JapanCulture•NYC is currently on assignment in Japan, which means I have to miss many wonderful Japan-related events in New York. So I asked composer and writer Eric Schorr to share his thoughts about the recent University of Tokyo Alumni Choir concert at Carnegie Hall. The concert, a mix of classical music and Japanese traditional arts, was a benefit for Japan earthquake and Hurricane Sandy relief.
The Japan Earthquake Benefit and Hurricane Sandy Relief Concert that took place at Carnegie Hall on the evening of February 26 was a truly special and spectacular event – an evening of eclectic programming, united by the devotion and enthusiasm of both the performers and the audience.
The program began with a performance of Hokke-Senpou, an all-male a cappella choral transcription inspired by Buddhist chanting. This powerful and moving piece, impressively performed by some seventy members of The University of Tokyo Alumni Choir, provided an alternately meditative and stirring opening, as the sounds of prayer reverberated in the perfect acoustical environment of the auditorium.
Next up was a set of short Kyogen dances (komai) and Noh songs (utai) performed by the New York City Noh Kyogen Group. This collection of performers, ranging in age from ten to many multiples of that, has been training for months with their master teacher, Kansuke, otherwise known as Mr. Michio Izumi, the producer of the benefit concert. Their efforts paid off in spades. Dressed in variously colored hakama, they executed their kata and gave voice to their chants with refinement and gusto. It was thrilling to see Giuseppe Bausilio, one of the “Billys” from Broadway’s Billy Elliot and a member of the troupe. This fifteen-year-old’s graceful balletic style translated beautifully when applied to the centuries-old Japanese dance form. But perhaps the most moving moment was when Kansuke himself took center stage during a dance called Usagi (Rabbit). His agile hops were accompanied by his students’ powerful chant – and their devotion to, and respect for, their teacher was palpable, as was his pride in them. Though many non-Japanese speakers, and even those Japanese speakers not familiar with the somewhat archaic language of Noh and Kyogen, might not have understood the words, the joy and beauty of the movement transcended any language barrier.
The first half of the concert concluded with a performance by Flutes of Hope, a relatively newly formed ensemble of five wonderful musicians playing traditional Japanese instruments. Their first piece, Shika no Tone (Distant Cry of the Deer), was a shakuhachi duet depicting a male and female deer calling to each other across the mountains. Expertly and expressively played by Ralph Samuelson and Akihito Obama, it was one of the most evocative and haunting highlights of the evening.The rest of the group – Noboku Miyazaki on shinobue, Sumie Kaneko on shamisen and Isaku Kageyama on taiko – then joined for a spirited performance of folk songs from areas of northern Japan most directly affected by the 2011 earthquake.
The second half of the event was devoted to Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem No. 2 in D minor. Reona Ito conducted his eponymous chamber orchestra, The University of Tokyo Alumni Choir and The University of Tokyo Chor Akademi. The piece, which Cherubini composed for his own funeral, is a staple of the repertoire of both (all male) vocal groups and was performed with grace and strength.
Seiji Kasai, the Master of Ceremonies, provided a perfect balance of information and levity throughout the evening, which was capped by Yui Kitamura’s lush arrangement of Amazing Grace for full chorus and orchestra.
Originally conceived as a benefit for those affected by the Great Tohoku Earthquake, as well as a thank-you to those in America who have come to their aid, the concert took on another purpose after Hurricane Sandy. In the words of the event’s producer, Mr. Izumi,
In my apartment in Soho, the lights went out, cell phones went dead, and we were by candlelight. Once again, I could feel a quality of the absolute in nature’s power, in its force and the ease with which it could make the work of humans seem small. In the midst of such power, we are humbled. Yet we also show our enormous capacity to survive, to endure and to show compassion.
Mr. Izumi demonstrated the scope of his compassion by including as beneficiaries of his event those affected by the hurricane. His guiding spirit both on the stage and behind the scenes enabled the hearts of well over two thousand audience members and performers to beat as one throughout an evening that none who were present will ever forget.
Eric Schorr is a composer and writer based in New York City. One of his more recent works is the musical Tokio Confidential, which tells the story of an American woman who travels to Japan in 1879 and falls in love with a Japanese tattoo artist. www.ericschorr.com and www.tokioconfidential.com