YOLA and a musical experiment in Fukushima, Japan

El Sistema Japan and the Youth Orchestra of L.A. are part of the Fukushima renewal

YOLA has touched down in Soma. And it is not, as might have been expected, the far side of the moon. 

When 15 student musicians in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles arrived here Thursday, the expectation was to find this coastal Japanese city, which suffered some of the worst damage from the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, a desolate place.

The Los Angeles students had come to spend two days working with children in El Sistema Japan, a music education program that was set up in the wake of the catastrophe to help children cope with loss and trauma. Both it and YOLA, which Gustavo Dudamel founded in L.A. in 2007, are patterned after the famed Venezuelan El Sistema.

A tour of the devastated coastline is yet to come. There is no question that this is a depressed region. Nearly 500 lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami. The nuclear radiation from the meltdown of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station 28 miles up the coast has significantly diminished fishing and agriculture in the region. Three dozen children lost their parents.

But what YOLA found in its first day here is a remarkable sense of renewal, such as the new 420-seat concert hall where the students had their first day of rehearsal.

Designed by the town’s mayor, Hidekiyo Tachiya, a physician who is also an amateur architect, it features elegant use of color – excellent red seats, white walls and various types of light and dark wood. The shape is a traditional shoebox, with a tall ceiling and gracefully steep rake. The sound has an exquisite clarity and presence. I would trade this in a second for Beverly Hills’ similarly sized and problematic new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Nor is El Sistema Japan exactly provincial. This is still a new program. Some children are as young as 7. Many wear school uniforms. But their instruments seem of good quality. And while quiet and serious, they pretty much look, act and exhibit the style of cool kids anywhere.

Their conductor, Yohei Asaoka, is very cool, dressed in fashionable leather pants and black hoodie sport coat. A Juilliard-trained musician who commutes by bullet train from Tokyo, he also runs a design company in Tokyo that makes paper models of instruments that are sold in the gift shop of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The YOLA players are older than the Japanese musicians, ranging in age from 13 to 17 and far more experienced. Some have been in the program from the beginning and grown into promising musicians. Having arrived in Tokyo only the night before and the next morning traveling three hours to Soma, they found themselves adapting to jet lag, unfamiliar food, cultural differences, and in the case of the cellist and the bass player, borrowed instruments.

In rehearsals in English and Japanese, both YOLA conductor Juan Felipe Molano and Asaoka demand professional standards. The stakes are high. All the kids will travel to Tokyo for a public workshop with Dudamel in Suntory Hall on Sunday, before he leads the final concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Asian tour.

But more progress than seemed probable was made in four hours of hard work.

They will have only one more day to get ready for Tokyo prime time. But any city that cares enough to build as fine a concert hall as Soma has under the most trying of circumstances imaginable, is a place where music, and perhaps miracles, might be made.

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