Bit by bit

Tsunami fighter: Rice's Maiko Sasaki learns to make a difference with music

Tsunami fighter: Rice's Maiko Sasaki learns to make a difference with music

News_Maiko Sasaki Japan Fundraiser
Kana Kimura (violin), Stephanie Nussbaum (violin), Lorento Golofeev (viola) and Shino Hayashi (cello) performing at the Galleria. This concert raised $2,000 for the Japanese Red Cross. Courtesy of Maiko Sasaki
News_Maiko Sasaki Japan Fundraiser
Maiko Sasaki, a clarinet DMA student at the Shepherd School of Music, is using her performance skills to help those affected by the tsunami of March 11. Courtesy of Maiko Sasaki
News_Maiko Sasaki Japan Fundraiser
News_Maiko Sasaki Japan Fundraiser

A virtuoso is one who makes extremely difficult things look easy.

On a recent night at the Tasting Room in Uptown Park, I morphed into a ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra) groupie and partook, Dionysian style, in a wine tasting event while listening to clarinetist Maiko Sasaki play Bach, Donizetti, Poulenc and Mozart.

Her playing? Sublime, overcoming instrumental idiosyncrasies without a hint of arduousness, sailing thorough technical passages with ease and artistic dexterity. She understands musicality, making listening to Bach on bass clarinet organic, as if his Cello Suites were perfectly suited for the instrument. 

I am not surprised. As a student at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music under the tutelage of Michael Webster, one of the industry's veteran pedagogues, Sasaki spends most of her time between the practice room, orchestra rehearsals, chamber music coachings and working on her dissertation.

In the process of refining the minute skills that separate a promising student from a seasoned professional, it is easy to negate the outside world and live in the safety of academia, especially while chipping away at a Doctoral of Musical Arts degree. Not Sasaki.

Overnight, she has thrown herself in entrepreneurship mode, becoming a music activist. 

Sasaki is from Chiba, a suburb of Tokyo, and though most of her family only incurred minor inconveniences after the devastating tsunami of March 11, she has found a way to use her musical skills to raise over $12,000 to help those affected through the Japanese Red Cross.

"I needed to do something," Sasaki explained. "I was fortunate that I didn't have to worry about my family, so I could worry about others. Everyone I called to help me was very supportive."

Her first fundraising effort, a chamber concert performed at the intermission of an Opera in the HeightsPearl Fishers show, brought in the first $200. A few groups of her friends — the Gay Men's Chorus and Bayou City Women's Chorus — joined her in her second event at the Galleria Mall. With the help of the Japanese Association of Greater Houston, she upped the ante and collected $2,000 in donations.

Recruiting fellow piano doctoral music student Makiko Hirata as an organizer, Rice stepped in to provide additional support.

"It is becoming increasingly important for young professional musicians to reach out to the community," Robert Yekovich, dean at the Shepherd School of Music, said. "It's one of the primary ways in which we can foster the growth of an audience for classical music. And it is especially gratifying when musicians acknowledge their role as responsible citizens by using their art form to benefit people in special times of need."

The recital hall was made available for yet another concert, featuring ROCO and a mob of Shepherd's music faculty including Tom Jaber, Ben Kamins, Leone Buyse, Ken Goldsmith, James Dunham, Norman Fisher and Jon Kimura Parker.

Titled "Dear Japan, With Love," Hirata and Sasaki wanted to deliver a message of hope.

"Maiko and her colleague Makiko are music students with no background in the art and logistics of concert presenting," Parker said. "They were truly courageous to ignore these potential shortcomings, and go with their passion: to use music as a way of drawing people together and sending a small but meaningful message of hope to Japan.

"Their commitment inspired all of us who took part to give everything that we had in that concert. From a personal angle, with family in Japan myself, I was honored to take part."

"ROCO was conceived to be a platform for our musicians to foster their own ideas and dreams for what classical music can be and what we can do through music in our community," Alecia Lawyer, ROCO's executive director, said. "We are thrilled to see her passion for her homeland and the success her talents have produced."

This third concert raised $10,000 and another is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Alden Hotel, which is donating its space for the event. Featuring local and ROCO musicians, "Help Japan" presents music of Mozart, O'Connor, Ravel, Beethoven and Brahms.

"By working with all these outside groups and organizations, I have become better at dealing with people as I find a happy medium for everyone to be satisfied," Sasaki said.

She makes it look easy.