SAME-DAY REVIEW: “In America” — a stunning oratorio on Japanese-American WW II internment written by Van Nuys High School students and L.A. Master Chorale

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

“In America” — an oratorio written by Van Nuys High School students in conjunction with the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” artists-in-residency rogram
Sat., Feb. 18, 2 p.m.
Van Nuys High School
6535 Cedros Avenue
Van Nuys 91411
Free Admission

Since September a group of 85 Van Nuys High School students have been learning about America’s Japanese internment camps during World War II. That’s not surprising given that Feb. 19 marks the 75th anniversary of the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the forced removal and incarceration of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the Pacific Coast. More than 60 percent of the internees were United States citizens.

What is surprising is what came out of this study at Van Nuys High School.

As part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 20-week-long “Voices Within” artists-in-residency program, the students — along with several LAMC members — have composed a stunning, emotionally powerful, 45-minute oratorio, In America, which will receive its first public performance in a free-admission concert on Saturday in the Van Nuys HS auditorium.

The work received its premiere this afternoon before a full auditorium of VNHS students. Brianne Arevalo, VNHS Choral Director, led the performance with conviction and skill.

The students — who range from ninth through 12th grades — will perform the work Saturday, along with eight LAMC members and other VNHS vocal ensemble members. They will be accompanied by seven instrumentalists: six students and, on piano, David O, the Master Chorale’s composer for the project.

Working with lyricist Doug Cooney, singer Alice Kirwan Miller and O, the students wrote the lyrics and the melodies to the nine movements of the work. As part of the project, the LAMC members mentored the students on how to use musical techniques to capture the voice of the characters they create, propel the momentum of the plot, and paint the mood of the scene. They succeeded wonderfully in all phases.

The students also wrote about half of the often-chromatic harmonies of the work. O filled in the balance of the harmonies and provided the orchestrations. Reflecting the work’s poignancy, much of the music was in minor keys.

The production uses slide images from Manzanar (along U.S. Highway 395 near Mammoth Mountain) and other internment camps to help illustrate the stories. The performance used supertitles although the students’ diction was so good as to often render the titles superfluous.

After the work was completed, students auditioned for the 15 solo roles, which included Shushanna Keymethlyan, who was particularly poignant in the “Exodus” movement. The other soloists were Morgan Hesen, Lucy White, Isaiah Yiga, May Ngyuen, Jamaia Concepcion, Rafael Gomez, Bianca Akibiyk, Aerein Gundayao, Sat Gasparyan, Olivia Rodrigues, Antonio Lewis, Nat Nario and Ian Foster.

As is evident from the names above, Van Nuys High School is a diverse multicultural, multiracial school. Many of the students are immigrants and are living the lyrics they were singing. The movement with the text, “We are citizens like you but suddenly we are not,” rang out with heartfelt conviction.

The oratorio did an excellent job of delving into many of the layers of the internment issue, beginning with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The scenes of people being sent to the camps and, later, from the camps back to a very uncertain future with only a bus ticket and $25 used the same musical motif and lyrics to great effect.

The clash between Issei (immigrants) and Nisei (U.S.-born Japanese Americans) was portrayed graphically, as were Questions 27 and 28 (the questions asked of those who volunteered to become soldiers in the U.S. Army, even as their families were interned). In addition, the angry back-and-forth section, “No-No, Yes-Yes” were gripping. (For more information on these two issues, click HERE).

Ultimately the oratorio poses the challenge, not just to those interned after WWII but to the U.S. today: “Where can I be an American if not in America? If I pledge to you, you must trust me.” One could only hope that one of those in attendance Saturday would be President Donald Trump. He needs to hear what these students have to say and the gripping immediacy with which the words are sung.


Students from Van Nuys High School visiting the Japanese American National Museum as part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Voices Within” project. (Photo by Gabriel Zuniga)

Now in it’s seventh year (and the first at VNHS), the LAMC “Voices Within” Project places teaching artists in the classrooms to work with students.

“A core value of the program is to encourage expression through collaboration,” said LAMC President & CEO Jean Davidson. “That this oratorio, In America, about the Japanese American incarceration camps can have so much contemporary relevance is somewhat of an accident of timing, but it speaks to the universality of music and how it can allow us to find our voice, while also illustrating that looking to the past can provide guidance for the present.”

To further enhance their understanding of the camps and the impact of Executive Order 9066 on the Japanese American community, the VNHS students visited the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles in November.

Many of the museum’s docents and their families were among those interned, providing valuable first-hand accounts of their experience. One of those in attendance today was a child in a camp and he watched the performance with tears in his eyes.

The museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Common Ground: The Heart of Community,” documents 130 years of Japanese American immigration and history and includes a barrack building from the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming. That camp was one of 10 on the U.S. mainland. Two of the camps, Manzanar and Tule Lake, were in California. Together, they held nearly 30,000 internees.

The museum will begin a new exhibition, “Instructions to All Persons: Reflection on Executive Order 9066” on Feb. 18. Information: A story in the Los Angeles Times on the exhibition is HERE.

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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