Carnegie Debut afterthoughts

On New Year's Day, Asahi-TV in Japan will broadcast a documentary on Nobuyuki Tsujii's Carnegie Hall Debut  Miracle Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii - Carnegie dream"『奇跡のピアニスト 辻井伸行 夢のカーネギー』:2012年1月1日(日) 9PM-10:54    BS-Asahi TV New Year Day 2012 at 21:00
                     Photos by Avex Classics

November 19, 2011

More than a week later, I can now look back at the recital with some degree of objectivity.

The Carnegie Hall

Performing at the Carnegie Hall has been, and continues to be, a highlight of any performer's career."
The name of  Carnegie Hall carries  so much cachet, and yet you can't help but be disappointed when you  arrive at the venue.  I  had passed by the  Carnegie on previous visits to Manhattan, but had never set foot  inside.  Although the condos and apartments on the block are said to command a princely sum, the neighborhood itself is not much to look at.  This time especially , with constructions underway on both sides of the West 57th Street and Carnegie Hall itself wrapped in unsightly scaffolding, the place frankly was a sorry mess that surely must have disappointed many a first-time visitors.   The Carnegie, as anyone who visits it would find out, in reality occupies  a very small space;  it is only the deeply tiered architecture that allows the Stern Hall to hold 2,804 seats.

The auditorium itself, however, was a feast for the eyes.  The gracefully curved lines of the architecture, the luxurious red carpet and upholstery, the sparkling Steinway and the gilded lighting  -- all conspired to convey a picture of opulence.  Nobuyu himself could not see  the sumptuous interior, but his family, who I was told was at the concert, surely could.

What must it have felt like for Nobuyuki Tsujii to perform on the Perleman stage?  To him, perhaps it was not significantly different than at other large venues such as Tokyo's Suntory Hall.  But what a thrill it was for me to see him being led onto that stage, and then watch and listen to his performance in the renowned acoustic.  
If Nobu was nervous that night, I didn't see it; and I would have. because I had a front row seat on the First Tier close to the stage, and I had my binoculars with me.  I had been to four other concerts of Nobu's, including two recitals, and to my eyes and ears his performance as well as his appearance did not differ significantly at the Carnegie.

Was Nobu's Carnegie debut the raging success that was the debut of his idol,  Evgeny Kissin debuted at age 18 in 1990, and reportedly was called back for 7 encores. 
On Nov. 10, Nobu received standing ovations from the audience, and performed 3 encores.  It was a memorable evening, but truth be told,  not nearly as exhilarating as the two California concerts that I attended in October.  Glamorous as it is, the Carnegie Hall has an impersonal feel that made me yearn for the intimacy and openness of the
less famous venues.

The Media Frenzy
Nobu's popularity in Japan is such that tickets for his concerts in Japan continue to  sell out "at a frightening pace".  Just today , news came that at a charity auction held in Osaka, a 2-hour private concert of Nobu went for nine million yens (130 thousand USD!). 
I had anticipated  a large Japanese presence at the Carnegie Hall.  What I didn't expect was the media frenzy:  there were TV cameras and news reporters everywhere, seemingly competing with each other.  Two days earlier, a practice session of Nobu made news in Japan.  Personally, I found that national display of adoration for Nobu endearing.  But hard-boiled  New Yorkers might have thought otherwise.  One  commented that it looked as if their sacred music hall was being taken over. 

What didn't happen was attention from the American side.  To start with, it didn't escape my attention that Nobu's name was not among those on the marquees of the Carnegie. Although I had to look past the scaffolding to see these billboards, I could find on them the names of Evgeny Kissin, Andras Schiff, Lang Lang, and even Yuja Wang (who held a debut recital in October), but no mentioning of Nobu.  There was no American interviews of Nobu that I know of, in particular none in the Wall Street Journal as accorded Ms. Wang.  Nor did the blog of the Carnegie Hall  publish any feature story of Nobu.

The performance
And so it was with some misgiving that I arrived at the concert hall the evening of the recital.   On the dim sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the hall, people jostled to take photos of Nobu's poster.  A Carnegie Hall representative, Japanese, was there to greet the crowd.  A TV crew of Japan's TBS television network could be seen filming.   There was a sense of excitement in the air, but also a noticeable sense of nervousness.

