In the early 1940s, Duke Ellington implored us to “Take the ‘A’ Train” to Sugar Hill in Harlem. If you take it a few more stops to 181st Street, you’ll come upon the Fort Washington Collegiate Church, where you can hear the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra perform monthly concerts that go beyond the typical classical music fare of the Three B’s: Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms.
In fact, today the nonprofit organization presents “A Thousand Cranes,” a program featuring Japanese and Japanese American composers.
Music Director Chris Whittaker assembled the pieces, which include Toru Takemitsu, perhaps Japan’s most recognized composer, as an obvious choice. Rounding out the program are works by Kenji Bunch, whom Whittaker describes as “a fairly popular contemporary composer”; Japan native Karen Tanaka, whose “Dreamscape” is making its U.S. premiere this afternoon; and Christopher Theofanidis, an American who has a special history with Japan.
Having a program with a Japanese theme is no small coincidence for WHCO: Whittaker’s fiancée, Alexis Agliano Sanborn, who serves on WHCO’s board of directors and is its volunteer coordinator, is also a Japan enthusiast with degrees in East Asian studies from both UC Santa Barbara and Harvard. A budding filmmaker, she is producing and directing Nourishing Japan, a documentary about food education in Japan.
Sanborn took a different route to Japanese music than her future husband, singing along to the theme songs of anime such as “Sailor Moon,” “Fushigi Yūgi,” and “Gundam Wing” as a teenager; participating in taiko rehearsals for bon odori at Sacramento’s Buddhist church, which boasts one of the largest congregations in America; and attending local festivals, Kabuki plays, and Iwami Kagura performances in Shimane Prefecture during her stint in the JET Program. In encouraging WHCO to take on a Japanese theme, she knew Takemitsu would be part of the program, but she wanted to keep the organization’s structure of presenting living composers as well.
Like Preparing a Good Meal
Whittaker says his approach to programming a WHCO concert is akin to preparing a good meal. “Everyone can appreciate comfort food, but also get a taste of something they haven’t heard before,” he says.
When Whittaker was around age 18, one of his first composition teachers introduced him to Takemitsu, and he has long admired the composer’s music for its ”spectrum of color.”
“Takemitsu embraces writing music with a real marriage of Eastern sounds and Western techniques,” says Whittaker of the artist, who has been compared to the legendary Olivier Messiaen and was heavily influenced by Western classical composers.
Although the artist has been on Whittaker’s radar for quite some time, Saturday’s performance of “Requiem” – another obvious choice – will mark his first time to conduct one of the vaunted composer’s pieces. “Requiem” made Takemitsu famous after Igor Stravinsky discovered the work. Whittaker says that the piece is the perfect fit for the program, allowing him to “dive inside of his sound world.”
“It’s a dark piece, with a lot of shadow,” says Whittaker. “It’s a dissonant listen, but it’s had time to marinate through the years” so it won’t be too jarring today’s audience.
Through research, Whittaker discovered Karen Tanaka, a Tokyo native who studied and worked in Paris and now lives in Los Angeles. “Dreamscape” is completely opposite of “Requiem,” a post-minimalist work that “spins music out from a small kernel,” says Whittaker.
The anchor of today’s program is “A Thousand Cranes” by Grammy-nominated Christopher Theofanidis, who was Whittaker’s teacher at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. A former delegate of the US-Japan Foundation’s Leadership Program, Theofanidis’s inspiration for this piece is the world-famous story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who survived the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima only to die of leukemia ten years later. Sadako began making cranes while in the hospital, and her story renewed a culture-wide interest in the practice.
“The narrative helps give the program a nice trajectory,” says Whittaker, “and a satisfying journey for the listener.”
“A Thousand Cranes” contrasts with the rhythmic pulses of Bunch’s “Supermaximum,” a work inspired by the songs of Depression-era chain gangs in the American Deep South. “It’s contemporary but grounded in tradition, which makes it accessible on the first listen,” says Whittaker.
Making Classical Music Accessible
Accessibility is the heartbeat of WHCO’s mission, and the nonprofit offers its concerts at Fort Washington Collegiate Church for free.
“I wanted something approachable for the newcomer,” says Sanborn. “We want people from the neighborhood, people from the surrounding communities, people from the tri-state region to feel like they can come and check out something that’s really high quality . . . showing the different faces that classical music can have and the feelings and emotions that it can conjure.”
“Part of our model and identity is to serve the entire community of Washington Heights,” says Whittaker. “What the neighborhood doesn’t need more of is exclusive, paid events. This neighborhood has people of diverse backgrounds and socio-economic means. People who can pay, do” through the organization’s donation and sponsorship opportunities.
And while the concerts themselves are free, the musicians are not. It’s important for Whittaker and Sanborn to support the musicians in the community as well as provide free concerts to audiences. Grants and donations from generous patrons allow WHCO to hire locally based musicians rather than ask them to volunteer their time.
“Part of what we also want to do is make sure we can provide a source of income for people in the neighborhood,” says Sanborn.
That extends to forming relationships with businesses in the area as well. This concert is sponsored by Tampopo Ramen, the first ramen restaurant in Washington Heights. Tampopo Ramen is run by husband-and-wife team Josh Frank and Nanae Mameuda-Frank; coincidentally, Josh is a trumpet player for The Knights, an orchestra based in Brooklyn.
Now in its fourth season, WHCO has provided free access to classical music, both familiar and new, which has given Whittaker the freedom to program local and living composers.
So take the A train to 181st Street for concerts you can’t hear anywhere else.