Election Section

Berkeley Symphony Presents Premiere of “Manzanar” By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday May 06, 2005

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Musical Director Kent Nagano, will present the world premiere of Manzanar—An American Story, a semi-staged oratorio for orchestra, chorus and narrators, on Tuesday May 10 at Zellerbach Hall. 

Manzanar, perhaps the most notorious of the camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War, features a text by playwright Philip Kan Gotanda that embodies the voices of internees and reflections from literature on freedom, set to the music of composers Naomi Sekiya, Jean-Pascal Beintus and David Benoit, and performed by soprano Elsa van den Heever and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, with guest narrators Dale Minami, Pat Suzuki, Kevin Starr, Wendy Tokuda, Rajiv Shah, and Sab Shinomo. 

The program also will present other composers’ “ruminations on freedom and existence,” including Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” and Beethoven’s Fidelio.  

The idea for Manzanar originated several years ago, when State Librarian Kevin Starr requested a new work for the 50th anniversary of the internment camps. It was organized through the California Civil Liberties Public Educational Program (partly funded and overseen by the State Library), as part of the reparations for the internment as approved by Congress, including projects funded over the past five years. Senator Daniel Inoue was project honorary co-chairman. 

For the project, Starr nominated Nagano, who said, “As for nearly all the Japanese-Americans of my generation, the Japanese internment camps directly affected my family, and the opportunity to explore this period in our history through a project that incorporates musical and narrative elements is compelling.”  

Nagano said he assembled “a team of internationally recognized artists ... asking them to bring a unique perspective ... to explore through the language of music not only the Japanese-American internment camp experience, but also the larger question, what it means to be an American ... their experiences will then serve as a touchstone for reflecting upon the tensions between liberty and security that continue to challenge us today.” 

Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, also an independent filmmaker, was born in Stockton. One of the best-known Asian-American playwrights, this Guggenheim Fellow’s collected work, No More Cherry Blossoms, will be published later this year by the University of Washington Press. 

Composer Naomi Sekiya—herself an immigrant, whose music in the narrative covers the period from early Japanese immigration to WW II—was born in a village near Nikko, Japan. She studied music at UCLA and USC. Her work has received awards at international competitions and at the Ojai Festival in 2000. She is known for her guitar compositions, and has been composer-in-residence with the Berkeley Symphony. 

Composer Jean-Pascal Beintus—whose music for Manzanar covers from the time of internment up to present—was born in Toulouse, France. He has played double bass for Opera de Lyons, and has collaborated with the Berkeley Symphony since Kent Nagano first commissioned a work from him in 1998, most notably on “Luna Tree,” and “The Bremen Town Musicians.” 

Bakersfield native David Benoit, who contributes jazz and big band music integral to Japanese-American experience, is best-known for “smooth jazz,” like his Grammy-nominated album, Every Step of the Way. He has studied composition and film music, been the musical director of the Asia America Symphony in Southern California and has performed in concert with conductor Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall.  

As part of the project, educational programs among 5th graders in Berkeley and Albany Public Schools have been carried out as part of the California historical curriculum, with multimedia presentations, visits by musicians, visual artists and internees. The 5th graders’ drawings are part of an installation by artist Flo Oy Wong, “1942 Luggage From Home To Camp,” in Zellerbach’s lobby. 

It was visual art, in the form of photography, that publicized the existence of the internment camps to a wider American public. Dorothea Lange’s photos of Manzanar, exhibited at the camp in 1944, raised controversy over the executive order that interned American citizens, and conditions at the camps. Ansel Adams’ pictures, originally titled “Born Free and Equal, the Story of Loyal Japanese Americans,” were exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1944 under the less controversial title, “Manzanar.” The book of 66 prints was finally published in 1994, under the original title. Adams donated his prints to the Library of Congress, on whose website they may be viewed online.