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2001 OTHER SECTIONS
CONCERT REVIEW: KENT NAGANO @ UCLA LIVE / MANZANAR - AN AMERICAN STORY
Kent Nagano’s artistic vision brought to life a musical-dramatic commemoration of a shameful episode that was a difficult subject to cover and not an easy project to bring to reality – “Manzanar: An American Story.” The sold-out multicultural audience at UCLA’s Royce Hall experienced a program that does what great music presentations are supposed to do – make one think and/or rethink one’s views/convictions on important issues. In this case, it was to not forget the unconscionable lapse of democracy that happened at Manzanar and at other WWII internment (concentration) camps – ever.
Nagano’s presence, known as one of America’s most daring and forward-looking conductor – along with being recognized as one of the best in the world - galvanized the various creative elements into this new oratorio-like work about the tragic experience of Japanese American citizens being interned during WWII. Despite the many compromises that occurred during the creation of this piece of music - Nagano incorporated the talents Naomi Sekiya, David Benoit, Jean-Pascal Beintus and American Youth Symphony (artists that don’t normally fill halls the size of Royce Hall) to perform with earnest and passion.
Nagano guided the well-intentioned American Youth Symphony’s enthusiastic musicians in their efforts to somewhat overcome their inexperience in effectively communicating this musical journey that began with Ives' "Unanswered Question," followed by a reading of Plato's "The Apology of Socrates" and bits of Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" (the introduction to Act 2 and the "Leonore" No. 3 Overture). Ives is quiet, mystical, questing. Socrates, as reported by Plato, was rational as he faced death on charges of corrupting youth and defying religion. His sentencing, Don Franzen wrote in a program note, "stands as perhaps history's most emblematic case of democracy gone wrong." Beethoven’s “Fidelio” highlights the “human ideal” and Florestan’s unjust imprisonment and victorious release of a political prisoner. These selections provided a historical perspective that Democracy, its uses and misuses, is not a new story and not without relevance to world events today.
During the second half, Naomi Sekiya’s musical contributions were intense, dramatic, masterfully colored, and uncompromising in its portrayal of post-camp life. Sekiya included sledgehammer-strong percussive attacks and bold abstract orchestral effects, which included use of a "sho," a traditional Japanese reed instrument. Jean-Pascal Beintus’ contributions brought a lighter touch for the various vignettes of camp life. David Benoit’s jazz trio (piano, bass & drums) interjected with pop music of the era with varying effectiveness – sometimes complimentary, sometimes providing unnecessary intrusions. Near the end, the Santa Monica Chamber and Manzanar Youth Choirs’ sang a forgettable “Song of Manzanar” while Elza van den Heever sang a siren call of hope and warning.
Philip Kan Gotanda’s text brought an overview of the Japanese American experience throughout the 20th century that provided a proper historical understanding of the inappropriate imprisonment at Manzanar from 1942 to 1945 that highlights the hysteria that surrounds any type of racial profiling. To Nagano’s credit, it was presented in a sophisticated and relatively apolitical manner.
Senator Inouye and Martin Sheen’s narration brought an inspiring dignity to the words that struck closer to home emanating from Inouye’s experiences with the internment camp – along with his position in politics, along with Mr. Sheen’s status of portraying a U.S. president on a popular and acclaim television program while recognizing his long-standing reputation as being an advocate for civil rights.
The acting of the text was workman-like and at time passionate. John Cho’s solo readings during the first half were unable to effectively fully communicate, just like the musicians, the many deep emotions that exist within the retelling of the Japanese American experience of the 20th century in the United States - and in a wider perspective the experiences of racism faced by all Asian/Asian Pacific Americans throughout history.
intermission, the four actors were better able to convey the life and
issues related to the time spent at Manzanar – difficult considering
that the amplification wasn’t adequate. Pat Suzuki’s great
energy contrasted sharply to Kristi Yamaguchi’s (of figure-skating
fame) “best of intentions” reading – though some people
in the audience were attracted to the “innocence” (i.e. a
strong dependence on pure emotion, as opposed to actual “acting”).
Sab Shimono read his lines in a very deliberate fashion, seemingly in
search for a deeper meaning while John Cho (during the second half of
the program) read his lines in earnest.
It is a miracle that this oratorio survived, considering that this work of music (originally proposed by Kevin Star – California’s state librarian and well-known historian) was intended to be a grand project along the lines of a symphony to be funded by the state of California, staged by visionary director Robert Wilson (supposedly the funding was to be in the millions) and performed at the world’s prestigious festivals. Private financing resulted in the original musical theater work being transformed into this 55 minute orchestral score written by various composers, two narrators, four actors, a solo soprano, a children’s choir, a women chorus and a jazz trio.
One might be surprised at the celebratory nature of the program prompted by this factor being a prerequisite of Hawaii Senator K. Inouye before he would participate. As Nagano discovered, Manzanar left a record of the internees not just surviving – but their ability to bring beauty and art into their lives to honor the raw natural loveliness of the surroundings.
“Manzanar'' speaks with the power of well-intentioned convictions of many people that is especially noteworthy for any artist – especially a prominent American artist of Asian descent. Hopefully this musical-dramatic commemoration will have the opportunity to refine its presentation, clearly define its unique musical character and incorporate creative elements that provide the ability to explore deeper into the emotional turmoil embedded with the internment camps. Kent Nagano deserves a great deal of credit of making this presentation a reality.
is hope that audiences receive what Maestro Kent Nagano stated it “is
a commemoration, but also a warning… Its message is universal, telling
of the fragility of human rights in times of fear and war, and remind[s]
us to be vigilant if liberty is [to] be enlarged, and freedom preserved.”
“Manzanar – An American Story” states that Japanese Americans (along with the other Asian/Asian Pacific American communities, other ethnic minorities and the general public) can state together the words that “We are the foreigner become the American” and the oft-stated stanza of “My Country. My Home. My Land.”
Any questions regarding the content, contact Asian American Artistry