The 2022 Music on the Strait festival concert on Friday, Sept. 2, will feature virtuoso pianist George Li (pictured), cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. (Simon Fowler)

The 2022 Music on the Strait festival concert on Friday, Sept. 2, will feature virtuoso pianist George Li (pictured), cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. (Simon Fowler)

Composer once in Minidoka to be in Peninsula music festival

Paul Chihara to be guest of honor at Music on the Strait

PORT ANGELES — As a 5-year-old boy from Seattle, Paul Chihara was believed to be the enemy.

With his parents, he was rounded up and herded in mid-1942 into 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.

Chihara, who comes to Port Angeles next week as composer and guest of honor at the Music on the Strait festival, which will begin Friday and continue through Sept. 3, has a clear memory of Minidoka, 623 miles southeast of Seattle in Idaho’s high desert.

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

“We just entertained each other. I was always kind of a cornball,” Chihara recalled.

“I wanted to be a musician my whole life,” he added.

The Chihara family spent three years incarcerated at Minidoka, one of 10 “war relocation centers” ordered in 1942.

Some 120,000 Japanese Americans, about half of them children like Chihara, were swept off of the West Coast and transported by train to the camps.

“There was no term for our incarceration,” Chihara said in an interview from his home in New York City. It was “for the duration of the war,” he said.

For all the family knew, that could be 10 years.

But in fall 1945, the incarcerees were released following Japan’s surrender and the conclusion of World War II.

Yet they weren’t permitted to go immediately back to the West Coast, Chihara noted. He and his parents went instead to Spokane, where his father found work as a janitor at the Davenport Hotel.

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

Chihara and his mother got on a train headed west. He remembers it as the scariest journey of his life.

“Everybody on that train looked at us as the enemy,” still, he said.

They arrived in Seattle and made their way to 612 Jackson St., the location of Chihara Jewelry Co. The building owners 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 pulled the sheets off. Things began to shine and sparkle. It was like a scene from ‘Snow White,’” Chihara remembered.

The landlords had watched over the store and its stock of diamonds, pearls, fine pens and watches — American prewar products.

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

The building owners were Jews, 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 landlords, he said, “in a way, gave me my life.”

The Chihara family reopened their store. They rebuilt the business. And Chihara, after asking his father for a violin, received one found at a pawn shop.

He attended Catholic school, where the nuns were his first music teachers — and where he was recruited to join the USO, with whom he performed for U.S. troops during the Korean War.

After earning degrees in English literature and music from the University of Washington and from Cornell, Chihara built a career in classical music and composing movie 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 also served as composer in residence with the San Francisco Ballet.

Chihara has studied at Tanglewood, Mass., 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 his works.

The composer has lived in New York City for many years, commuting to Hollywood to work with film studios.

On both coasts, he has crossed paths with Richard O’Neill, the Grammy-winning violist from Sequim who cofounded the Music on the Strait festival with violinist James Garlick, who’s from Port Angeles.

Chihara met Garlick last year during a visit to Seattle, when Garlick performed with the Seattle Symphony.

The three men hit it off. O’Neill and Garlick asked Chihara, now 84, to compose a piece for violin and viola, to be premiered at the 2022 Music on the Strait. He accepted the commission, and added a challenge for himself.

“A piece for violin and viola can be really academic. It can sound like an exercise. I wanted this 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 titled “Born to Be Together.”

Chihara’s new piece, to be the finale of the festival, is “a fantasy on that. It will have emotional content,” he quipped.

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

“I’m a Seattle boy, so of course I know the Olympic Peninsula. As a Boy Scout, I went on extended hiking trips,” he said.

What he remembers: “It was wildly beautiful.”

Festival details

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 Maier Hall at Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., is hosted by co-artistic directors Garlick and O’Neill.

They have gathered 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 (Opening Night): Flutist Demarre McGill, violinist Elisa Barston and pianist Jeremy Denk play Debussy, Franck and Amy Beach — nearly sold out.

• Saturday: Cellist Efe Baltacigil and Denk play Beethoven — sold out.

• Sunday: “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” a recital and author talk with Denk — nearly sold out.

• Friday, Sept. 2: Concert featuring virtuoso pianist George Li, cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.

• Saturday, Sept. 3: Grand finale concert with works by Mendelssohn and Elgar, plus a new work for violin and viola by Chihara.

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

For information about tickets — and discounts for donors and for students up to age 25 — see


Diane Urbani de la Paz is a volunteer writer for Music on the Strait.

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