Yet, for a tour designed to promote peace by encouraging respect and friendship among people of different cultures, they were exceptional choices: 15 Oberlin Conservatory of Music string students eager not just to perform on tour, but to immerse themselves in a culture new to them.
The students were part of the 1995 U.S.-Japan Peace Concert Tour, for which they, Professor of Violoncello Andor Toth, Associate Professor of Singing Lorraine Manz, and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist Laura McGinnis '83 joined New York City's Inoue Chamber Ensemble (ICE) on a two-week tour that took them to six Japanese cities, Honolulu, and Seattle. ICE is dedicated to furthering world peace by promoting cultural understanding between the East and the West, says pianist Kazuko Inoue, ICE's founder and music director.
The tour was an effort to "bring cultures and peoples together through music," says Toth, who had worked with Inoue before. The collaboration between Oberlin and ICE began in spring 1994, when Toth and another Oberlin faculty member, Professor of Violin Taras Gabora, joined ICE for several concerts in Japan. They returned from that trip with the idea of taking Oberlin students on a tour that would be part of the 50th-anniversary commemorations of the end of World War II. With funding from, among others, the Japan Foundation, Oberlin College, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Toth and Inoue were able to arrange an itinerary that included the commemoration ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for which the members of the group had been granted official peace delegate status."When we attended the first peace conference in Hiroshima, I was very moved," says junior Meredith Cooper, a violinist. "I felt like I was a part of history . . . like a responsible, caring citizen of a country mourning, learning, understanding about the past. . . . It really made me search inside myself. I could hardly fathom the pain and suffering, the heavy weight the world had to carry afterwards."
The tour was offered to students as a Winter Term project for the 1994-95 academic year. They spent Winter Term on campus, rehearsing the works they would perform eight months later. When she first heard about the project, Cooper remembers being intrigued for a variety of reasons. "I was most interested in traveling, playing, meeting some new people from Oberlin, meeting new people in Japan, just getting the experience, and eating sushi," she says.
Cooper-and all the members of the group-did a lot of traveling and performing, but, despite the inevitable regimentation of concert tours, they had plenty of opportunity to meet Japanese people and to experience Japanese culture. The trip was designed that way.
While all of the stops included official receptions, the musicians were able to spend time with the Japanese volunteers who organized the group's stays in each city. The volunteers and their families wouldn't let members of the group do anything for themselves, remembers junior Yukiko Grine, a violinist. "They drove us around. They brought us drinks. They did everything."
Violinist Alisa Regelin, a double-degree senior, agrees with Grine's assessment that they were "treated like kings and queens," a response both women attribute to the high regard the Japanese have for the arts. The luxurious treatment afforded the group was due partly to the fact that they were musicians-"musicians who shared music with them," says Regelin.The students were happy, and sometimes surprised, at the positive reception the music received throughout Japan. "We played a lot of contemporary works-modern, 20th-century pieces that are hard for a lot of people to get," says Grine. Among the works performed were The Words Hiroshima Makes Us Say by Ken Niikura; Sean Song, a poem by Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon set to music by Leonard Bernstein; and Terrestrial Music by Mary Jeanne van Appledorn.
In Nagasaki the group opened for a popular Japanese folk group-"the Japanese equivalent of Peter, Paul, and Mary," says cellist Nicholas Photinos, a senior. "We thought they'd hate it. We were playing a lot of new music-slapping our instruments-but they loved it." The audience yelled for an encore after the group's 25-minute-long performance.
Another aspect of the tour's bottom-up approach was evident in the itinerary's focus on small towns. ICE has long focused on bringing music from large cultural centers to small towns, and the spring 1994 ICE concerts that Toth and Taras Gabora took part in proved the efficacy of that approach, says Toth. The towns in which the group performed were very receptive, he says, and other towns clamored for an opportunity to host the group. That experience proved that modern and Western classical music could be well received even in Japan's most remote venues, says Inoue.
The alumni member of the group, Laura McGinnis, also had a resident interpreter during her Hiroshima homestay. McGinnis was impressed not only that the family's "19-year-old daughter gave up her social life to be the interpreter," but also by their generosity and the concern they showed for her diet-she was then four months pregnant.
Not everyone had similar language experiences, but the ability to converse in English did not seem to be a prerequisite for meaningful interaction. "I spoke very little Japanese, so communication, especially with my host families, was limited to broken Japanese and English and gestures," recalls Meredith Cooper. "What an experience!"
Despite the language barrier, Cooper was able to forge a relationship with the daughter of one of her host families. "I really liked her and invited her to visit me in New Jersey. She was 17 . . . struggling in school with her English classes. She seemed very simple and content, but very innocent, almost passive. I remember myself at 17, and I don't remember being that way. She cried when I left . . . I felt very moved . . . like I had had some effect on her."Before the group embarked, the tour's organizers talked with the students about the trip's goal, but once on the road, they "let [the students] feel the way they wanted," says Inoue. "I trust that they will keep [the experience] inside," think about it, and, gradually, use it, she says.
Huy Luu came away from the tour with the belief that, to attain the goal of peace, the group's efforts must continue. "As we tour for peace, with our little boxes of wood, we alone cannot bring the world together," he wrote in his record of the trip. "That is why we are here-to try to bring people together so they can, in turn, bring more people together."
-Cynthia Nickoloff '88