The last time the Bach Collegium Japan performed on the main stage at Carnegie Hall was in 2003, and the Iraq War had just begun. The Tokyo-based group, one of the world's top early music ensembles, carried on with its performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, even as bombs dropped on Baghdad and international travel was severely disrupted.
On Sunday, the ensemble embarked on another trip to play at Carnegie Hall, again under daunting circumstances. Faced with aftershocks, transportation gridlock and canceled rehearsals as a result of the massive earthquake and tsunami, the orchestra members made it to Tokyo’s Narita Airport to board a flight to the U.S. for the start of a five-city tour. The group's Carnegie appearance is slated to take place next Tuesday.
"This time we have this kind of big difficulty but I think we can overcome it supported by the power of Bach’s music,” said conductor and founder Masaaki Suzuki by phone from his hotel in Grand Rapids, MI. “Whatever happens, it’s our responsibility to carry on with the music.”
Bach Collegium Japan is one of several headlining groups in JapanNYC, a Carnegie Hall festival planned as a celebration of Japanese culture but which has taken on added weight since last week. Hall officials note that none of the participating performers have withdrawn, although an opening-night panel discussion, “Innovating and Profiting in Contemporary Japan,” was deemed inappropriate and struck from the agenda.
"All of us feel firstly that it's more appropriate than ever to be paying tribute to Japan and its culture at this time," said Carnegie Hall artistic director Clive Gillison. "So, nobody—either in Japan or any of the participating artists—nobody felt that we should be canceling."
While many of the musicians in the festival were already abroad when the quake struck, the devastation at home creates a distraction. "We are trying to keep a sense of positivity at this moment,” said Jun Akimoto, the manager of Kodo, the taiko drum troupe in the middle of a 30-city North American tour. Akimoto noted that some of the group's 27 members come from the devastated city of Sendai but, after a period of uncertainty, all were able to establish contact with family members there. Kodo has been collecting donations from audiences towards disaster relief and hopes to do the same at Avery Fisher Hall on March 20.
Other musical headliners in JapanNYC include the violinist Midori and the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the latter of which was able to get all but two of their musicians on a plane on Sunday for their current U.S. tour.
The earthquake aftermath is the not the first setback for the festival, which runs through April 9. Concerts by the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy Orchestra scheduled for April 1 and 2 were canceled after the group’s founder and namesake, conductor Seiji Ozawa, was ordered by doctors to recuperate from the back surgery he underwent in January. Ozawa, 75, is the artistic director of JapanNYC, but has fallen into a series of major health problems including esophageal cancer. He isn't scheduled to return to the podium until January 2012, according to a new report in an Austrian newspaper.
Some 22 prominent New York cultural organizations are collaborating with Carnegie Hall on JapanNYC, including museums, conservatories and dance companies. Several major Japanese companies are backing the festival including the Epson Corporation, Mizuho Securities U.S.A., Nomura Holding America and the Sony Corporation.
Suzuki of Bach Collegium Japan said that his musicians are now trying to focus on rehearsing Bach’s Mass in B minor, one of the monuments of the classical canon. “Bach’s sacred music is so spiritual and we can all share the feeling,” he said. “So I must say we are very happy to have a program with the B-minor Mass this time. We can identify ourselves with this prayer and our desire for peace and safety.”