Nobu - going to the top?

by M. Liu, June 2010

In the episode of the “Soloman Ryu” TV show about Nobuyuki, shown in Tokyo in November 2010, there is a scene in which Conductor John Giordano (photosbelow) was interviewed.
In the scene, which you can see in this youTube video, Giordano--  who has been rehearsing with Nobuyuki for a performance with the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra -- is asked about Nobu’s potential as a pianist.  And his answer is: “I would be very surprised … if he is not in the top few pianists at the top … I think he has the potential of being at the very, very highest level.”

This is high praise coming from the 63-years old Mr. Giordano, who has a long list of credentials that include: Associate Professor of Music at Texas Christian University (where Nobuyuki Tsujii auditioned for the Cliburn Competition in 2009),  Director Emeritus of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra where he served as Music Director and Conductor for 27 years, Founder of the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra, and Jury Chairman of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since 1973 (source, Wikipedia).

Ardent fans of Nobuyuki Tsujii would readily agree with Maestro Giordano.  And some of us might even suggest that Nobu is already among the best, in terms of the impact of his performances.  In the euphoria of his very successful appearance in the BBC Philharmonic concert on February 11, 2011, I am more than ever in awe with Nobu.  The brilliance of this young man has to be seen and heard to be believed.  A vivid illustration of this  -- as you can see in the “Soloman Ryu” youtube video -- is the double-take that Giordano did (see left photo above) when, in their initial rehearsal, he first heard the astonishingly sumptuous sound that Nobu brought out of the piano as he played the introduction of the Tchaikovsky concerto.  (As you can see in that photo, Nobu himself  was totally unaware of Giordano’s astonished glances.)  To echo John Fleming, art critic of the St. Petersburg Times, “There is something magical about Tsujii, who seems physically -- ecstatically -- inhabited by the music.”

Having personally  witnessed the enthusiastic reception that he got in England at the February 11 concert (see related article Manchester, England -- February 2011), I think it is safe to say that things are going great for Nobu just now. In November of this year, he will appear on the big stage of that pantheon of classical music in this country (U.S.), the Carnegie Hall.  In May 2012, he is scheduled to perform in London’s prestigious Royal Festival Hall with Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy.  Reportedly, he is “in great demand across the globe.”   I would love to be able to capture in a bottle the happiness that I feel for Nobu just now.  I hope with all my heart that it will go on like this, forever.

But life is full of twists and turns, and Nobu is only twenty-two, very young for a classical pianist.   And he is in a rarefied segment of show business where competition is fiercely keen, long on stuffy tradition and short on loyal audience.   Stepping away from the fervor of the ardent fan that I am, I have some objective thoughts about Nobu’s potential of rising to the top.

As you know, Nobu was not the only gold medalist in the 2009 Cliburn Competition.   In retrospect, it seems to me that the Cliburn jury -- headed by Mr. Giordano -- chose two extremes in the gold medalists.  Nobu appeals to the heart, the other the head.  Nobu was the sensation at Bass Hall; his performances evoked tears from the eyes of some in the audiences, in the orchestra, as well as in the jury.  Mr. Zhang, the other gold medalist, also had plenty of admirers, but if I am not mistaken, there was no strong emotion displayed for his performances.  On the other hand, critics – especially towards the end of the competition – wrote glowingly of Mr. Zhang’s technical brilliance, while some – as it became increasing likely that Nobu might medal – began to cast doubts about Nobu’s true merits beyond his emotional appeal. 

In fact, the writer most often quoted on Nobu’s performances at the competition, one Scott Cantrel of the Dallas Morning News, is also the same writer who was among the first to cast aspersion on Nobu’s victory by suggesting that Nobu would not have won at all “had the competition been held behind a scrim." 

For whatever reason, Mr. Cantrel and writers for the Fort Worth newspaper consistently denigrate Nobu’s music, even as they were writing plenty about him during the competition.   Meanwhile, this same learned group of critics unfailingly praised the other gold medalist for his technical brilliance.  For a long time, this was a source of unhappiness for me.  But I have since come to terms with it, as I recognize now that there are two camps of  people among those who appreciate classical piano music: those who value technicalities  above all else, and those who enjoy a performance for its overall impact. Mr. Cantrel, et al, of Texas, belong in the first camp, I the other.   And at the risk of sexism, I speculate that there are more men than women in the first camp, and vice-versa in the second.

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.  And whereas Nobu’s two recent concerts in England with the BBC Philharmonic were wildly successful, a 2009 review that appeared in BBC’s Music Magazine of his Cliburn gold medal album was less than glowing(

It has become clear to me that many classical music critics in the written media are men, and of the ilk that value techniques above all else.   I suspect that many of these critics harbor suspicion of Nobu’s true talent.  To start with, Nobu’s background is unorthodox: he is not from a musical family, had (until now) no connection with prominent musicians outside of his native land, and, unlike many Asian musicians – including his Cliburn co-medalist and the silver medalist – Nobu has never left his own country to receive training from an European or American musical institute.   It doesn't help in this regard (not that it matters to me at all) that Nobu looks younger than his age, and does not even speak English!  I also suspect that there is, among these critics, a belief that people are flocking to Nobu’s concerts mainly out of curiosity.

So, in my estimate, Nobu has come a long way in winning hearts, but not necessarily in winning over the critics.   For example, as much of a hit as his England concerts were, neither of them was reviewed in major publications.  The British paper The Telegraph, for example, ignored Nobu’s sensational February 11 performance, choosing to review instead a recital by Evgeny Kissin  at the Barbican that took place at about the same time.

