Of Taste and Critics, and Mr. Nobuyuki Tsujii

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
http://www.matildaziegler.com/2012/04/13/contributor-m-l-liu-harsh-criticism-for-blind-pianist/)


 " 好みは好み、批 評は批評として、辻井伸行さんには自分らしい演奏で人を「心地よく」し続けて欲しいと願います。 Taste is taste, criticism is criticism.  I sincerely hope that Mr. Nobuyuki Tsujii will continue to make his own 'comfortable' performances."  -- posting on Yahoo Japan ask-a-question

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:
"辛口批評で有名なフラ

ンスのクラシック評論家が辻井伸行さんの演奏について「全盲のピアニストは彼以外
にもたくさんいる。彼等に共通しているのは一様に『聴いている者に心地よい演奏をする』ということだ。 先天性の場合は海の壮大さ、雨の情景、自然の雄大さなどはイメージとして頭の中にインプットされていない。
つまり作曲者の深層にたどり着く方法がない。だからいろんな演奏者の「心地よい部分だけ」をインプットする。 A  French classical music critic known for his dry criticism had this to say about the performance of Nobuyuki Tsujii.   There are other completely blind pianists.  They have one thing in common: Their playing is uniformly comfortable to listen to.  But in the case of those born blind,  the pianist has not had the visual input of the magnificence of the sea, the scene of rain, and the grandeur of nature.  Therefore, there is no way for him to approach the depth of the composer, and the input is therefore limited to the pleasant part (of the audio)."

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 playing."

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"). 
She disparaged Nobu's recital  program as  "overplayed pianistic favorites and one new piece", and made a cutting remark that would be cited often: "probing depth and a sense of spontaneity are missing, perhaps inevitably, since Mr. Tsujii must precisely calculate every move to ensure that his fingers are above the correct keys. " 
If I had a chance, I would press Ms. Schweitzer on exactly how she measures "a sense of spontaneity" and "probing depth".   And I would question her assumption that Nobu must calculate his every finger movement.  Did she look closely at Nobu's hand movements during performance?   If so, I dare her to point out the exact moments when she detected any hesitation and calculation. 

 "Probing 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.

---------
"Taste is taste, critics are critics."  People who are paid to review the performing arts must dispense sage words beyond the ordinary.   It would not do for them to write a review that does not at least suggest some imperfections.   Let's face it: Nobu will always be criticized.  We will, over and over again, hear this lack of depth assertion, which cannot be substantiated.  Some -- such as
Robert Battey  in that  Washington Post piece  -- will find fault with Nobu's technique because of the inescapable fact that he must keep his hands close to the keyboard.  In the foreseeable future at least, the repertoire of Nobu will also be disparaged by critics as "too familiar" "war-horses."  I write this article to record these thoughts, in anticipation of just such criticisms, so as to be prepared whenever they come up.

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”.

Congratulations on your accomplishment in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. It takes uncommon talent and skill for you, like Mr. Nobuyuki Tsujii, to competes with sighted pianists on equal footing. A big bravo to you!

Critics are paid to express their opinions, so we cannot fault them for opining. It is up to us to read these reviews with appropriate skepticism and open-mindedness.

Thanks for your comments and I hope you will continue to support the music of Mr. Tsujii.>

##
In response to Contributor M. L. Liu – Harsh Criticism for Blind Pianist, Edward wrote:

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

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