Sendai, Japan: "Music And Courage"

By James David Jacobs

May 29

During the month of May, violinist Maureen Murchie has been giving us a window into one part of the musical life of Japan. She’s told us the story of the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra, its short but rich history, and the challenges facing it in rebuilding after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Her perspective is unique, having grown up in Sendai, and her previous notes have taken us from some background on classical music in Japan to the founding of the Sendai Philharmonic and on to that orchestra’s maturing into a fully professional ensemble.

I hope you’ll tune in on Sunday morning to hear performances by the Sendai Philharmonic, and if you’d like to consider helping, one source is Global Giving.



Following Yuzo Toyama’s retirement in 2006, the Sendai Phil resumed a troika system of leadership with French conductor Pascal Verrot (left) as their musical director, Kazufumi Yamashita as Resident Conductor, and Kazuhiro Koizumi as Principal Guest Conductor. While Verrot does not make his residence in Sendai, many people, both within the orchestra and from the audience perspective, apparently feel that the “freshness” of music-making that occurs when he conducts in Sendai makes up for the challenges in logistics and communication.

Verrot will be in Sendai to conduct a June 24th “Revival Subscription Concert.” All of the Sendai Philharmonic players and administrative personnel survived the March 11th disasters (unfortunately, the same cannot be said for some of their instruments). The March 11th earthquake damaged all of the major performance halls in Sendai, so the orchestra had to cancel all of its scheduled concerts through June.

Despite the lack of functional performance spaces in town, the Sendai Phil has been playing an astounding number of reconstruction concerts both locally and around Japan. In Sendai, orchestra members have been taking turns playing chamber concerts in the lobbies of hotels and office buildings such as AER building and the Sendai Trust Tower.

The orchestra has traveled to Tokyo and Kanazawa to collaborate with other Japanese musicians in fundraising concerts directed by Junichi Hirokami, one of the SPO’s long-time favorite guest conductors. In Hirokami’s words, the orchestra has also “delivered music and courage” to many refugees still living in shelters in Kesennuma, Ishinomaki, and Watari.

One concert was in an elementary school gymnasium in the little beach town of Shichigahama, where my family spent several summers staying in a cabin, swimming in the ocean by day and playing cards and doing “summer vacation homework” (welcome to Japanese schools) by night.

And speaking of night, former concertmaster Yumiko Shibuya described how dark it was in Tokyo (due to the city’s power-saving efforts) when she arrived for a rehearsal for a recent benefit recital. She remarked that it almost seemed a foreshadowing of Japan’s dark days ahead.

In reading and hearing about the orchestra members’ many performances since March 11, I have been struck by the rather matter-of-fact, unglamorous coverage that these concerts seem to be receiving in Japan. For in Japan, using music as a solution, as a solace in the wake of disaster, or as a source of comfort, hope, and encouragement is nothing out of the ordinary.

This is a society educated in music from a very early age. It is a country of citizens for whom singing together is a mandatory part of their daily classroom routine during some crucial, formative years. It is a collection of concert-goers who do not bat an eye at $100 tickets because Dvorak’s "New World" or Beethoven’s Ninth is common knowledge to them, like the times tables or the subway terminals.

What a fascinating but bittersweet experience it was to meander through the beautiful JFK Museum and Library in Boston. Indeed, it was not that long ago that our leaders, too, had music and the arts high up on their priority list for the country.

In our world of urgency and immediacy, a long-term cultural and social investment like music may seem increasingly daunting and financially unbeneficial. But how do we measure the cultivation of the human spirit?

I noticed that several media sources commented on the lack of “looting” in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. Considering how highly the Japanese people value music and the arts, i.e. the collective efforts to create and enjoy something beautiful, is it that surprising to see their strength, integrity, and courage in the face of such horror and devastation?

It has been my pride and pleasure to share with you this month tidbits of the Sendai Philharmonic’s past and present with the generous assistance of James Jacobs and WGBH. I hope you have enjoyed the orchestra’s story and recordings, and I pray that we can learn from Japan’s cultivation and utilization of music as a tool that is both powerful and peaceful.

- Maureen Murchie

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