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How Pasadena-based cellist and Chernobyl survivor helps children in Japan


Cellist Marek Szpakiewicz will perform a recital with pianist Jiayi Shi at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa Oct. 15 to raise funds for a three-quarter sized cello for the Soma Children’s Orchestra in Fukushima, Japan.

He was only 16 in 1986, but Marek Szpakiewicz understood the impact of the nuclear reactor meltdown in Chernobyl. Though it was less than 400 miles away from his home in Lublin, Poland, his family was unable to leave. However, Szpakiewicz was a talented cello player, and in 1991 he won a scholarship to study at the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and later settled in Pasadena.

In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan kept Szpakiewciz glued to the news, moved by the survivor stories and the deaths of more than 15,800 people and recalling his own memories of Chernobyl.

In Fukushima, there is a community there living, and they are affected by this, and we have stopped talking about it, but the kids are growing and we won’t know the consequences, we don’t know the amount of devastation,” Szpakiewicz said. “What can I do? I know music, so I can bring the music, and we know the power of music is just incredible.”

In 2012 El Sistema Japan formed the Soma Children’s Orchestra in Fukushima and Szpakiewicz immediately began lending his support. Two years later, when he spent a day with the orchestra in Japan, he noticed that mostly it was only older, bigger kids that played the cello. He also learned that one student, Risa Yoshida, was heartbroken when she’d had to give her up her half-sized cello to another child.

Szpakiewicz remembered a similar experience of his own.

As a child, I was small and in Poland the funds are not so big and the school didn’t have the quarter-size (cello), the size I should start (with),” Szpakiewicz said. “So for a year I was practicing on the broom to practice my motions. Luckily, I was growing fast so the second year I could pick up the half-sized cello. I could finally have the cello at home from school and practice and that’s how my education started. So the pain of not having the instrument, I remember.”

In 2015, Szpakiewicz held a concert and was able to raise the money to provide Risa with a half-sized cello.

Marek’s gift means a lot to our children in terms of ensuring a young girl’s access to quality music education,” said Yutaka Kikugawa, president of El Sistema Japan. “The new cello has broadened her horizon for music passage and made it possible for her to play the Beethoven’s 5th Symphony side-by-side with the Berliner Philharmonic in March 2016, which was certainly a lifetime experience for her.”

Szpakiewicz will perform a recital with pianist Jiayi Shi at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa Oct. 15, hoping to raise money this time for a three-quarter sized cello for the Soma Children’s Orchestra. Monrovia resident Shi also came to the United States to further her education. The two perform together often and will play selections by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Barber and Gershwin.

In addition to Chernobyl, Szpakiewicz lived through communist rule, which had its hold on Poland until 1989.

From the moment I was growing up, the music was a hope for a better life,” Szpakiewicz said. “Music didn’t only play a tremendous role in my education, but my development, all the dreams and hopes that music provided for me.”

Arriving in Baltimore unable to speak a word of English, Szpakiewicz worked hard and then went on to USC, earning three degrees and a doctorate. In 2008 the U.S. government granted him permanent residency as an Extraordinary Ability Artist, and he landed a job teaching cello and serving as the director of chamber music at APU. This year he was also named an assistant professor.

I feel the power of America, a country for foreigners. I came here, I feel so good here. My roots are in Poland, but this is my home now. This is my country,” Szpakiewicz said. “I always dreamt about coming to the States, that’s the country where I pictured myself as a child. With all the tragedy that happened in my life, I have no reason to complain because I feel privileged, I feel lucky and I feel that I have to share, so that motivates me, the kindness that I came and witnessed, so I want to pass it on.”

Szpakiewicz has a full concert schedule, including a performance with Shi in Tokyo Oct. 29. There, the Soma Children’s Orchestra, along with Risa, will join him in the encore.



October 14, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , | Leave a comment