Summer Thoughts and Worries

June 29, 2011

Comment posted on the "Raindrop" Prelude video that I uploaded to youTube
(Rough translation: Rain drops shimmered and fell plop plop. It was a downfall, and the sky darkened. I will look at the rain slowly today. I have come to  love  the feeling  of  the rainy season. )
Primsleur Japanese II  lesson 30:
日本では多くは、6月と7月に落ちる(In Japan, a lot of  rain falls in June and July).
It is the end of June, and in Japan,  folks are half way through the most miserable two months each year  -- when the weather is hot and humid, and it rains and rains.  So it's no wonder that the "Raindrop" video has been chalking up views at the rate of 200 a day.  From sunny California, I can only offer my sympathy  This year, that June-August  misery in Japan  is probably made worse by  the ongoing  power shortage that resulted from the big earthquake in March.

Tokyo was sweltering in 93F heat yesterday, with rain predicted for the rest of the week. Which makes me wonder if our beloved Nobu is in the midst of that fine weather, or is he nestled somewhere else.   Except for two small concerts at a Japan resort in August, there are absolutely  no public events  on Nobu's calendar for the next two months.   Wherever he is, I hope he is getting some of what we Americans call R&R (Relaxation and Recreation), and I  hope he is also taking time to learn new piano pieces, such  as the Prokofiev 3 concerto that I look forward to hearing in England next May.

These days I often find myself thinking in Japan time.  When I go to bed at midnight, people in Tokyo are just finishing their day's work at 4 PM; and when I wake at 8AM, it's midnight for them.  This sometimes works well for catching news as it develops in Japan.  Last week, for example, when  Nobu performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto in Suntory Hall in Tokyo, I was able to, after breakfast,  read Twitter and blog posts as they showed up after midnight in Japan, hours after  Nobu took his bows in Suntory Hall.  (See  Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto - June 2011.)

This week, Monday started on a cheerful note of news  that the two salon concerts in August, announced not long ago,  were already sold out after less than 24 hours since the pricey tickets came on sale.  Yesterday(Tuesday in Japan) my morning google search yielded the announcement of a new concert on September 14, which I initially thought to be another one where Nobu would perform his own compositions.  As  I am having misgivings about the distractions of his composing on Nobu's pianist career (see Nobu at a New Stage - the young pianist as composer), that news was not exactly welcome.

So I was thunderstruck when, around noon time in Japan,  a Nobu fan wrote to say that the line at the top of that announcement, "辻井伸行/ソンヨルム", which I gave no thought of, actually means Noubyuki Tsujii (which I readily recognized) and Yeol Yum Son (whose Japanese name I wouldn't have recognized in a million years),  and that the concert is likely a joint-concert of classical music.  Just like that, the concert that I was trying to wish away started to look golden.

Yeol Yum Son ソンヨルム  is the silver medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition (photo above, left).  She is the slender Korean beauty who won me over when, as shown in the competition's documentary, she happily smiled when Nobu's name was announced  -- in spite of the obvious disappointment that she could not hide only moments earlier when her own name was called;  she is also seen to hold  Nobu by his arm as they stood on stage side by side (as seen in the photo above).  A Nobu fan in Japan with whom I exchanged email  told me that Nobu's mother has been quoted as saying that Ms. Son is "Nobu's good friend."  In a TV documentary shown in 2010, Nobu conquers "Pictures at An Exhibition", there is an endearing scene where Ms. Son , reunited with Nobu at an event that took place  in the U.S. South, is seen happily holding Nobu by both hands as she greeted him (photo right). 

As it turns out, the  joint concert (Nobuyuki Tsujii - Yeol Yum Son joint concerts, Sept. 2011 is a friendship event between two nations, Japan and South Korea, to benefit the Japan earthquake victims.  Two concerts are to be held on consecutive days, one in each nation.  The two young pianist virtuosos will, together,  perform a program that includes two duet pieces by Debussy and Mozart respectively.  The thought of them appearing on stage together is enough to bring a big smile to my face, and I can only imagine how the audience might react to the sight of Nobu being led on stage nestled in the arm of Ms. Son.

