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Language barriers disappear as young musicians from LA and Japan unite

by Gideon Brower and The Frame Staff | The Frame

Members of YOLA rehearse with members of the Soma Children's Orchestra and El Sistema Japan. Gideon Brower

The multipurpose room of the Municipal Concert Hall in Soma, Japan was the site of some international cultural diplomacy on Thursday.

Fifteen members of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA — the music training program run under the aegis of the L.A. Philharmonic — are here in this small city — part of the Fukushima region — to perform with the local children's orchestra and chorus. The musicians will communicate mostly through music during the visit, but they gave old-fashioned verbal language a try.

The casually-dressed kids from L.A. sat in two rows facing an audience of around 75 Japanese student musicians and chorus members dressed in a variety of school uniforms, some of whom sported the white surgical masks commonly worn here.

The two youth orchestras were scheduled for a joint concert the following day. So, with introductions made, the world’s newest international orchestra promptly got to work.

String players rehearsed with El Sistema Japan conductor Yohei Asaoka, while brass, woodwinds and percussion rehearsed in another room with YOLA conductor Juan Felipe Molano.

While the two groups share the popular El Sistema training program developed in Venezuela, Molano says his L.A. students sometimes favor expressiveness over technique, but the Japanese group works a little differently. "They know which fingers they have to play and which bowing they have to play," he notes. "Maybe sometimes we are not so strict on that in Western countries." 

Christine Witkowski, who runs YOLA at HOLA — the affiliated music program at the Heart of Los Angeles community center near MacArthur Park — sees this visit as an essential source of pride, not just for these kids but also for others from poor or marginalized communities who view them as role models.

As she explains: "I have students in my program at HOLA who have never been to the beach before. So to have the opportunity to be a world traveler and to feel valued as a person who can be an ambassador — it’s a really big sense of importance for the students."

Witkowski sees the visit as a boost for the Soma community as well, for a similar reason. "The children who’ve been affected by this nuclear disaster — a lot of people are afraid to come to Soma," she says. "This is an opportunity for those students to also realize that people care about them, that we’re not afraid to come here and share music with them."

The long-term impact of the disaster is clearly visible on a tour of Odaka, Fukishima, a town about 10 miles from the nuclear plant that suffered a meltdown after the tsunami four years ago. The town was evacuated and has since been closed to residents due to fears of radioactive contamination. The result is a ghost town.

Wall calendars in empty houses still show March, 2011. Long rows of bicycles are lined up by the train station, as if waiting for returning commuters. Yoko Okura, a journalist working with El Sistema Japan, explains: "People parked to get on the train, and then they left and they couldn’t come back. So the bicycles are still parked in front of the train station."

Okura says the government may allow residents to return to their homes sometime next year. How many of them will want to come back is unclear, as she says: "Because four years have already passed and people have already resettled, it’s a very difficult situation to see if the people would actually go back."

It’s an eerie and fascinating place, and it’s tempting to linger. But the kids are due to perform in just a few hours, so it’s back to the concert hall for final rehearsals.

At 5:30, the combined orchestras step onto the stage, under a banner decorated with Japanese and American flags.

On Sunday, these youth orchestras will be in Tokyo for a rehearsal in front of an audience, conducted by the L.A. Philharmonic's charismatic musical director, Gustavo Dudamel. So their one true performance is this one in Soma, given for their friends and families. It’s the concert the YOLA musicians have traveled across the Pacific Ocean to give.

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