min­i­mize the cur­rent dan­ger we would face.

The book­let seemed to im­ply a not very con­vinc­ing car­toon un­re­al­ity. That un­re­al­ity con­tin­ued for a while.

Daunt­ing chal­lenges

Soma, a city of 35,000, might also have been mis­taken for fairly nor­mal, at least if you didn’t cross High­way 6 and try to get to Mat­sukawa-ura Bay, where fish­ing was once rich. The coastal re­gion stretch­ing more than 100 miles is now bar­ren. The de­bris of fallen houses and the boats washed ashore has been cleared away. New grass has grown. But noth­ing is there.

The main part of town, on higher ground not reached by the tsunami, was badly dam­aged by the earth­quake. It has been re­built. Still, nearly 500 lives were lost. In­comes have been ru­ined. The Ja­panese out­side of Fukushima pre­fec­ture are hes­i­tant to buy the lo­cal agri­cul­ture, du­bi­ous of gov­ern­ment ra­di­a­tion testing. Only cer­tain kinds of fish are deemed safe to eat.

Among the many daunt­ing chal­lenges has been pro­vid­ing a sense of nor­mal­ity to chil­dren, and noth­ing seemed more nat­u­ral than be­gin­ning El Sis­tema in Ja­pan here three years ago.

Ja­pan boasts one of the world’s most ad­vanced sys­tems of mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion. Its Suzuki method alone has pop­u­lated not only the coun­try but the world with a gen­er­ous sup­ply of ex­cel­lent string play­ers. Mu­sic ap­pre­ci­a­tion is part of the cur­ricu­lum of all Ja­panese schools from the ear­li­est grades.

Mu­sic’s role in the re­cov­ery ef­fort, more­over, has been sig­nif­i­cant. Two weeks af­ter the earth­quake and tsunami, the Sendai Phil­har­monic ral­lied to give a ben­e­fit con­cert amid the rub­ble of the re­gion’s largest city. The orches­tra also trav­eled to Rus­sia on a thankyou tour for Rus­sian aid.

In fall 2013, at the in­sti­ga­tion of the Lucerne Fes­ti­val, artist An­ish Kapoor and ar­chi­tect Arata Isozaki de­signed the world’s first in­flat­able con­cert hall, a gor­geous bub­ble called arc nova, for the flood vic­tims. It was in­stalled for a few con­certs each fall and at­tracts in­ter­na­tional artists. Around the same time, Soma opened a lovely new 430-seat con­cert hall as the most telling sym­bol of the city’s re­ju­ve­na­tion.

The Mu­nic­i­pal Con­cert Hall is also home to the Soma Chil­dren’s Orches­tra and Cho­rus, and that is where the Amer­i­can and Ja­panese stu­dents gath­ered. This was the third trip cul­tur­ally and ge­o­graph­i­cally for a se­lect few of the older and more ex­pe­ri­enced YOLA mu­si­cians and the far­thest afield.

A world of mu­sic

The Ja­panese stu­dents, who out­num­bered the Amer­i­cans 4to-1, tended to be younger and less mu­si­cally ex­pe­ri­enced. The ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Friends of El Sis­tema, Yu­taka Kiku­gawa, told me on the train to Fukushima that the first visit to Ja­pan in 2008 by Dudamel and the Simón Bolí­var Youth Orches­tra (now the Simón Bolí­var Sym­phony Orches­tra) was the in­spi­ra­tion for Ja­pan’s El Sis­tema.

In 2012, Kiku­gawa used his ex­pe­ri­ence as a good­will am­bas­sador for UNICEF to cre­ate the first Ja­panese pro­grams, lo­cat­ing them in the part of the coun­try most in need. Par­ents took to the project im­me­di­ately, es­pe­cially pleased that the pro­gram would keep their chil­dren in­doors when the ra­di­a­tion lev­els were el­e­vated out­side. The Sis­tema style of learn­ing mu­sic in chil­dren’s orches­tras goes against the Ja­panese tra­di­tion of pri­vate prac­tice.

Maybe even more im­por­tant is a sense of com­mu­nity for the 3,000 kids who now par­tic­i­pate city­wide in Soma’s Sis­tema. Th­ese are not nec­es­sar­ily dis­ad­van­taged youth. But all were af­fected by the dis­as­ter (even if the small­est are too young to re­mem­ber it) and lost loved ones.

Cul­tural and age dif­fer­ences, along with a lan­guage bar­rier (the Ja­panese stu­dents have a smidgen of English), might have meant mu­sic would be the only com­mon ground. Many of the Ja­panese chil­dren wore school uni­forms and were ini­tially shy. The YOLA play­ers took over most of the first-chair du­ties; their younger Ja­panese coun­ter­parts du­ti­fully fol­lowed them.