Ms. Son; sold-out concerts; new CDs; the buzz on his compositions and TV appearances; performances with prestigious conductors and orchestras -- it seems that the Nobu Fever that erupted two years ago has faded little in Japan.  It has been said in this country that Nobu enjoys a rock star status in Japan's classical music world, which I used to take with a large grain of skepticism.  But  now I have seen for myself evidences  that that is no exaggeration.     My reliable contact in Japan told me that Nobu continues to have a special section in record stores, and that he is by far the most popular classical music artist in Japan.  I take delight in this twitter post that appeared just before Nobu's first performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto last week: 今 日本で最も有名なピアニスト、辻井伸行さんの皇帝を聞いてきます 楽しみ (Today I will have the pleasure of listening to "Emperor" performed by  Japan's most famous pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii).

In the last two months, I learned a few things about how Nobu is perceived in his own country.  As this site has many Japanese visitors, I would like to mention them below - random thoughts though they are.

  • Perhaps owing to the numerous TV documentaries made of Nobu since he was young, Nobu is -- even now -- seen by many in Japan as a personality more than as the preeminent classical pianist -- his handicap not withstanding --  that the rest of the world is beginning to see him.  I wince whenever I read Nobu being referred to in Japanese as  the blind genius pianist 盲目の天才ピアニスト, and that happens often on the web.
  • Things in Japan's entertainment business moves at a lightning  fast pace - at least when it comes to Nobu.    Nobu's TV shows often contain footage of his concerts performed  sometimes only weeks ago.  His Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 CD was recorded one day  after his performance with Yutaka Sado and the BBC Philahrmonic, and was released a couple of months later.  Concerts come up rapidly and tickets are  sold out hours after they  go on sale. 
  • I have seen for myself that Nobu indeed  has a loyal following in his homeland.  I recognize, in the web postings that I read,  many Nobu fans in Japan whose  zeal and respect for Nobu at least equals mine.   This is reassuring because -- and I hope Japanese visitors to this site would not take offense to this -- people in Japan have a reputation for being faddish, for quickly  losing their enthusiasm for what's hot at the moment.
  • At the same time, I am now aware that Nobu is under scrutiny from some quarters in his own country.  There are those who seem not at all familiar with Nobu's piano performances and attended his "Empereor" concert out of curiosity.  There are some who seem  skeptical of Nobu's pianism.   And  then there are at least a few detractors who seem to harbor resentment against Nobu, as  I wrote on this page about Nobu's  Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto - June 2011
It is a tribute to Nobu that  in his own country, the euphoria of his Cliburn Competition win has not worn off even after two years.  Clearly we have here a young man in the enviable position of success chasing after  success.  At times, I could barely keep up with the news about Nobu;  so I can only imagine what a whirlwind of excitements his life must have become.   My ardent admiration for Nobu has only grown, and I am exceedingly happy for him.   Nobu has had so much success in recent  years that it all seems too good to be true.    I sincerely hope that it will  go on and on like this. 

Worrier that I am, I can't help but see a few dark clouds on the horizon, dark clouds that I hope are entirely figments of my imagination.  Below you will find my worries list - go ahead and have a good laugh.

Worry #1:  On the top of my worries list is my concern that Nobu is developing his music composing career at the expense of his classical pianist career.  This concern was brought home to me when I read those uncharitable comments after Nobu's first "Emperor" performance in Tokyo earlier this month.   My heart sank at (unconfirmed) remarks that he hit wrong notes in the concerto as well as in the encore ("Tempest").  Although no such comments surfaced from the second concert,  it is not unreasonable to think that the extra-curricula activities of composing have to cut into his time and concentration.  A wise Nobu fan in Japan who shares this concern  wrote: "I think Nobu just loves composing and it's impossible for anyone to stop that. But, like you say,  I fear that he might decide to do more composing (at the expense of classical piano). We just have to see what happens."  I won't belabor the point, but, as a true fan, I will speak my mind  that Nobu's piano playing is world class, while his compositions, lovely as they are, are not at a level that will likely earn him recognition outside of Asia.  I am aware that it is perhaps  more fun and more  lucrative for Nobu to compose than to perform, but as I said in another rambling  piece ( Nobu at a New Stage - the young pianist as composer) I hope he will strike a good balance that, for now at least,  gives higher priority to what has given him proven success -- piano performances.

