As the Empire of Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania during World War II, Chiune Sugihara issued visas that proved life-saving for thousands of Jewish refugees. Now, Japanese-American-Israeli cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper looks to share Sugihara’s remarkable life story with the public via concert halls around the globe.
Sugihara was named a Righteous Among the Nations in 1984 by Yad Vashem and died in 1986. His story resonated with Cooper, whose own identity has Japanese, Jewish and Israeli connections — and whose husband’s family escaped Europe thanks to Sugihara’s actions.
Noted cellist Cooper has initiated a creative musical project to honor the diplomat and his legacy: “A Concert for Sugihara,” which will make its American premiere at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall on April 19.
“I hope anyone that knows about this project and the story of Sugihara, and comes to the concert, will come away with the idea that what we’re missing in the world right now is compassion,” Cooper told The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview. Compassion, she added, is the one word that sums up Sugihara’s efforts.
And, she said, “Just the honor of being able to play this great work in this great hall of New York City almost speaks for itself.”
The main feature of the concert is a piece titled Symphony No. 6, “Vessels of Light,” composed by Lera Auerbach, whom Cooper has known since they were classmates at Juilliard. It will be performed by the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, with Cooper as the solo cellist.
Auerbach wove the piece from elements representing the diverse aspects of an eclectic narrative — from the Kabbalistic concept of shevirat hakelim, or the breaking of the vessels, to Japanese kintsugi pottery to an all-Yiddish libretto inspired by WWII-era poets.
“Lera came up with an ingenious concept,” Cooper said. “She brings together, very beautifully, the Japanese side of the piece and the Jewish side of the piece.”
As Cooper explained, shevirat hakelim means “the need to bring things back together, heal the world; good deeds heal the world.” In the Japanese concept of kintsugi, however, “the purpose is to break the pottery and glue it back together with a gold filigree to make broken pottery more beautiful than the original.”
In the concert, she added, “The cello is the gold filigree that brings all the pieces together. The chorus is the voice of the refugees, massive amounts of refugees displaced around the world.”
Cooper is familiar with both sides of the narrative. The daughter of a Japanese violinist mother and an American pianist father, both celebrated musicians, she converted to Judaism to marry her husband, Leonard Rosen. The couple and their children live in Israel, where Cooper is a visiting professor at the Tel Aviv University music school.
Although she never met her father-in-law, the late Irving Rosen, she learned that he had numerous connections to Japan. He lived there during WWII, spoke Japanese and displayed Japanese paintings and ceramic dishes in his apartment.
Only later did she discover that Irving and his brother had been among the many recipients of Sugihara’s visas.
“It saved their lives,” Cooper said, noting that their siblings died in the Holocaust. “My husband and our three beautiful children would not exist without Sugihara’s visas.”
From her own Japanese background, she felt an understanding of the diplomat’s courage.
“Culturally, I understood what it meant for someone who was Japanese to go against the authorities, against the orders of his government, to find all these transit visas,” Cooper said.
There are pages devoted to Sugihara on the websites of both Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that focus on his efforts between the summer and fall of 1940 to issue visas to Jewish refugees who had fled to Lithuania. These visas were a vital part of a complicated process that represented a rare way for Jews to escape Europe. They would traverse the Soviet Union for an improbable destination on the other side of the globe — the Caribbean island of Curaçao, at the time a Dutch colony. Sugihara partnered on this endeavor with a Dutch honorary consul, Jan Zwartendijk.
“The story really got to me,” Cooper said. “With everything going on in the world — mass chaos; the mass displacement of refugees, there are so many refugees now; the rise of authoritarian governments; the rise of antisemitism; the rise of anti-Asian hate… just one man, one person, can make such a difference by doing the right thing.”
Cooper wanted to increase awareness of Sugihara’s story, and decided to do so through music.
“I’m not objective,” she quipped, “but I believe music is the universal language and the best way to tell this story. Part of us does not need words — an emotional response, a visceral response.”
The path forward involved connecting with multiple individuals, including Sugihara’s sole surviving son, Nobuki Sugihara.
“Very luckily, he was very supportive,” Cooper said, noting that he is attending the April 19 concert. “He’s thrilled about it.”
Another crucial connection was Edna Landau, whom Cooper called “one of the legends in the classical music field,” including as a founder of IMG Artists and as Itzhak Perlman’s longtime personal manager. Cooper was also able to connect with Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem, with both organizations commissioning the concert.
Finding a composer was challenging, but Auerbach was the perfect candidate for many reasons, Cooper said, citing an impressive resume and a direct personal link to the story. Auerbach is Jewish, and her grandparents escaped Nazi and Soviet persecution for Siberia, where the future composer was born. Eventually, the family reached the Soviet Pacific port of Vladivostok, and then Japan.
“She’s a genius composer, an amazing, wonderful, great composer who agreed to take the work on,” Cooper said.
She expressed similar enthusiasm over the concert’s conductor, Constantine Orbelian, whom she called “sort of the angel of the project, who took it on right away and said what an amazing idea. He knew all about Sugihara, of course, and loves Lera’s music.”
Orbelian’s past positions include serving as the chief conductor of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra. He is now with the New York City Opera as its principal conductor and music director.
The project underwent delays caused by two separate crises — first the COVID-19 pandemic, then the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Our original idea was to trace the path of refugees in Lithuania and Moscow,” Cooper said. “We had two wonderful concerts lined up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Given what happened with the invasion of Ukraine, we couldn’t proceed.”
However, the world premiere did take place last November 5 in Kaunas, Lithuania, where Sugihara issued his visas.
The concert was performed in Prague last month, with many future stops on the horizon — including Los Angeles and Napa in the United States; European performances in Warsaw, Dresden, Berlin and Leipzig; and Mexico City.
But for now, Cooper has her thoughts on Wednesday’s performance at Carnegie Hall.
“Of course, it’s one of the most storied halls in the world,” Cooper said, “in the City of New York, where so many of the Sugihara visa recipients landed eventually, including my husband’s family — a city of immigrants, even today.
“I hope a fair amount of the number of Sugihara survivor descendants are coming to the concert,” she said. “What could be more special than doing the piece in front of people who wouldn’t be here without Sugihara?”
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