Prague concert to honour Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the WWII. His heroic actions are now being celebrated by a new piece of music composed by Lera Auerbach. The Czech premiere of her Symphony No. 6 Vessels of Light will be performed on Monday evening at the Rudolfinum concert hall.

Chiune Sugihara | Photo: Martina Kutková,  Radio Prague International

Japanese-American-Israeli cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, accompanied by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Prague Symphonic Choir is performing Vessels of Light at a dress rehearsal for its evening premiere.

The music, libretto, and artistic concept for the piece was created by Lera Auerbach, a Russian-born American composer and pianist and weaves together Yiddish poetry, the art of Japanese Kintsugi, the Kabbalistic story of the breaking of the vessels and the silent words of biblical Psalm 121.

The symphony was commissioned by the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance centre, but the idea was conceived by cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper, who has a personal connection to Sugihara

Her husband’s father, Irving Rosen, was one of the approximately 6,000 people rescued by Sugihara while serving as Japanese Vice-Consul to Lithuania during WWII.

Sugihara, with the help of the honorary Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, provided them with fake transit visas to escape via Japan to the Dutch-speaking Caribbean island of Curaçao, risking his life and career.

Photo: Martina Kutková,  Radio Prague International

Kristina Reiko Cooper says she only learned about the story a few years ago and it affected her deeply:

“Sugihara did this against the wishes of his government. In fact he asked them three times if he could get visas for the refugees and they said no, but he issued them anyway.

“Being Japanese I understand the culture deeply and I know that in Japan, you don’t go against protocol and you certainly don’t say no to your superiors.

“So he did what I would consider to be very un-Japanese in that he defied authority. However, in some strange way, it was also very Japanese.

“He came from the Samurai background and there is a code called bushido. The basic premise of this code is that nothing matters except that you do the right thing.”

For most of his life, Chiune Sugihara received little recognition for his heroic deeds. It was only in 1985, a year before his death, that he was recognised by Yad Vashem as the Righteous among the Nations. Kristina Reiko Cooper says she wanted the story to be heard by as many people as possible:

Kristina Reiko Cooper | Photo: Alon Shafransky

“I wanted to bring the story out, but I am not a writer or a reporter, not even an actress or a movie producer. I am a musician. That’s all I know how to do. So I thought the best way for me to bring the story forward was through music.

“I had this idea that I wanted something large because I wanted to make a big impact. I wanted to commission a work that would be great enough, to find a composer who is mighty and wonderful and skilled enough to write a great piece that could last for centuries.”

She approached the Russian-born American composer Lera Auerbach, who is herself a child of Jewish refugees and who was born inChelyabinsk, a town on the trans-Siberian railway that took the refugees with visas issued by Sugihara to safety.

“First of all, she wanted it to be an even bigger work, so she added a chorus to the orchestra and she also added two whisperers. And she came up with the ingenious idea of having the entire libretto in Yiddish, the language of the refuges that were escaping the Nazis.

“The artistic concept behind the work is that of Kintsugi, the Japanese art form of breaking up the pottery and putting it back together with gold filigree to make the whole more beautiful than it was before it was broken.

“For her it is allegorical of the Jewish people and how we are spread among the world and we are being brought together. And this is the way of melding the Japanese and the Jewish side.”

Kristina Reiko Cooper, who plays the solo on her 18th century Italian-made cello, says it is her instrument that plays the role of the golden lacquer that holds all the parts together:

“I carry a pretty heavy burden there as the cellist. I am hardly objective, but I would say the cello is the closest instrument to the human voice. And in a sense, even though we have all these singers around that are part of this work, it is actually the cello that is acting as the human voice to bring all of these pieces together to have music and art and light to heal the world.”

Vessels of Light had its world premiere last November in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas where the story of Chiune Sugihara took place. After the Czech premiere in Prague, it will be performed in Carnegie Hall as well as in Warsaw.