“This is a very special night for these very special people on this very special stage.”
With those words, Master of Ceremonies Nozomi Terao welcomed the full house at Carnegie Hall to the Hearts and Eyes Choir concert on May 22. The culmination of three years of planning, preparation, and dedication, the concert featured fifty mentally and physically challenged people performing with local choirs and musicians. Included in the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with soprano Asako Tamura, mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen, tenor Akira Yukawa, and baritone Kyu Won Han.
Terao, the founder of HappyDoll, a non-profit that connects children around the world through the exchange of handmade dolls, said, “After tonight, you will believe in the phrase ‘anything is possible.’”
The concert was possible because dozens of volunteers in Japan and New York worked together to realize the dream of Hiroyo Ubayama, the founder of Yukiwariso, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization that provides care, enrichment activities, and job opportunities to people with disabilities. Ubayama brought a group to New York for a similar concert at Carnegie Hall in 2000 and began putting the plan for a repeat performance into motion three years ago. Finding the right person to produce the project from New York was essential, and it happened during a random doctor’s appointment in the Tokyo suburb of Toshima.
In need of a dermatologist while visiting her hometown, Tomiko Yazawa, a New York-based IT professional and executive director of Lesunt, visited the office of Dr. Shunichi Baba upon her mother’s recommendation. Coincidentally, Dr. Baba serves on the board of directors of Yukiwariso, so when he discovered his new patient lives in New York, he asked Yazawa for help with the concert. Without hesitation, Yazawa agreed.
But she had no experience with organizing an entertainment event, much less bringing a large group of people with special needs from Tokyo to New York. That didn’t seem to bother Ubayama, who was instantly impressed with Yazawa and named her the executive producer of the show.
The tragic events in Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, gave Yazawa an unexpected lesson in event planning. The devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown united the Japanese community in New York, giving birth to grassroots organizations and a flurry of fundraisers. Yazawa became an active participant, joining forces with Terao, pop singer AK Akemi Kakihara, and other friends to present concerts and programs to raise money for relief and recovery efforts. Those experiences gave Yazawa the confidence to move forward with producing Yukiwariso’s concert.
“Almost once a month we created a seminar event,” says Yazawa. “After six months I thought, ‘maybe I can do it.’”
Her staff members were as supportive as Ubayama and became enthusiastic volunteers. She called upon her friends in the entertainment industry for advice, including the soprano Asako Tamura, who recruited singers such as Juilliard-trained baritone Takaoki Onishi to participate. Oboist Arthur Sato agreed to manage the orchestra, but instead of having a traditional symphony orchestra, he handpicked an all-star roster of musicians to form a new group, the Urban-Atlantic Classical Collective, with violinist Asuka Annie Yano as concertmaster.
One of the biggest hurdles Yazawa faced was with logistics. How does one bring 179 people – fifty with disabilities, nineteen Yukiwariso staff members, and 110 relatives and caregivers – on a thirteen-hour flight from Tokyo to New York? Fortunately, Yazawa’s good friend and mentor, Keiko Ishida, is the CEO of IACE Travel. Together they discovered how to make arrangements with the airline to prepare special meals for the physically and mentally challenged performers and to construct changing areas for those who are unable to use the airplane lavatory by themselves.
Throughout the planning of the concert, Yazawa discovered that she had generous friends with expertise in a variety of areas. “I would be nowhere without the volunteers,” says Yazawa.
“I think it’s all about teamwork,” says Kazushi Udagawa, one of the show’s producers. “Everyone has the same philosophy about and purpose for doing this . . . We have a great team in New York and in Japan altogether, and I think that’s why we’re making this happen.”
And it did happen. Beautifully.
The concert, conducted by Juichi Sato, began with the Yukiwariso Japanese Drums Class performing on taiko drums under the instruction of Akikuni Takahashi. It was particularly heartwarming to see the joy on the faces of the drummers as they played this powerful song.
Then the Hearts and Eyes Choir joined the New York Mixed Chorus on stage for a rousing rendition of “Furusato,” which means “hometown,” a song that has special meaning to the Japanese.
“They wanted to perform old Japanese songs for second and third generation Japanese living in New York, especially for the ojiichan and obaachan,” says Yazawa.
In one special moment of the concert, Terao brought out a wheelchair containing HappyDolls made by the members of the Hearts and Eyes Choir who could not fly to New York due to severe illness or financial difficulties. “We have to remember the people who couldn’t make it,” Ubayama said during an interview before the concert. “They are watching over us.”
The performance of Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven was stirring and emotional, as the voices of 200 people filled Carnegie Hall with “Ode to Joy” and a special fifth vocal part created for Yukiwariso by the late vocalist Mitsunobu Nitta. Beethoven’s No. 9 is considered a complex piece for able-bodied, classically trained singers, so how does Ubayama explain the ability of her charges to sing it, even when some can’t even speak in their native Japanese?
Ubayama answers simply, “They don’t know it’s hard.”
Ubayama worked in a hospital in Japan and was exposed to the harsh reality for mentally challenged people. She saw mothers who had to spend 24 hours a day, every day, caring for their children, only to be told by doctors that there was nothing wrong with them. To Ubayama, the system didn’t work, so she founded Yukiwariso in 1987 to provide people with disabilities – as well as their mothers – with the care they needed and deserved.
Not wanting to stick her patients in a white room all day, Ubayama developed programs that would stimulate their minds and engage them in educational activities. In addition to the taiko group and the Hearts and Eyes Choir, Yukiwariso’s programs include swimming and a petting zoo.
“In general, we get married, have children, and make memories,” says Ubayama. “Just imagine that they don’t have that . . . My job is to be a messenger for them, to help them realize the importance of life.”
After discovering that many members of Yukiwariso could sing along to TV programs, Ubayama researched how to apply music to their daily lives. She found that Beethoven’s No. 9 could be helpful and formed the Hearts and Eyes Choir in 1989.
“The message was joy of life and we are all brothers and sisters,” says Ubayama. “Plus, ‘Beethoven Number 9’ sounds like ‘Number 9 bento,’” which appealed to her choir members.
Ubayama is humble and straightforward, and she says it makes her uncomfortable to receive praise for her role in Yukiwariso and the choir. Instead, she gives credit to the people who are in her care.
“I learned a lot, and they are the ones who taught me,” she says.
Before the show Ubayama mentioned that each time the Hearts and Eyes Choir performs, the audience gives them a standing ovation while tears stream down their faces. “I imagine they will do the same tonight,” Ubayama says. (We did.)
Ubayama doesn’t want us to feel sorry for the members of her choir. Rather, she wants us to feel the same joy that they feel when they sing.
“I wish for everybody to someday, before you die, say it (people with disabilities singing Beethoven) is no big deal,” says Ubayama, who wants to redefine how we view “normal.”
Could it happen? Will we attend more concerts like this in the future? As Ubayama, Yazawa, the volunteers, and especially the performers on stage at Carnegie Hall proved, anything is possible.