By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU STAFF WRITER
If there was an underlying theme to the entire production of Friday’s performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it was one of a unified goal, of sharing a preciously rare experience.
The Asia America Symphony, conducted by David Benoit, was joined by nearly 400 members of Southern California’s Japanese and Japanese American communities for the Bridging USA and Japan Concert, which included a spirited performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the accompanying “Ode To Joy” lyrics.
In Japan, Friedrich Schiller’s words, in German, have long been sung as a way to signify auspicious occasions for groups. The tradition began early in the 20th century with music students performed the piece at farewell parties before graduating, and the lyric of joy outlasting struggle mirrors a collective national ideal of unity. It is widely performed on New Year’s Eve around the country and it is said that Sony standardized compact discs to hold 80 minutes of music to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth.
The concept was fully applied Friday, with the large choir, made up largely of non-singers or those who hadn’t performed in years. For some eight months, they committed their Friday evenings to first learning the German lyric, then perfecting their rendition.
Obviously, for anyone wishing to take stage and play music, the Disney Hall represents a thrilling opportunity. The gorgeous room with its expert acoustics–Benoit said it may likely be the nation’s finest–has no bad seat and every sound is clearly discerned. The excitement of the chance to perform the Ninth, one of the mightiest pieces ever written, on such a grand stage was not lost on many who took part.
“I’ve always liked singing, since I was in high school,” said Noriko Takarabe of Pasadena, who said she hadn’t performed on a stage in decades.“This is a fabulous experience, one that I will never have again.”
Takarabe added that a woman near her in the alto section wept openly after the concert concluded.
Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, was among the tuxedo-clad singers in the men’s section.
“I wouldn’t call myself a singer; I dabble at it,” Watanabe said, “But when I heard about getting Japanese and Japanese Americans together for such an unusual event, I wanted to join.”
The concert was the brainchild of Yasuyoshi Suzuki, president of the Japan Business Association of Southern California. Afterward, he explained that the concept revolved around celebrating the bond between the the people of Japan and the United States, a relationship that has withstood isolationism, mistrust, racism and a devastating world war.
“It is easy for countries to have misunderstandings at the political level,” Suzuki explained. “But on a personal level, between people, we can fully understand each other if we hear each others’ voices. Once we hear the voice of the people, our own collective voice, we realize the
importance of our friendship.”
Suzuki said that the huge number of people who responded to the invitation to join the choir presented a logistical problem for rehearsals. There simply wasn’t anywhere large enough to handle the group as a whole on a weekly basis.
“We had three different groups of more than 100 people, working on their parts separately,” Suzuki said. “It was very diffi cult for people who had no experience, learning the German and rehearsing for months. But they helped each other and grew closer as they encouraged each other. The process produced a great result.”
Sandy Sakamoto, a South Bay attorney, performed along with her husband, Nolan Maehara. She said the task was daunting at first, especially having zero knowledge of German language.
“I can’t read music and at first, all the instruction was in Japanese,” she said. “After a while, they realized it would be better if they spoke to us in English and after that, it all began to come together.”
The concert, which also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Japan America Society, represented a triumph for Benoit, a longtime jazz stalwart who has been redefining himself in the classical realm through his support of and involvement with the Asia America Symphony.
“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I don’t know how I can ever than you enough,” he said as he draped an arm around Suzuki.
The show began with a brief collection crowd-pleasing pieces before the intermission, including Mozart’s overture from “The Marriage of Figaro” and an obscure but bouncy Gershwin composition, “Japanese.”
The concert’s shining moment, however, was unmistakable, when the choir stood and the first few booming responses filled the air behind bass soloist Jinyoung Jang. When the hundreds of voices–which included Japanese Consul General Junichi Ihara–opened up, the floor rumbled, delighting the performers as well as the audience. Many of the hall’s seats were filled with family and friends of the singers, undoubtedly sharing in the unusually rare moment.
Ihara, whose comments in the show program said that he can’t understand German, can’t read sheet music and can’t sing very high, praised the entire project for its camaraderie and proclaimed it a success before it ever reached the stage.
Miyuki Cole, who grew up in Japan but has lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, said she always admired her friends who sang the Ninth in her homeland and that she wanted to feel the sense of inclusion that comes with this kind of project.
“In Japan, singing the Ninth Symphony is a chance to come together, to feel bonded to each other,” she explained. “It’s like carrying the mikoshi. We all share the joy.”