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'Ashes Into Light': a meditation on Nagasaki bombing

The fathers of Oregon composer Robert Kyr and Japanese Zen-Buddhist writer Kazuaki Tanahashi fought on opposing sides in World War II. But now the sons of these warriors, along with arts organizations in Minnesota and Japan, are collaborating on what is being billed as a "meditation" on one of the defining moments in 20th century history: the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945.

To call this a big event is an understatement.

Saturday's St. Paul performance of "Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light" is going to employ four soloists, five choirs — three  from Minnesota and two from Japan — plus an eight-member taiko drum emsemble, and a 50-member symphonic orchestra. Three conductors also will be involved in the performance, sometimes conducting simultaneously.

"It's collaboration on multiple levels," says Kathy Saltzman Romey, artistic director of the Minnesota Chorale and the primary organizer of the concert.


St. Paul's sister city
If you're wondering why Minnesota is the site for the premiere of this work, here's the reason: St. Paul has maintained an active sister-city relationship with Nagasaki since 1955, when Dwight Eisenhower first proposed the "people-to-people" program.

The "Ashes Into Light" concert has been in the works for some time. Kyr, a prolific composer known for dealing with peace-related themes, was initially commissioned by the Nagasaki Peace Museum to write a symphony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing in 2005. Tanahashi, a major participant in the commemorative event, ultimately collaborated with Kyr in the intercultural project and parts of it were performed in Nagasaki that year.

"I thought if we could create a U.S.-Japan collaborative work to look into the past — the suffering of people, not blaming people, but looking at this kind of tragedy that really happened — it gives us hope to do some collaboration between former enemies," Tanahashi explained in an article published last May in Choral Journal.

"I thought this would be a kind of ideal, with potential for much drama and with implications for the future of the world," Tanahashi said.

Music for global understanding
That sentiment dovetails perfectly with the Minnesota Chorale's "Bridges" program, which was established by Romey in 1994. "It reflects the purpose of the program to use music for furthering global understanding," she said.

Described as a cross between a symphony and an oratorio with stage directions, the 30-minute work involves split choruses singing in Japanese and English and dramatic stage movements. It incorporates the stories of witnesses and survivors, spiritual expressions in several religions, and dramatically overt gestures of reconciliation.

"The trajectory of the work is the transformational journey of Nagasaki itself," said Kry in the same Choral Journal article. "From the horror of nuclear devastation, though utter grief, to an awakening that has brought an enduring commitment to peace."

Members of two Japanese choirs — the Gaia Philharmonic Choir of Tokyo and the Yokohama Chamber Choir (Kai) — arrived in the Twin Cities this week for final rehearsals. They will be collaborating with a 50-member ensemble from the Minnesota Chorale, plus the Minneapolis Youth Chorus, the Allegro Choral Academy's Bel Canto Choir and the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
 
Taiko drum ensemble
Also participating in the performance is Mu Daiko, the highly regarded taiko drum ensemble from St. Paul-based Mu Performing Arts.

A full-blown performance will be given at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine. It's a ticketed event.

The opening half of the concert will include individual performances by some of the participating choirs, plus a symphonic performance of "The Bridge," a work composed by Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska that was premiered earlier this year to commemorate the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

Two shortened performances, both without orchestra and only about an hour in length, will be presented next week. On Sunday, a free performance will be given at 4 p.m. at Hennepin United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. And on Monday, a performance for school students will be given in O'Shaughnessy Auditorium as part of the Ordway Center's "Planet Ordway" series for young audiences.

"For our singers, this project is especially significant because we will be connecting directly with a Japanese choir and looking into each of our cultural experiences while finding common ground in a vocal setting," Romey said. "The manager of the Japanese choirs told me that it is equally significant for his choir — to come together with an American choir and sing about an experience that is seared into their lives."

"It's a great undertaking for us," Romey said. "And I think this is going to be very powerful."

What: "Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light"
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: O'Shaghnessy Auditorum at the College of St. Catherine.
Tickets: ($10-$36) can be ordered by calling 651-690-6700 or online. For tickets to the school performance, call the Ordway Center at 651-282-3115.

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