Once seated inside, I scanned  the audience in search of a sighting of Nobu's family, to no avail.    As 8PM approached, many of the seats on the Parquet (the main floor)  remained vacant, although few empty seats can be seen on the upper tiers.  The balcony, in particular, was jam packed.    Soon, lights dimmed, a bell chimed and before I knew it, the stage door was swung open and Nobu was being led out by his manager, Mr. N. Asano, exactly as I had seen them many times at other concerts. 

The music was brilliant.  In the superb acoustics for which the Carnegie Hall is famous, the vibrant tone of Nobu's piano reverberated as never before -- the Tempest sonata, in particular, was riveting.  Of all the works on the program, the only that I was listening for the first time was  the  opening piece, John Musto's Improvisation and Fugue.   I really wish I could have seen Nobu's hands as he played that demanding work.  In previous recitals, I was seated very close to the piano so that Nobu's finger work could be seen unobstructed.  This time, I was seated on the side of the hall where Nobu's hands could not be seen at all.  And, without the benefit of a screen projection of the keyboard, I came to realize just how much that missing element subtracted from the enjoyment of the performance. 

This is where being in the audience of a great hall like the Carnegie is actually less satisfying than in less glamorous small halls.  In the Stern Auditorium, the overwhelming  majority of the audience -- even those with high-priced tickets -- are seated at a considerable distance from the stage.  This is fine for ensemble performances such as operas and orchestras.  But not so good for viewing soloist, especially pianists.  The truth is,  only very few fortunate souls in the Stern Hall that evening could see the spectacular hand movements of Nobu, which has been aptly described as "butterflies dancing on the keyboard. "   I suppose screen projection of the pianist's hands is considered below the dignity of the Carnegie Hall,  but, trust me, you miss a lot of  Nobu's performance if you cannot see his finger work.

The Encores
Encores are considered a significant part of a recital at the Carnegie.  Nobu might have been told so, and he responded with a first encore piece that he composed and performed for the first time.  I thought it was a rendition of some Japanese music, until I was told that it was a piece based on a song by American  Stephen Foster.   It wasn't until I looked him up on Wikipedia that I realized that Foster is considered "the father of American music" and the composer of well known parlor songs such as ""Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races"
I didn't recognize at all  the Foster song that Nobu chose to play: " Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair".  I have since been informed that in Japan, Foster and his music are taught to school children, and his music is accorded the same respect that the Japanese have for their own traditional songs, considered classical music.  <Postscript: On Nov 30, a Japanese blogger posted a belated comment on the recital, but also presented the link to an intriguing YouTube video, a Japanese animation 金髪のジェニー (Blond Jennie) with a rendition of Foster's song sung in Japanese  in background.>
I was also told that on one of his tours in Japan, Evgeny Kissin thrilled the Japanese audience by performing, as encores,  Japanese traditional songs arranged by composer  Shigeaki Saegusa
(三枝 成彰 ,  who happens to be one of Nobu's long-time mentors. )
I suspect that Nobu, influenced by Kissin,  might have expended considerable effort to compose that first encore as a tribute to American music.  At the Carnegie, I thought the music beautiful. 
My impression is that the piece  started with the opening  tune that the song is famous for, and then Nobu took it in a different direction, adorning it with beautiful arpeggio before returning to the theme tune.
Unfortunately for Nobu,  some of the Americans in the  audience reacted to the piece negatively.  Comments posted on
facebook indicate that some people did not approve of "pop" music being played at the Carnegie in a classical music recital. 
Two tweets that came up after the concert are telling:
  • An American tweet: Nobuyuki Tsujii NY debut recital at Carnegie Hall. What sound, absolute freedom! Thoroughly enjoyed it except the last encore. what was that?
  • A Japanese tweet: NY音楽の殿堂で演奏。ピアニスト辻井伸行氏/ アンコールで泣きながらの演奏となったようです At The music hall in NY, it was the first time that I cried during a performance. when pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii played his encores.
There was no excuse for some Americans in the audience to choose not to stay to listen to Nobu's last encore, a tribute to the victims of the March Eastern Japan earthquake.   I am very angry at the insensitive behavior of these people and, as an American, I apologize.

