The New York Philharmonic Orchestra during the Opening Night Gala of New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center for the Performing ArtsThe New York Philharmonic Orchestra during the Opening Night Gala of New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (AFP Photo/Neilson Barnard)
New York Philharmonic musicians are accustomed to playing the most demanding works, but they are also performing some that are deceptively simple -- composed by children from Japan's disaster-hit Fukushima. In an exchange that has fascinated participants, children unschooled in musical theory are producing pieces that are transcribed and performed by Philharmonic musicians. The project is part of the Philharmonic's "Very Young Composers" project, which since its launch in 1995 has spread around the world with a mission to take children's music seriously rather than passing it off as cute. "I've seen so many hundreds of pieces written by very young composers and I'm just astonished, again and again, by how interesting and innovative the pieces are, because of course the children have none of the constraints that those of us who have studied composition have," said composer Theodore Wiprud, the vice president for education at the Philharmonic. Nine children from Fukushima between ages 10 and 14 are visiting New York as part of the project. Musicians from the Philharmonic will premiere the children's chamber works at Lincoln Center on Tuesday evening, following inaugural concerts of Fukushima children's works in February 2014. Takehito Shimazu, a professor at Fukushima University who led the project locally, said that the children chose to express themselves in various ways, with not all of them directly referencing the March 2011 quake-tsunami that killed almost 19,000 people in Japan's worst post-World War II disaster. While some may have chosen not to address the tragedy, Shimazu also noted that the children came from the city of Fukushima and not the worst-hit coastal area. The children were told to experiment with instruments and to pursue the sounds that appealed to them. To give a common thread, the youngsters were asked to work off the melody of "Choucho," or "Butterfly," a children's song that is known in the United States as "Lightly Row." Butterflies in Japanese culture often symbolize living souls. The Japanese children sent their compositions to students their age in the United States, who offered their own musical responses that will also be performed by the Philharmonic. - Can music show cultural differences? - The Very Young Composers program, started by composer and bassist Jon Deak, began at schools around the United States and expanded internationally to countries including Japan, China, South Korea, Finland and Venezuela. The Philharmonic enters at the invitation of school systems that are pursuing similar concepts. Venezuela is famous for its "El Sistema" plan that provides a public education in music to children across income lines. Wiprud said the Philharmonic was open to expanding its program. "The Fukushima experience does suggest that children who have been exposed to trauma at some level may benefit from the opportunity to express themselves in the abstract form of music," he said. The Very Young Composers program also showed, he said, that the quality of children's work was consistent around the world, despite their surroundings. In the case of Fukushima, "despite the cultural differences in the way young people typically interact with their elders in Japanese society, once we had given kids there permission to be creative and to tell professional musicians what they want to hear, we got great results," he said. The compositions from around the world could offer valuable material to musicologists, linguists or other scholars looking at how children's minds function and whether cultural differences begin early. Wiprud said that he often noticed pentatonic melodies, common in traditional Chinese music, from students in Shanghai. But not always. "Sometimes you think you're hearing it," he said of cultural differences in the music. "But then it gets contradicted by the next kid."