M. L. Liu April 1, 2012 (A truncated version of this article appeared in the April 14 edition of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind
Recently, an interesting thread of discussion showed up on Japan's Yahoo ask-a-question "Music" section (http://music.yahoo.co.jp/answers/dtl/1384681783/ Rough English translation: http://bit.ly/H7EO5f)
The original question went like this:
The questioner sought opinions on the validity of the assertion (that someone born blind could never fully approach the depth of the composition).
I am not proficient in reading elaborate Japanese prose. But a Japanese correspondent informed me that, of the four responses to that question, the one voted best -- by poster "sinnkideranomiya" -- says that the sense of hearing of the music critics must be generally poor because they are only good at creating good sentences.
Poster "sinnkideranomiya" also wrote: I bet if these critics were put to a "blind" test, they would not be able to pick out the performances of the blind pianists from the sighted ones. Well put.
I really regret that I cannot adequately comprehend all that is said in this discussion, as this thread touches on a subject near to my heart. In a piece that I wrote in early 2011, "Nobu, going to the top?", I collected my thoughts about what I considered -- and continue to consider -- to be the major hurdle of Nobuyuki Tsujii in his career path as a world-class classical pianist: the critics.
At the time, I wrote: "Critics in general have not been kind to Nobu’s performances. When he gave a recital at the Kennedy Center in 2010, a Washington Post web-only review by Robert Battey
does a classic damning with faint praise, complimenting Nobu for his
accomplishment and inspiration while at the same time claiming that
Nobu’s handicap imposes insurmountable limitations in his piano
Since then, we have had another case in point: the review in the New York Times of Nobu's 2011 Carnegie Hall recital. In Carnegie Debut Afterthoughts , I wrote this:
(T)he review by Vivien Schweitzer was sprinkled with snooty remarks ("said to have achieved pop-star status in his native Japan", "To judge from the row of television cameras") and faint praises ("his achievements are considerable", "impressive technique
" , "he made only a few slips", "played it (the Musto piece) with flair
", "a nuanced reading of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude").
depth and a sense of spontaneity are missing". So there it is again, the lack of depth! It must be some kind of code phrase among critics for something like "he does not have the sophistication up to our standard."
Whereas Ms. Schweitzer gave no reason for her lack-of-depth assessment of Nobu's performance, the unnamed French critic did, supposedly. Congenital blindness, according to the French critic, deprives a pianist of the composer's perception of the grandeur of the scenery, and therefore such a pianist has no hope ever of plumbing the full depth of the music.
I think the "blind test" proposed by poster "sinnkideranomiya" is a superb refutation to this nonsensical assertion. Let us remind ourselves that even among those who are sighted, visual perceptions are by no means uniform. We all see differently. In particular, would this same critic conclude that those who are color-blind can never attain the full depth intended by a composer because surely they too are not seeing the full picture (unless the composer himself was also visually impaired!)
Behind such criticism is perhaps something more unpleasant. The potential of a sightless pianist attaining eminence in classical piano is perhaps sacrilegious to some people. The notion challenges the innate values of some who have paid the price of toiling through the rigid and brutal structure of a traditional classical music career. In the face of such a threat, the natural tendency is to dismiss the phenomenon of Nobuyuki Tsujii as some side-show that would never, and should not be allowed to, reach the highest echelon of the scared music halls.
The pen is mightier than the sword. Harsh words from critics do hurt. I take comfort in the warm reception that Nobuyuki Tsujii receives at every performance -- not just from the audience, but from the musicians that perform with him. And, like poster "sinnkideranomiya", I too hope that Mr. Tsujii will continue to follow his own sensibility and make his "pleasant" performances.
Imagine, a classical pianist making performances that are a "comfort" to listen to -- what a concept!
The version of this article that appeared in the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind drew these responses from readers
I am responding to the article about the blind pianist. My name is Debra Saylor, and I am a totally blind pianist. I competed three times in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. Although this competition is for so-called amateurs, the level of competition is very high. The people who compete often have advanced degrees in piano performance, but they do not make their living as concert pianists, although they could. In 2000 when I competed, I was awarded third prize, and won the award for the most outstanding performance of a piece in the Romantic period for my performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Clair de Lune means moonlight, and I was told many times that I was able to create the image of moonlight through my interpretation of the piece.
Also, I heard Mr. Tsujii, the subject of the original article in this magazine, perform here in Huntsville, at a concert of all three of the Van Cliburn professional competition winners. He was fantastic, and also, my piano teacher, who is a concert pianist himself, said that Mr. Tsujii was an exceptionally wonderful pianist. I think the critics just want to use their power to express a bias that they have had all their lives.
Debra Saylor, Huntsville Alabama
<My response to this comment:
Thank you, Debra Saylor of Huntsville Alabama, for your response to my article “Harsh Criticism for Blind Pianist”.
My favorite blind piano player is Derek of England. I call him the “human jukebox” because of his ability to play hundreds of musical pieces if not more.Derek Paravicini was born prematurely 32 years ago, and doctors did not think he would survive.
He is blind and severely autistic, but has a unique talent that has stunned the music world – he can play any piece of music after hearing it only once.
<My response to this comment:
Thank you, Edward, for your response to my article “Harsh Criticism for Blind Pianist”.
Edward wrote: "My favorite blind piano player is Derek of England... Derek Paravicini ... is blind and severely autistic, but has a unique talent that has stunned the music world – he can play any piece of music after hearing it only once."
I too have great admiration for Mr. Parvicini. And he is often mentioned to me whenever I bring up Mr. Tsujii in conversations.
While the talent of Mr. Paravicini is unquestionably astounding, Mr. Tsujii's achievement is, in my opinion, different. Mr. Tsujii does not replicate a piano work by ears, but learns each piece note by note, from listening to annotated recordings of the notes played on each hand separately. He assembles these notes in his head, and performs each work with his own interpretation.
Mr. Tsujii also performs highly complex piano concertos such as Rachmaninov's No 2 and Tchaikovsky's No 1, with professional orchestras. In fact, next month (May 2012) he will perform one of the most difficult concertos, Prokofiev's No 3, with the renowned pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra, in the Royal Festival Hall of London.
In addition, Mr. Tsujii is a composer whose original lyrical pieces are quite popular in Asia, and he has successfully composed music for a TV show and for a movie.
Mr. Paravicini and Mr. Tsujii are both inspirations for everyone. I -- a sighted person -- am humbled by their unimaginable accomplishments.>
Related articles: Critics' Reviews