Back in St. Paul, still in Japan

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A week or so ago, St. Paul composer Raymond Berg was having a great time with some local musicians he was working with for a production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. The locals knew where the good restaurants were and after a performance, they had taken Berg and the orchestra for an evening out. Times were good. In Tokyo.

“It was a great time of bonding,” Berg recalled today while sitting in a St. Paul coffee shop. It worked. Separated by thousands of miles and five days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he’s worried about his five Japanese musical colleagues. He’s trying to contact each of them and knows only that “they’re alright.” As alright as you can be when much of your country is in ruins and there’s a chance that the way things are going the right spring breeze may kill you.

“We knew it (the earthquake) was extraordinary,” he said. “You could tell by looking at the faces of the Japanese.” He was on the 18th floor of a high-rise hotel (which had already been slated for demolition at the end of the month) when the earthquake — two earthquakes, actually — struck. He made it to the street in time for the second one.

“After we were on the street, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get back in there to get my computer equipment for tonight’s show,’” he said. There would be no show, of course. The production was canceled. He was able to get back home on Monday, feeling a little guilty about leaving people behind.

“They have a warmth that we simply don’t have,” he said. When the subways shut down, two American colleagues were stranded 7 miles away. They walked with a map in hand. “They ended up several times not knowing where they were, and each time the Japanese people came up and helped them head in the right direction.”

At a convenience store in Tokyo, he said, there was no yelling or fighting over the rapidly-disappearing essentials. He says the manager of the hall where the production was being performed apologized for the earthquake and tsunami. “I just fell in love with these people,” he said.

Being a composer — he’s musical director of the Ordway — Berg wants to build a tribute to what he saw last week with the tool he knows best: music. Before “my emotional state is dispassionate” he’s planning to compose a piece honoring the people of Japan. Part of it may include notes he heard last Friday afternoon — the sound his hotel made as it “absorbed tremendous forces.”

“It was a deep groan of stress,” he said. “Especially with the aftershocks, I often didn’t feel it, I heard it.”

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