By Eric Dundon
When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra headed to Japan for a six-city tour in February 1995, the orchestra made an unexpected trip. Instead of heading to the first concert city of Tsu, musicians and then Music Director Leonard Slatkin instead took multiple trains to reach the city of Kobe, a 1.5 million-person metropolis along Japan’s Pacific Ocean coast.
As the musicians arrived, they faced a scene no one expected when the calendar turned to 1995: a city strewn with debris, many buildings in ruin, and more than 4,000 people dead. The arrival of the SLSO was five weeks after the January 17, 1995, Great Hanshin Earthquake—a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that devastated the region and ranks as the second-costliest earthquake in history.
Slatkin and the SLSO decided to bring music to the city in a free benefit concert at the Oriental Palace Hotel Theatre—a rare undamaged venue.
“We hope we can make people feel warm inside and good about the future,” he told the capacity audience of 500 at the theater through an interpreter.
Because the venue’s stage was too small to host the entire orchestra, chamber ensembles took turns playing for the crowd, which claimed every available ticket immediately after they became available, according to reporting from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
One of the ensembles was the Amici Quartet—“amici” meaning “friend” in Italian. Poignantly, two of the quartet’s musicians, the husband-wife duo of Masayoshi and Eiko Kataoka grew up in Japan. Joined by Charlene Clark and Susan Kier, the quartet performed George Gershwin’s “Lullaby” and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the deeply moving lament that has historically been played following difficult or tragic events.
In another concert highlight, other Japan-born SLSO members soloed in Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Three Violins, led by Slatkin at the piano. Violinist Takaoka Sugitani shared the solo spotlight, representing the Kobe community as a former resident of the city during his early childhood.
The Post-Dispatch reported the benefit was a resounding success and touched hearts and minds of the community in need of an outlet to express grief or simply in need of an escape from reality.
Throughout its history, the SLSO has responded to difficulties or tragedies by sharing the power music. The Persian Gulf War prompted the cancellation of the SLSO’s European trip in the early 1990s, which the SLSO replaced with a concert tour of Missouri. And when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of concerts in 2020 and 2021, SLSO musicians performed dozens of free SLSO On the Go concerts throughout the region in neighborhoods, parks, and other public spaces, reminding audiences, as they did in Japan, of the power of music.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.