(One reviewer that does get it is Nahoko Gotoh 後藤菜穂, a  Japanese musicologist based in England, who wrote this of the Manchester concert “Listening to Nobu’s playing for the first time can be an emotional one, as I experienced myself when I first heard him at the Van Cliburn competition. The fact that this young pianist has mastered highly technical works such as Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto despite his blindness can bring tears to your eyes, as was evident with many members of the audience at the Bridgewater Hall. However, having heard him several times both on stage and on disc, I strongly hope that after the initial amazement, people will come to view him as a pianist in his own right and not as a “blind pianist”, for I firmly believe that he is a hugely gifted musician regardless of his disability.”)

I would like to say critics be damned; Nobu will rise to the top in spite of them.  The truth is, history has had many pianists -  Polish Ignacy Jan Paderewski, for one – who enjoyed great popularity and yet left only faint marks.  When it’s all said and done, it is the media -- not the public -- that shape historical opinions.

Furthermore, to reach the top, Nobu will also be under pressure to expand his repertoire, and in particular to veer from the popular “show pieces” that he and his countrymen seem to favor.   I am personally at a loss to explain why it is that a pianist must play esoteric pieces in order to prove his chops, and my sense is that, push comes to shove, Nobu would just assume to play jazz -- of which he is a fan -- than to perform works that his audience might not appreciate.  And, I hope this is a groundless worry, but I do wonder if there is a limit to how many pieces of complex piano works Nobu can retain in his amazing mind.   Especially as he gets older, will his fantastic ability to concentrate on stage falter?

Then, too, personal matters may get in the way.  Nobu is a twenty-two years old, and has publicly mentioned several times that he would like to fall in love and find a life mate.  Personally, I am all for that.  It pains me to see him suffer through the travails of touring without the companionship of a loved one (I hasten to add that I  have met Nobu's agents and they appear to be loyal and competent escorts.)  But falling in love is a distraction.  It has been said that Nobu is already married – to the piano, which accounts for why his piano playing is so spectacular.  I am conflicted on this.  Suffice it to say that I would love for him to have a happy personal life, but not at the expense of his piano playing.  And I don’t know if that’s at all possible.

There is  a scene in the "Soloman Ryu" show (not included in the youTube video)  where Mrs. Itsuko Tsujii – Nobu’s mother --  is shown giving a talk to an audience, some of whom can be seen weeping silently.  What she was saying, I have been told by a Japanese fan, is this: “It is too stressful thinking too much about things in future ... such as whether my child would or should become like this and that in one or three years’ time ... I try to think only about what I could do today, every single day. I believe that thinking in the short term everyday has made a big difference.” 

I have the utmost respect for Mrs. Tsujii, and her words ring true. I hope she will see to it that Nobu takes one day at a time, doing whatever that makes himself happy, and not worrying about rising to the top in the long run.  

And, when you think about it, it is not at all clear exactly what constitutes the “top” in Nobu’s business.  Few people in my country (the U.S.) can name any classical pianist at all, and I suspect that even among the knowledgeable there is no agreement on who constitute the top pianists. 

So, let’s not worry about Nobu reaching "the top".  I only hope that Nobu will continue to be in demand, so that we will always have the opportunity to see him wield his magic in live  performances.   That – to me – is what counts.
I am happy that this article has received very good feedback from some readers, shown below.
As it turns out, Giordano is not the only prominent musician who spoke highly of Nobu's potential.  A fan in Japan pointed out to me the following: "Speaking of the 'top pianist', I found a video <'Miracle Pianist'> of a Russian pianist who said <when Nobu visited him at age maybe 7 or 8?>  'Nobuyuki will become the top pianist in the world' on this footage:  His name is Valeri Kastelsky and he was a professor of the Moscow Conservatory. (He is not alive anymore). This man said to Nobu that not only Nobu is good at playing, but also his sound and heart were beautiful. I think he was so right and he had the power to foresee the future. This is one of his <Valeri Kastelsk's>  performances:"  Indeed Mr. Kastelsky played beautifully in the video and indeed his words are prescient.

Another reader wrote:
Today I enjoyed reading "Nobu-going to the top?"
And I agree with you when you say Two Camps.
I think those who belong to the first camp(most of them are critics) listen to the music by their brain, and those who belong to the second camp listen to the music by their heart. 
Mr.Robert Battery said in Washingtonpost that Nobu's were the absence of natural phrasing.
But you know, Nobu's sounds and music sound very natural to me in comparison with other pianists'.
 I understood what Mr Robert Battey concerns about Nobu's performances from his comments  "Lastly, the most amazing feature of his technique is how he handles large leaps"
And he comes to the conclusion of "Sadly, most of this is probably tied to his disability",
So as long as I understaqnd, Nobu is not a pianist for him but a blind pianist. And blind pianist cannot be among the pianists of clasic music.
Anyway time makes it clear.
To which I reply:
You expressed an excellent point that I didn't mention in my article, which is that the biggest hurdle for Nobu is having to fight against the label of "blind pianist". 
I agree that it will take time for people to realize that Nobu is good regardless of his blindness.  I think critic Nahoko Gotoh  mentions this very nicely in her review of the Manchester performance
I have tried to stress this point at every opportunity, urging people to go to Nobu's concerts to experience for themselves.  There is no question that some people do go to his performances out of curiosity, but many come away truly amazed by Nobu's music.