Young singers from Japan, N.J. will raise voices in memory of disastrous quake

A Japanese choral group performs in New York as part of the Hand in Hand project. (Philaharmonia Orchestra of New York)

A Japanese choral group performs in New York as part of the Hand in Hand project. (Philaharmonia Orchestra of New York)

On Tuesday, a chorus of 120 Japanese teenagers will sing alongside 80 choral students at The College of New Jersey to mark the 5th anniversary of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and nuclear meltdown.

Together, the 210 voices will perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony at Lincoln Center, accompanying the Philharmonia Orchestra of New York. The following day, the Japanese choir will accompany PONY as it performs a requiem by the contemporary Japanese composer Minoru Miki.

The Japanese students come from the region of Japan hit hardest by the disaster of 2011, when an earthquake triggered a tsunami, which caused the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. More than 15,000 people died, almost a quarter-million people were displaced.

Choral director John Leonard of The College of New Jersey spends his time with the kids talking about music, not the disaster. However, the disaster is just always below the surface.

“It gives an opportunity for us to say, ‘Hey, yes, this is still going on, there is still work to be done. There are real people, and here they are right in front of you, that lived through this and are putting their lives back together,'” said Leonard.

The concert at the Lincoln Center is part of the Hand in Hand Project, an international music exchange design to raise awareness of Japanese disaster relief efforts. It was co-founded by conductor Atsushi Yamada and David Titcomb, managing director of PONY, a new orchestra that rose from of the bankrupt remains of the New York City Opera (which is itself being revived this year).

“Disasters happen, the media attention is intense for a few months, and then the media moves on to the next disaster,” Titcomb said. “But in this case the devastation was so brutal. Still today there are displaced families.”

The young Japanese singers went through an audition process at their high schools, then spent months training with both Yamada and Leonard, who traveled to Japan in February for a music camp.

“Some things that these students are really, really good at – these students from Japan – being accurate on their entrances, and working together well as an ensemble,” said Leonard. “I’m just amazed at the diligence and discipline that they have.”

Leonard says some of the Japanese and American singers who had performed together in Hand in Hand’s previous concerts (“Carmina Burana,” Verdi’s “Requiem”) have stayed in touch with each other through Facebook. Some of those kids, now slightly older, are once again traveling to America, this time as chaperons. Here, they are reconnecting with their American counterparts and exploring the possibility of attending college in America.

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