North Korea and Iran are getting ever closer to creating viable nuclear weapons. Countries in the Middle East continue to squabble endlessly. Uncertainty over what the impulsive Donald Trump might do in military situations keeps many awake at night. All the more urgent, then, is the plea coming from Hiroshima for peace and an end to all wars, from the site of one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind. With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo just a few years away, Hiroshima, International City of Peace, has embarked on a five-year plan to send to the world its urgent message of peace through the international language of music. Beginning last year, Hiroshima and Warsaw, another city that suffered frightfully in World War II, joined hands in a joint musical effort, the Poland-Japan Project 2016-2020, to present an annual concert in Hiroshima to promote peace.

The year of the Tokyo Olympics will also mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb attacks, the 75th of the end of the war, the 250th of Beethoven’s birth, and the next Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. For this landmark year, the city of Hiroshima plans to create an International Peace Orchestra with musicians from various foreign countries, and to be recognized as an essential element in the 2020 Olympics cultural program. Martha Argerich, Peace and Music Ambassador of the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra (HSO), stated that “it is essential to keep the memory [of wartime atrocities] alive, and I believe that music can be a powerful inspiration and support to achieve this.”

For this Flagship Concert in the hall of Hiroshima’s Bunka Gakuen, two musicians from Sinfonia Varsovia and two from the Montreal Symphony (Montreal being a “sister city” to Hiroshima) were invited to join forces with the HSO led by Kazuyoshi Akiyama. 

The concert began with an almost-new work by Osaka-born Dai Fujikura. Infinite String, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2015, was an appropriate choice to open a concert predicated on the negation of death and destruction. The composer described the work as being “about the very beginning of life. After fertilization, cells multiply and rapidly replicate their DNA. I used the timbre of tutti strings as if they were a growing zygote, rapidly hanging in shape while creating more packets of the same information. The result is that a body of sound grows out of these small packets of musical information.” The aural experience didn’t quite match the verbal description. Rather than any sense of growth or replication, what we heard was a seemingly random variety of sound masses, many of them for unison strings grinding away fortissimo and tremolo in dissonant blocks of sound. There was enough variety of range, texture, and dynamics to sustain interest for a while, but at seventeen minutes the work outstayed its welcome. Nonetheless, the score was well prepared, and Akiyama drew an intensely committed performance from the HSO strings.

Furthering the Polish connection was the choice of Charles Richard-Hamelin (no relation to Marc-André Hamelin, also from Quebec) as soloist in Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. Richard-Hamelin was second prize winner at the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and has already carved out a major career for himself, particularly in Japan. The twenty-seven-year-old pianist deserves every bit of the acclaim already heaped on him, and I can only add mine. What strikes one first and foremost about Richard-Hamelin’s playing is the beautifully sculpted, sustained lines he draws from the piano, the singing line Chopin learned from the operas of Bellini and Donizetti. There is a sense of direction, purpose, and inevitability to every note Richard-Hamelin plays. This is a pianist of subtlety, not showmanship, of thought, not temper. His acknowledged heroes are Lipatti and Michelangeli, revealed in his own playing. Richard-Hamelin made magic too out of his encore, a little Bach piece so simple any third-year student could have played the notes, but I venture to say not one famous soloist in a hundred could have matched his exquisite poise.

After intermission came Beethoven’s Fifth. Yes, a warhorse, but a still a thrill to hear how the HSO rendered it, with every last string player giving 100%. As with Fujikura’s work, Akiyama had prepared the score with great care and attention to detail. Accents were in the right place, there was power without force, distinction between short and long notes, clarity of texture, and not a hint of the mad scramble one often hears in poorly prepared performances of the first movement. It was truly a pleasure to hear this thrice-familiar symphony played so well. One only wished that the HSO had a better hall to play in. They deserve it.