The Review
Then there was the  New York Times review that did not show up until three days after the concert.  (

This was the part that I had dreaded.  I admit that I did entertain the fantasy that Nobu would get a rave review similar to that lavished on Yuja Wang in October.  But, deep down, I knew that it was unlikely for a critic of the Times to embrace someone as out of the norm as Nobu.
As it was, the 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. 
It was not a scathing review, but if  the review for Ms. Wang (by the Times' chief critic) was an A+, this one was at best a B+.
Like it or not, the Times reviews are influential.  Within minutes of its posting, the Times  review was tweeted dozens of time.  By now it has been referred to, linked to or embedded in hundreds of publications.  Some who questioned Nobu's Cliburn win undoubtedly smacked their lips in the satisfaction that their conviction has been affirmed by a Times crtiic.   Others found the review prosaic and questioned  some of its points. 

I suspect not many in Japan gave heed to the Times review. I could be wrong, but it seems that concert reviews are not a common practice in Japan, perhaps they are considered too confrontational for the Japanese's sense of group harmony.  One Japanese tweeted -- with palpable disappointment --  that the Times review was not exactly a rave.  Another rebutted, plaintifly,  that "his (Nobu's) ability to perceive nature and things is exceptional.   The special soulful tone that moves is deep. Isn't it felt? "   A Japanese blogger  --  who had previously written disparagingly of  Nobu's Cliburn win in 2009 -- cited the Times review in glee,  supplementing it with his own snide remarks.

What else can be expected?   Nobu did not play to the critics; his program did not contain esoteric pieces that jaded reviewers prefer over "warhorses".   Nobu is an enigma to the Western media.  In addition to his blindness, he does not (yet) speak much English.  Nor has he gone through the usual Euro/American training and acquired the mannerism and cultural conditioning that come with such training.
It is too much to expect a mainstream critic to take into consideration intangibles such as purity and soulfulness, quality often attributed to Nobu's music.

A Turning Point

With the Carnegie recital behind him,  Nobu is back in Tokyo.  His career appears to have entered a new phase.  No longer will he tour with the Cliburn Foundation for the rest of this season, but instead he will perform in Japan and Europe, his concerts now apparently being overseen by a new subsidiary of his record company, Avex Classics International.  I have been told that Nobu does have plans to return to perform in America, but not until the next (2012-13) season; and the announcement for these performances would not come until next February.  In any case, it appears that the days of Nobu performing in  far-flung corners of the United States may have passed.

There is one lesson that I do hope Nobu took away from the Carnegie experience.  As popular as his own compositions are in his own country, it is too much to expect those outside of Japan to appreciate them with the same zeal.  To me,  Nobu's works are more than just easy listening "elevator music".  But it is obvious that many Americans do not consider these pieces worthy of being performed in a concert hall, let alone the Carnegie --  notorious for its tough audiences.  I suspect the same holds true with audiences in Europe, where Nobu has many upcoming performances scheduled.
Until he is better established, Tsujii-san would do well to refrain from performing his own compositions as encores in concerts overseas.

I think the significance of a Carnegie Hall recital is overrated.   Certainly it would have been better if Nobu had gotten a glowing review from the Times.  But I was there and I can attest that Nobu did a fine job showing off his unique talent on the big stage, and he got the respectability of a full house.    In Japan, his Carnegie debut live performance will be commemorated with a CD to be released on Dec 28,  a DVD and a  blu-ray to come out in January, and two television shows to air in late December and on New Year Day respectively.  In the upcoming months, Nobu will perform in France, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, Poland and England --  in addition to a 11-stop  sold-out Japan tour.

Perhaps Nobu would never get that A+ review from the likes of the New York Times, but that's not what Nobu is about anyway.  His music captivates the heart and his appeal goes beyond words.  I only hope that at this critical juncture of his career, Nobuyuki Tsujii seeks and receives  the guidance that he needs to make the right decisions to advance  his career overseas, so that we may get to see him perform in  renowned venues all over the world.

As for myself, I already have tickets to his  performance next May  at the Royal Festival Hall in London with
Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia

Nobuyuki Tsujii  Carnegie Hall Live  "カーネギー・ホール・デビューLIVE"

Two best photos I have seen from this event came before the performance.  This photo, credited to Yasuko Shiratsuchi of Avex Classic, was taken during his rehearsal, and will likely appear on the CD/DVD/BluRay for Carnegie Live!

On Dec 15, the facebook page of the Cliburn Foundation posted this sweet photo of Nobu on the stage of the Carnegie Hall with Peter Rosen, maker of the 2009 Cliburn documentary A surprise in Texas