The Sun Break: Japanese Composers Revisit Devastation of Atomic Warfare

Philippa Kiraly

Music of Remembrance has made its name for the past two decades steadfastly presenting arts from, about, or based on the Holocaust, lest we forget. And the offerings have been profound, troubling, enlightening, informational, and even at times lighthearted and fun.

For this first concert of its 20th season, MoR has diverged from its emphasis on the European Holocaust up to and including WWII, to the devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. While there were several works from Holocaust composers, the major offerings in Sunday evening’s concert at Nordstrom Recital Hall were two commissions from MoR of works by contemporary Japanese composers both of whom are known for their efforts to prevent more nuclear war. Although these commissions have been in the works for some time, it’s prescient that they are being premiered now, when there is so much saber-rattling going on between North Korea and the U.S.

In her introduction, Mina Miller said that these two compositions are offered as a prayer that the horror of nuclear war will never come again, and the Japanese consul-general in Seattle, Yoichiro Yamada, echoed the same in thoughtful and considered remarks.

The first, “Snow Falls,” not a lengthy piece but packing a powerful punch, was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, best known as a film composer but also a peace activist dedicated to nuclear disarmament, to a poem by poet Kiyoko Nagase (1906-1995). Translated by Empress Michiko, the brief poem is a distillation of how it felt by the poet, but perhaps speaking for all the Japanese people, visually after the bombing. It was narrated, first in English, then in Japanese, by actress Naho Shioya, to a quiet, spare accompaniment by violinist Takumi Taguchi and pianist (and founder/director of MoR) Mina Miller, for the English, and a gentle melody during the Japanese narration. It’s a work to hear again and again.

Keiko Fujiie composed the second work, “Wilderness Mute” and came from Kyoto for the performance. Hers sets words from poet and Hiroshima survivor Sankichi Toge; from another survivor, Kyoko Hayashi, who writes of her feelings on seeing the site of the first U.S. nuclear test in New Mexico, and from Japanese physicist and Nobel Prizewinner Hideki Yukawa, who wrote on “The Atom and Man.”

Toge’s poem is the most immediate, from a collection of 25 he completed in 1952 titled “Poems of the Atomic Bomb.” This is the sixth in the series: “At a Field-Dressing Station,” a graphic description of what he saw there, shattering to read today in Karen Thornber’s translation, and which it would be good for the current leaders of North Korea and the U.S to read now.

Fujiie uses a baritone and soprano, here Robert Orth and Ann Moss, to sing and sometimes speak the words, to an accompaniment which reflects the meaning by a small group of instrumentalists: violinist Mikhail Shmidt, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, cellist Walter Gray, and double bassist Jonathan Green. The accompaniment is spare, sometimes very quiet and slow, sometimes a scream, sometimes all the instruments in disparate, disconnected discussion, sometimes disintegrating into separation. It’s an evocative, unnerving, riveting work, which we should hear again. We should hear both of them again.

The rest of the program included works by camp survivors Emile Goue, William Hilsley and Marius Flothuis, plus a return of Paul Schoenfield’s “Sparks of Glory,” which tells remarkable and true tales from the camp experiences. Director Miller leavened some of the weight of the program with lighter works. HIlsley’s two pieces are upbeat and fun despite what he was going through at the time. And Schoenfield’s work always has an energy and spark. Erich Parce sang Hilsley’s “Songs,” Orth narrated “Sparks of Glory.”

It was a long concert, but no one in the almost-sold-out audience seemed to be noticing the time.