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As Response to Japan Disaster Lags, Benefit Concerts Emerge

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Giving to relief efforts for Japan has been slow when compared to other major disasters in modern times, a fact that some attribute to the lack of a prominent activist working on the nation’s behalf.

Japan has no George Clooney or Angelina Jolie, after all, and the country is known more for its affluence than neediness. It does, however, have a longstanding cultural link to the West, through classical music. Over the coming weeks, a growing number of musicians and performing arts organizations in New York will be holding benefit concerts to raise money and awareness for Japan.

Carnegie Hall has dedicated its JapanNYC festival to the earthquake and tsunami victims and a moment of silence is planned for the start of the concert by the Bach Collegium Japan on Tuesday. On Monday, the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan, led by André Previn, is scheduled to perform Bach’s Air on G String in tribute to the people of Japan. Previn will be donating part of his fee to the Red Cross, according to an orchestra statement.

Meanwhile, the Japan Society has turned its annual “J-Cation” open house festival on April 9 into a day-long benefit Concert for Japan, organized by composer-saxophonist John Zorn and featuring Philip Glass, Hal Willner, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Ryuichi Sakamoto, among others. Proceeds from the event will go towards a Japan Earthquake Relief Fund that will be distributed to charities yet to be determined.

Japan Society artistic director Yoko Shioya said she was approached by Zorn, who has worked extensively in Japan and previously co-organized a concert series at the Japan Society. “John Zorn knows what kind of artists have been close to Japan,” she said, noting that he has organized other benefit concerts to take place at Columbia University's Miller Theater on March 27 and at the Abrons Art Center on April 8. In addition, pianist Taka Kigawa is donating the proceeds from his April 2 recital at Le Poisson Rouge to the Earthquake Relief Fund.

Some organizations are amending previously planned events. On Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic added the Requiem for Strings by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu to its concert of Hungarian music. The performance is documented in a video featuring music director Alan Gilbert, who himself is of part Japanese descent (his mother, Yoko Takebe, plays violin in the orchestra).

So far, American donors have contributed more than $87 million to 24 charities for relief efforts, according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy tally. In comparison, six days after the earthquake in Haiti, donors had contributed more than $210 million, and six days after Hurricane Katrina they had given more than $457 million.

Ken Berger, the president and CEO of the charity watchdog site Charity Navigator believes that people perceive Japan’s affluence as a signal that it isn’t in need of help. “There’s a tendency to blur the lines between what is government doing and what are charities doing,” he said. “Because the government may not be asking for help beyond a certain point doesn’t mean that charities don’t fill some critical gaps.”

Berger estimates that fundraising for Japan is just 20 to 25 percent of what it was during comparable period after the Haiti earthquake. That isn't likely to improve significantly either, as giving tends to plateau early and steadily drop off in the weeks following a disaster.

Berg also adds another note of caution -- that some benefit concerts start with good intentions but quickly find that cost overruns and the inability to pick suitable charities can dilute any potential benefits. Still, in a best-case scenario, "concerts can definitely bring money to the table and have an impact and an influence," he said. "Our view is you just have to look at the terrible devastation and the tremendous need that’s going to be there for quite a while and see that charitable giving is needed.”