Worry #2: Who's giving Nobu lessons these days?   I understand that back in March and perhaps just before he came to this country for his spring tour, Nobu  graduated from his university in Tokyo.  It is not clear if he is receiving piano lessons from anyone at all.  I really hope Nobu doesn't think that he is good enough to no longer need a piano teacher.  Nobu might have outgrown his teachers in Japan, but he  really needs a no-nonsense, world-class pianist  who can help him to improve his performances  and to broaden his repertoire.  Personally, I am secretly hoping that he will consider coming to the United States to continue his education, or Germany.   But even if he stays in Japan, he needs a  teacher to keep him on course.  Furthermore, if he's serious about composing, I think he needs to be schooled on music theories and such, if he is to go beyond writing the lovely  short pieces that he has produced so far.

Worry #3:  Is Nobu getting over-hyped in Japan?  The harsh criticisms that surfaced this past week, especially after Nobu's  first"Emperor" performance, make me wonder if in his home country there may be resentments lurking .  A long-time Nobu fan wrote: "I feel sad to hear harsh words about Nobu, but I think he can't avoid that now that he's become so famous."  This fan also wrote that in the past she had seen venomous comments written about famous musicians such as Kissin, Pollini, Ashkenazy, Argerich, and some famous Japanese pianists (even Mr. Yukio Yokoyama)" -- Mr. Yokoyama is/was  Nobu's university professor and is considered by some as the premier pianist in Japan.  This fan further wrote, " I've seen on some notorious Japanese forums that very bad thing were written about Nobu's performances at the Cliburn. I was bothered by that, but I think some people got really jealous about Nobu's victory."  
It probably does not help that Nobu  appears on popular Japan TV shows such as the
"Takeshi Kitano Art Beat"  and Yutaka Sado's Daimei, shows that I suspect are  frowned upon by the "kura-ota" (a nerdy classical music fan) in Japan, who consider these shows  low-brow.  I am torn on this.  I love hearing news about Nobu and  getting videos of these shows, but in the States I think people in the media would say that Nobu is at risk of becoming over-exposed (that is, being seen by the public too much.)

Worry#4:  Is his Japan record label, Avex Classics, serving Nobu well?   I know little about such things, but my impression is that to be accepted as a world-class classical musician, an internationally respected  record label such as  Deutsch Grammophon, Sony or  Decca is essential.   Avex, unknown outside Japan,  has done a lot for Nobu, and he in turn has rewarded Avex handsomely with enviable CD sales.   Avex happens to be  also the record label of Nobu's long-time mentor Yutaka Sado.
But I have to say I am not entirely happy with what I have seen of what Avex has turned out with Nobu this year.  The Tchaikovsky Concerto 1 album  put out in March seemed to have been made without much forethought and with  questionable packaging.  The cynic in me think that that album was rushed out in time for Nobu's popular tour with Yutaka Sado and the BBC Philharmonic, which, as it turned out, was disrupted by the big earthquake.  And now it seems that Avex is pushing Nobu towards his own compositions instead of classical music.  An entire CD of Nobu's own works is not something that I expect -- or want --  to see so soon in Nobu's young career.  I really hope that a recording of some Beethoven or Mozart is in the works.
Unfortunately, if youTube view counts are accurate indicators, then it seems that in his home country Nobu's compositions are receiving far more attention than his classical music performances.  His upcoming CD will, in all likelihood, outsell his "Pictures at an Exhibition" and "Tchaikovsky 1" CD.  
Compounding the situation is  that Nobu does have a need for a good income;  he needs it to support his large staff.  Unlike other pianists, Nobu requires people to record music scores for him and to travel with him.  So the (presumably considerable)  income from writing music for  movie  and TV series,
in addition to the CD sales of such pieces,  is probably a welcome thing to Nobu.    So I do understand why Nobu would choose to or agree to go in that direction.

All right.  I have said enough.   I am missing Nobu's concerts terribly. 
September cannot come soon enough for me.