YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The pull of history

Though structurally inconsistent, 'Manzanar' speaks with conviction.

June 04, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"Manzanar: An American Story" reached UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday night. As was the case at its premiere in Berkeley last month, the place was sold out.

Once again, however, audiences probably weren't attracted to this new oratorio-like work about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II because of the composers.

My guess is that few in attendance had heard of Naomi Sekiya, David Benoit or Jean-Pascal Beintus. Nor do American Youth Symphony concerts normally fill halls. No, the audience drawn to this UCLA Live event most likely came because Kent Nagano, the driving force behind the project, conducted. And people undoubtedly came because they felt that what happened at Manzanar and other internment camps around the country mattered.

The oratorio itself is a compromise. Once intended to be a grand project funded by the state of California, a work to be staged by visionary director Robert Wilson and sent to the world's prestigious festivals, it lost all its funding to budget cuts and, through private financing, survives instead as a 55-minute orchestral score written by committee. It utilizes two narrators, four actors, a solo soprano, a children's choir, a women's chorus and a jazz trio.

It has a wide-ranging text by Philip Kan Gotanda that attempts, in shorthand, to describe the Japanese experience throughout the 20th century, with life in Manzanar, from 1942 to 1945, as its central episode. For Thursday's performance, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and actor Martin Sheen were the narrators.

"Manzanar" describes an episode in American history that has parallels with today, the job of reminding us where the hysteria of racial profiling once led. And Nagano made sure that it would do so in a sophisticated, relatively apolitical manner.

His method was to create a broad historical context. After being briefly interrupted by a false fire alarm, he began the concert with Ives' "Unanswered Question," followed by a reading of Plato's "The Apology of Socrates" and bits of Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" (the introduction to Act 2 and the "Leonore" No. 3 Overture).

Ives is quiet, mystical, questing. Socrates, as reported by Plato, was rational as he faced death on charges of corrupting youth and defying religion. His sentencing, Don Franzen wrote in a program note, "stands as perhaps history's most emblematic case of democracy gone wrong." Beethoven trumpets, as only he could, the victorious release of a political prisoner.

The young players of this orchestra are limited by technique, but they are not limited in terms of commitment, and Nagano found in them their capacity for fervor. Apparently he could not, however, tone down the pomp in Sab Shimono's reading of Plato.

"Manzanar" has some highly effective, dramatically cogent music by Sekiya in its opening section, which deals with the first generation of Japanese immigrants to America. She is a promising composer who came from Japan to study at USC and UCLA and now lives here. Benoit -- who led a trio of piano, bass and drums on one side of the stage -- broke in periodically with pop music of the period.

Benoit's musical intrusions Thursday weren't bad (they were bad in Berkeley, where he didn't appear). But whatever atmosphere the pop interludes were intended to convey, they competed with, rather than complemented, Sekiya's sledgehammer-strong percussive attacks and bold abstract orchestral effects, which included use of a sho, a traditional Japanese reed instrument.

Beintus' music accompanies scenes of camp life. Prisoners arrive; strings are sad and fugal. Life goes on; Hollywood scoring accompanies it. Inmates bustle; music bustles. A big band strikes up, and Benoit saves the day.

Sekiya's score returns for the final section, about post-camp life, and the music becomes serious again. But here -- with the choruses (the Santa Monica Chamber Choir and the Manzanar Youth Choir) singing a forgettable "Song of Manzanar" and a solo soprano (Elza van den Heever) offering a siren call of hope and warning -- Sekiya had the thankless task of attempting to tie up loose musical ends.

There was inspiring dignity in the narration, thanks to Inouye's stateliness and Sheen's compassion. Of the four actors, Pat Suzuki was an irresistible live wire. Shimono read as if in slow motion. Kristi Yamaguchi (of figure-skating fame) and John Cho proved, respectively, featherweight and lightweight. The amplification was perfectly awful.

Given its many compromises, "Manzanar" does not have a sure future. But this performance, at its best, communicated the considerable power of its convictions, which is no small accomplishment in American arts these days.

Los Angeles Times Articles