summer 2008 Edition
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Jay Chen

a trumpeter plays for his homeland

His father was buried in February, his mother in April. His homeland was buried in May.

Jay Chen

Willamette trumpet instructor Jay Chen’s family still lives in Chengdu, about 50 miles from the epicenter of the 7.9 earthquake, and he had just returned from China when he heard the news. “The ground rippled like a dragon was below, and tens of thousands were instantly buried in cold, dark rubble,” Chen says. “Survivors said it looked like the world was ending.”

Chen spent five frantic hours dialing his family again and again, wondering if they had survived. “I have never cried so much in my life,” he says. “The quake occurred in the middle of the day and so schools were the hardest hit. In just one school alone, more than a thousand children were buried. When they were uncovered, they were found wrapped in their teachers’ arms.”

Devastated by the disaster and unable to pull himself away from the television news coverage, Chen’s first impulse was to fly back to China to help dig through the rubble. A friend suggested he use his musical talents instead. And so the man who plays lead trumpet with the Portland Opera invited 42 friends — the region’s top brass musicians representing the Columbia Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, Portland Ballet and regional universities — to join him in a benefit concert June 1 at the oldest church in Portland, the First United Methodist.

Feature stories about the concert soon appeared in regional newspapers and on TV news broadcasts. Oregonian music critic David Stabler and others promoted the concert on blogs, music and news websites ran announcements, supporters sent hundreds of emails, and an OregonLive.com podcast featured some of the scheduled music. Even hellochengdu.com picked up the story.

Former Willamette student Toshi Kosaka arranged slides of the devastation to accompany the music, and Chen asked former trumpet student Scott Gerweck ’08 if he could write a brass instrument arrangement of the “Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel” — in three days. Gerweck, who plans to study composition in graduate school, gulped and said yes. “Even though our only rehearsal was the afternoon of the concert, I asked the performers if they could memorize the last three bars of the piece,” Chen says, “so we could dim the lights on the last slide, several small girls holding candles during China’s threeday period of mourning.”

“I want to tell you about my beloved homeland. Chengdu lies in a valley ringed by two rivers and a rugged mountain range. The valley is so beautiful, the soil so rich and the flowers so yellow, they call it the Land of Heaven.”

Five hundred people filled the church and waited, quiet light streaming from the tall stained glass windows. “I want to tell you about my beloved homeland,” Chen began. “Chengdu lies in a valley ringed by two rivers and a rugged mountain range. The valley is so beautiful, the soil so rich and the flowers so yellow, they call it the Land of Heaven. The people still alive there will always remember what happened that afternoon. One moment there were towns, full of life. The next moment, thousands were buried and millions were homeless. For the survivors of the 7,000 aftershocks, their desires are basic: ‘Please just let us have one decent night’s sleep.’” And tents, food and water.

After Gerweck’s song-prayer was performed, the cavernous hall was completely silent. Then a thunderous applause began, and Chen and his musician friends received a standing ovation. Supporters gave almost $13,000, which was sent to China via the American Red Cross.

When Chen was a boy, his mother sacrificed half a year’s salary to buy his first trumpet. She would have been proud.

Concert photo by Richard Yates