At the German Consulate in S.F., violinist Mikhail Shmidt and cellist Water Gray of the Seattle Symphony perform excerpts from the upcoming Music of Remembrance concert. (Photo/Gabriele Lange)
At the German Consulate in S.F., violinist Mikhail Shmidt and cellist Water Gray of the Seattle Symphony perform excerpts from the upcoming Music of Remembrance concert. (Photo/Gabriele Lange)

Holocaust music series addresses Japanese internment this year

Music of Remembrance is marking its 20th anniversary by featuring a work that for the first time is not linked directly to the Holocaust — but the lessons and legacy of that dark period are evoked in the group’s latest world premiere.

The focus of this year’s performance is the internment of more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent, living mainly in California, Oregon and Washington during World War II, an event linked temporally if not geographically to the Holocaust. As with all previous Music of Remembrance concerts, it depicts the victims of persecution and the silent observers who did little to stop it.

Seattle-based Music of Remembrance, which for the past four years also has been presenting its spring performances in San Francisco, had until the last few years kept its attention solely on the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust.

Two years ago, it commissioned an opera based on the writings of a Polish dissident and a gay man. Last year, its main work reflected the Nazis’ murder of 220,000 Roma, or Gypsies.

This year’s featured composition is “Gaman: to persevere,” a multimedia work by French American composer Christophe Chagnard that melds music with the writings and artwork of the people who were taken from their U.S. homes and held in internment camps in the early 1940s. A majority of them were U.S. citizens.

Mina Miller, a pianist who founded Music of Remembrance and remains its president and artistic director, said she felt it was time to explore the plight of those Japanese Americans and a way to continue expanding her group’s mission without straying from its roots.

“We have realized that it’s important that we use lessons of the Holocaust to look at the impact of persecution and war on people of various ethnicities, nationalities and faiths,” she told J. “The Japanese American incarceration shares so many roots with the Holocaust, it reminds us of the terrible cost when people remain silent — and this happened on our own soil.”

Gaman, a Japanese word of Zen Buddhist origin that refers to the struggle to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity, includes the testimony of artists and poets who were among the 9,000 Japanese Americans held at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho.

The 45-minute work is scored for violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet and two singers, as well as Japanese instruments — taiko drums and fue, a bamboo flute. A baritone will read diary entries from works by internees, as well as 1988 remarks by President Ronald Reagan acknowledging the internment as a mistake.

Chagnard also spent months interviewing 12 former internees to get a sense of life in the camps and how the experience affected them. Chagnard, a guitarist and conductor who co-founded the orchestra Northwest Sinfonietta in Tacoma, Washington, in 1991, said he was overwhelmed by the stories of those who as children “knew from the day of Pearl Harbor that their lives would change.”

The Japanese American incarceration shares so many roots with the Holocaust.

“I spent nearly as much time doing research for the piece as I did writing it,” he told J. “The interviews immersed me into the emotions of what it was like to be there. I would often end an interview feeling very touched and emotionally transported into an aspect of those people’s lives that had an enormous impact and defined who they became.

“Sometimes, in spite of the fact that they lost everything, they were able to rebuild and do well again. Others didn’t do as well. Some committed suicide or died in the camps. Some slipped into alcoholism.”

Chagnard said he tried to make the music very personal.

“I wanted the music to be purely emotional, to show what it would feel like as an immigrant,” he said. “It was about what does the lack of freedom mean, the feeling of being deprived of a future, sort of an existential anxiety.”

The 55-year-old Chagnard, who came to the U.S. to study jazz guitar and evolved into a conductor and composer, decided in 2010 that he would compose only music that focused on specific causes, such as climate change or persecution of minorities.

That made Gaman a perfect fit.

“I made a conscious design to no longer write music for entertainment,” he said. “That was a critical moment in my life. I was very disappointed in the 21st century. So I decided I would compose music about causes I felt passionate about, and no longer write music for its own sake.”

Gaman will be performed Thursday, May 24, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music — four days after its world premiere in Seattle. The program also includes “Snow Falls,” a new work by Ryuichi Sakamoto that draws on melodies from his film score for “Nagasaki: Memories of My Son,” and several works directly related to the Holocaust.

Paul Schoenfield’s “Sparks of Glory,” which Miller described as “klezmer on steroids,” provides four portraits of Holocaust defiance and also is on the program. And soprano Roslyn Barak, the senior cantor emerita at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, will perform songs that were written and sung by prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Next year, Music of Remembrance will premiere an opera by Tom Cipullo based on the life and works of Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, who died in the Holocaust. Miller said she hopes to commission a future work about the current refugee crisis “because that draws so closely on the Holocaust experience.”

“We are continuing to absorb and reflect on causes that are meaningful today that relate to our mission,” she said. “We as artists need to use our voices to speak for those who have lost them and for those who have been excluded.”

Music of Remembrance, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 24, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F. $45-$60.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.