The composer has come a long way to the Port Angeles Music Festival


As a 5-year-old boy from Seattle, Paul Chihara was seen as the enemy. Along with his parents, he was arrested and herded in mid-1942 to a camp called Minidoka, where some 10,000 other Japanese Americans were held behind barbed wire. The Chiharas left behind their family business, a jewelry store near King Street Station in Seattle.

It was 80 years ago this month that the sprawling camp opened its doors. Chihara, who is coming to Port Angeles next week as a composer and guest of honor at the Music on the Strait festival, August 26-September 26. 3, has a clear memory of Minidoka, 623 miles southeast of Seattle in Idaho’s high desert.

In camp, music helped make life bearable. In the dining room of Block 14, the young Chihara sang songs in Japanese and English during the “talent night” every Saturday.

“We just had fun. I was always kind of a corn ball,” Chihara recalls.

“I’ve wanted to be a musician all my life,” he added.

The Chihara family spent three years incarcerated in Minidoka, one of 10 “war relocation centers” ordered in 1942. Some 120,000 Japanese Americans, about half of whom were children like Chihara, were taken from west coast and transported by train to the camps.

“There was no end to our incarceration,” Chihara said in an interview from her home in New York. It was “for the duration of the war”, he said. For all the family knew, it could be 10 years.

But in the fall of 1945, the incarcerated were released after Japan’s surrender and the conclusion of World War II. Still, they weren’t allowed to return to the west coast immediately, Chihara noted. He and his parents went to Spokane instead, where his father found work as a concierge at the Davenport Hotel.

“But we knew we had to come back to Seattle. We had our jewelry store,” which they had hastily closed three years before.

Chihara and her mother boarded a westbound train. He remembers it as the scariest trip of his life.

“Everyone on that train saw us as the enemy,” again.

They arrived in Seattle and drove to 612 Jackson St., the location of Chihara Jewelry Co. The owners of the building were waiting to let them in.

“It was all dark and very cold. Finally, they turned on the lights. There were white ghosts everywhere.

“They were white sheets, draped over the jewelry cases.

“Then they removed the sheets. Things started to sparkle and sparkle. It was like a scene from “Snow White,” Chihara recalls.

The owners had watched over the store and its stock of diamonds, pearls, fine pens and watches – pre-war American products.

“They didn’t touch anything,” Chihara said.

The owners of the building were Jewish, he learned later; “They were righteous people.

“I don’t know how my parents emotionally survived this…we could have come back and found nothing.”

The owners, he says, “in a way, gave me my life.”

The Chihara family has reopened their store. They rebuilt the business. And Chihara, after asking her father for a violin, received one found at a pawnshop. He attended Catholic school, where the nuns were his first music teachers – and where he was recruited to join the USO, with whom he played for American troops during the Korean War.

After earning degrees in English literature and music from Washington University and Cornell, Chihara built a career in classical music and composing film scores. He worked for Disney, became the first composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and joined the faculty at UCLA. For 10 years, he was also composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Ballet.

Chihara studied at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, and with Ernst Pepping in West Berlin and Nadia Boulanger in Paris. The Guggenheim Foundation, the Boston and London Symphonies, and the National Endowment for the Arts have commissioned works from him.

The composer lived in New York for many years, traveling to Hollywood to work with film studios. On both coasts, he crossed paths with Grammy-winning Sequim violist Richard O’Neill, who co-founded the Music on the Strait festival with Port Angeles-born violinist James Garlick. Chihara met Garlick last year during a visit to Seattle, when Garlick performed with the Seattle Symphony.

The three men got along well. O’Neill and Garlick asked Chihara, now 84, to compose a piece for violin and viola, which will premiere at Music on the Strait 2022. He accepted the commission and added a challenge for himself.

“A piece for violin and viola can be really academic. It may sound like an exercise. I wanted it to be something special,” Chihara said.

He turned to a song he had written for his wife, violist Carol Landon, when they met more than 40 years ago.

It’s called “Born to be together”. Chihara’s new piece, which will be the festival’s finale, is “a fantasy about it. It will have emotional content,” he joked.

Chihara added that this will be her first trip to Port Angeles for musical reasons.

“I’m a boy from Seattle, so of course I know the Olympic Peninsula. As a scout, I went on long hikes,” he said.

What he remembers: “It was insanely beautiful.”

Music on the Strait Begins August 26

Live music by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn and the world premiere of a piece by Seattle-born composer Paul Chihara are among the facets of the two-weekend Music on the Strait festival.

The event, at Peninsula College’s Maier Hall, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., is hosted by co-artistic directors James Garlick and Richard O’Neill, who hail from Port Angeles and Sequim respectively. They have brought together a variety of guest artists from across the United States for these five concerts, one of which is sold out.

Tickets are still available for the other four performances.

• Friday, August 26 (opening night): flautist Demarre McGill, violinist Elisa Barston and pianist Jeremy Denk play Debussy, Franck and Amy Beach — almost sold out

• Saturday August 27: cellist Efe Baltacigil and Jeremy Denk perform Beethoven — sold out

• Sunday August 28: “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, a recital and author conference with Denk – almost sold out

• Friday 2 September: concert with virtuoso pianist George Li, cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet

• Saturday, September 3: Grand final concert with works by Mendelssohn and Elgar, as well as a new work for violin and viola by Seattle native Paul Chihara.

On September 2 and 3, Classical KING-FM’s Lisa Bergman will give short pre-concert talks at 6:15 p.m. All performances begin at 7 p.m., except Denk’s recital at 3 p.m.

For more information on tickets – and discounts for donors and for students up to 25 – see MusicontheStrait.com.

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