Over the last few days, a special group of young Japanese musicians, ranging in age from 13 to 18 has been on a busy tour of Boston when not rehearsing diligently at Battin Hall in Lexington. Known as the Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta, the ensemble is made up of student players who survived the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that beset their city in swift succession in 2011. Now, the young orchestra is set to make its US debut Sunday at Symphony Hall.
“We’re really impressed with how they’ve come together,” said Panos Karan, a concert pianist who founded Keys of Change, the British charity that helped create the Sinfonietta in the wake of the 2011 triple disaster.
The orchestra has provided student musicians with an outlet to express themselves, and to move forward with the process of healing from the tragedies. It’s also given them an opportunity to show the world that their hometown is much more than a place where catastrophe struck.
“They’re regular kids,” said Karan. “They’re alive, they’re well, they’re productive, and they’re creative.”
And they want everyone to see that. Their journey to the United States began on March 26. After weeks of rehearsing, the group departed Fukushima City by bus and drove more than 150 miles south to Narita International Airport, then boarded a nonstop flight to Boston. The flight took about 14 hours, and landed on schedule, according to the trip organizers.
The following morning, the young musicians boarded another bus, and rolled up to the Cary Memorial Building in Lexington for their first rehearsal on American soil.
“They’re very excited,” said Zacharias Tarpagos, a professional musician who works with Karan and Keys of Change. “When we were getting ready, their eyes were really getting on fire.
“For me, it’s been life-changing,” he said. “They’re like family to us.”
Five years have passed since the powerful earthquake reverberated through their homes on March 11, 2011. The quake was followed by deadly tsunami waves and a nuclear disaster that forced thousands of residents to evacuate. In those moments, their lives were forever changed. They watched buildings crumble, houses swept away. Some lost friends and family members, others homes and belongings. Some were displaced, or had to change schools because of radiation.
Mao Ohashi, 17, plays trombone with the Sinfonietta. Her memories of what happened in 2011 are still fresh, and she recalls being “terrified.” Many of her friends and family lost their homes. She grew up in a city called Date, where her family grew apples in an orchard. After the nuclear accident, she said, people wouldn’t buy her family’s fruit, no matter how much testing was done on them to show that they weren’t contaminated.
When Karan visited Japan in August 2011, he put on recitals for people living in emergency shelters and temporary housing, and at schools in the prefectures of Fukushima and Miyagi.
Karan described the trip as “dark” and “painful,” and also “the most powerful experience he’d ever had.”
“Everyone had gone through the worst experience of their lives,” said Karan. Despite that, he recalled, people were incredibly generous and altruistic. Residents who had lost loved ones were immediately volunteering to help others, he said.
The idea for the Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta came from middle-school students in Fukushima, who talked to Karan about how much they wanted to play. Karan returned to Japan several more times in subsequent years to work with the students and perform with them in concert — developments that marked the beginning of the fledgling ensemble.
Playing classical music, Karan said, allowed the students to “say with sounds what they could never say with words.”
At one of the Sinfonietta’s concerts in Japan, Karan noticed a school principal crying, and asked him why. “I keep thinking which kids aren’t here,” the principal told him.
In the spring of 2014, Karan and Keys of Change arranged for the Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta to perform in London. The group of 37 middle-school students gave performances at the BBC, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and other venues. Last August, the Sinfonietta performed at Tokyo Opera City before an audience that included Empress Michiko.
Also in the crowd that day was Peter M. Grilli, president emeritus of the Japan Society of Boston. Grilli said he hadn’t known what to expect, but was “swept away by the beauty, passion, and musicality” of the performance. “I was totally blown away,” he said.
After the concert, Grilli spoke to the students backstage. There, he said, one of the students told him the sinfonietta wanted to perform in Boston to thank the United States for helping Japan, and to show everyone that Fukushima was not a nuclear wasteland.
From that point, Grilli began working to bring the orchestra to Symphony Hall. What once was just a pipe dream for the young musicians became reality Friday when they rehearsed for the first time at Symphony Hall, in preparation for Sunday’s concert.
There has been plenty to keep them busy beforehand. Since arriving in Boston last weekend, the ensemble met Governor Charlie Baker at the State House, was treated to a lobster dinner at Legal Sea Foods, and enjoyed a guided tour of Fenway Park, smiling, laughing, and taking photos on the field as the Red Sox anthem “Sweet Caroline” played over the loudspeakers.
For Sunday’s concert, the orchestra is set to perform Glinka’s overture to “Ruslan and Ludmila,” Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Karan as soloist, and Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 (K. 314), with soloist Tarpagos.
The orchestra will be directed by Tetsuji Honna, who is currently the music director and principal conductor of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra.
Is it different leading an orchestra of children, as opposed to adults? Honna said he hasn’t been treating them any differently, and has been pleased with the results.
“They can catch what I want,” he said. “I’m very happy.”
FUKUSHIMA YOUTH SINFONIETTA
At Symphony Hall, April 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-$40. 617-266-1200, www.bso.orgEmily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.