Most of the long hours of work were de­voted to the last move­ment of Dvorák’s Eighth Sym­phony. Soma con­duc­tor Yo­hei Asaoka and YOLA’a new con­duc­tor, Juan Felipe Molano, shared the podium at re­hearsals, with Asaoka em­pha­siz­ing tech­nique and Molano try­ing to bring out more emo­tion. Both faced the ob­vi­ous ob­sta­cle that this mu­sic was be­yond the ca­pac­ity of such a group.

But Soma is not an or­di­nary place, and this was not an or­di­nary sit­u­a­tion. Be­hind the placid fa­cade of the city are un­mis­tak­able signs of hard­ship, such as the tem­po­rary

struc­tures for those dis­placed (and likely to be for quite some time).

There were odd­i­ties. A small mu­sic store dis­played CD bins marked happy mu­sic and ul­tra­happy mu­sic. All the of­fer­ings looked like sim­i­larly cheesy Ja­panese pop, but the ul­tra-happy mu­sic was more ex­pen­sive.

The sec­ond morn­ing the YOLA stu­dents took a sober­ing trip to the ar­eas of dev­as­ta­tion. Driv­ing past a strip of new car deal­er­ships and fast-food restau­rants we sud­denly turned into eerie Odaka, one of nine ghost towns within a 15-mile ra­dius of the re­ac­tors. Peo­ple had evac­u­ated sud­denly, leav­ing toys and bi­cy­cles in the yards. It might have been a set for “The Twi­light Zone.”

At din­ner that night, the stu­dents had dif­fi­culty putting into words how they felt about an ex­pe­ri­ence for which there are few ad­e­quate words. But they had ac­cess to mu­sic as a means of ex­pres­sion and af­ter­ward demon­strated new ur­gency as sec­tion lead­ers.

This may have been when they won over their hosts. Young Ja­panese girls dis­played gig­gly crushes on the older Amer­i­can guys. A flute player’s selfie stick, which he had bought at LAX, was a huge hit.

The con­cert with Dudamel on Sun­day morn­ing in Sun­tory Hall in Tokyo, the day of the L.A. Phil’s fi­nal con­cert of its Asia tour, may not have ac­com­plished the tech­ni­cally im­pos­si­ble. But in a mere 35 min­utes of re­hearsal, Dudamel got the play­ers to reach re­mark­ably deep in­side them­selves.

Fukushima presents a set of seem­ingly un­solv­able prob­lems, such as how to dis­pose of sev­eral hun­dred square miles of ra­dioac­tive top­soil. But in Tokyo, you get the sense that many wish the prob­lem would just go away. It won’t, and when kids play Dvorák as if their lives de­pend on get­ting it right, the moral im­per­a­tive be­comes pal­pa­ble.

The short pro­gram ended with Dudamel con­duct­ing the orches­tra and the Soma chil­dren’s cho­rus in a per­for­mance of the Mozart motet “Ave Verum Cor­pus” ded­i­cated to those who sac­ri­ficed to help in Fukushima. The spirit of Soma and Mozart was, for sev­eral mov­ing mo­ments, the same phe­nom­e­non.

Af­ter that it was back to be­ing kids, clown­ing around as they gath­ered their things in a re­cep­tion room. An out­stand­ing YOLA clar­inetist, Ed­son Natareno, told me that he had gas­tri­tis and had no idea how he had done. He had, like an old trouper, played with a beau­ti­ful grace. Dudamel had sin­gled out Daniel Eg­wu­rube, whose flute solo was spec­tac­u­lar.

In ris­ing to the oc­ca­sion of Dvorák, 15 YOLA stu­dents be­came in­valu­able Los An­ge­les am­bas­sadors of good­will. The names of the 13 ac­com­plished oth­ers are Marcy Are­liano, Moses Aubrey, Joas Espin­zoa, Ja­copo Esquivel, Laura Garcia, John Gon­za­les, Miguel Guen­do­ley, Kevin Im, Alice Mo­rales, Karen Ramos, Ju­liana Ro­driquez, Sam Rosas and Blanca Tinoco.

Mark Swed Los An­ge­les Times

YOLA MEM­BERS Daniel Eg­wu­rube, left, and Ed­son Natareno, cen­ter, ar­rive in Soma, Ja­pan, to per­form with young Ja­panese mu­si­cians.

Brian Lau­ritzen

YOLA PER­FORMER Daniel Eg­wu­rube, 17, holds a selfie stick to cap­ture a photo with newly made friends in Soma, Ja­pan.

Sam Comen

AT A PUBLIC RE­HEARSAL in Tokyo, Gus­tavo Dudamel con­ducts YOLA mem­bers and their coun­ter­parts in a Ja­panese El Sis­tema-styled orches­tra.

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