Close Encounter with Nobuyuki Tsujii

Written by M. L. Liu, California, U.S.A., 2010

Not long after catching a bad case of Nobu fever, and having listened to all his CDs around the clock, I decided I had to see Nobuyuki Tsujii in a live performance. 

I would give anything to have been in Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, during the 2009 Cliburn Competition, but unfortunately last time I checked, time machines are still not for sale at amazon.com  So the next best thing, for me,  was to attend a concert of his.

I knew that Nobuyuki was touring the U.S. in October, starting with a season-opening concert in Hudson Valley in New York, followed by appearances in Texas, North Carolina,  and then, inexplicably, a stop in a remote corner in my home state of California before heading to Florida and eventually Texas.


Photo: Fuyuki Karburake(L), Nobuyuki, and Naoyuki(Nick) Asano -
screen grab from a video posted by the Cliburn Foundatio

I agonized over which concert to go to.  Time-wise, I could not see myself going to more than one.  The logical choice would be the concert in California.  But it was to take place in a city that would take me two commuter flights to arrive at.  Looking back, I really wish I had decided on the one in New York – where Nobuyuki performed Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 with the Hudson Valley Symphony, to great acclaims, or the one in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he performed Tchaikovsky’s Concerto Number 1.  But the decision that I did make was to attend a recital at the Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.

As a concert venue, it was frankly shockingly low-key for someone of the caliber of Nobuyuki Tsujii. Arcata is seemingly a town that has been frozen in time since the 1970’s.  A Northern California city best known for its proximity to red wood forests, it has its scenic beauty, but is otherwise most famous for the marijuana growth in that region.   A college town, life there centers around a small state university, on whose campus Nobuyuki’s recital was to take place.  An organization there, the Center Arts, has had a long-standing relationship with the Van Cliburn Foundation, and Nobuyuki was not the first gold medalist that was dispatched to perform in that far-flung corner.

I was probably the first person who purchased a ticket for this event.  When in early September I inquired about the concert, I got a distinct impression that the people at the other end of the phone were not quite aware just what a coup they had scored in getting Nobuyuki Tsujii to perform there.  I was told that the concert would be held in a small hall with two hundred some seats; when I asked if it’s a recital or a concerto, the answer was uncertain.  But when told that the program would include pieces by Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Schumann and “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky, I knew it was to be a recital.

So it was that early on Sunday October 17, 2010, I flew to the San Francisco Airport (SFO).  With a couple hours to spare to catch the next flight to Arcata, I settled myself at a table at the food court and listened to music on my iPod, freshly loaded with tracks from Nobuyuki’s CDs.   After a while, I started heading towards the boarding gate assigned to my flight, only to find out that the gate had changed to a different one.  So off I trotted on the terminal's concourse, in the opposite direction.

Out of nowhere, I suddenly noticed two figures walking just ahead of me.  In an instant I recognized them.  It was Nobuyuki Tsujii hanging onto his manager Fuyuki Karburake, a sight that had become familiar to me from the many viewings of videos of Nobuyuki’s performances at the Cliburn Competition.  Mr. Karburake is the handsome Japanese man who lurks in the background in a few scenes in “A Surprise in Texas”, including the one where he is seen putting his hand out to shield Nobu from sharp corners as Conductor James Conlon led Nobu on stage to make their spellbinding performance of Chopin's Concerto Number 1.

To say that I was thunderstruck is an understatement.   Truth be told, it had crossed my mind that there was a possibility that I would run into Nobuyuki, as all flights to Arcata, a very small town, go through SFO.  But what were the chances that he would be heading there on that very day, and crossing my path at that particular moment?   And had the gate for my flight not been changed, I would not even have been heading that way at all.

My iPod was playing his debut album just then, and it simply defied belief that directly ahead of me is the young man whose music has become my obsession.  This is the pianist whose Chopin’s Concerto brings me to tears, whose Beethoven’s Hammerklavier entrances me, whose Chopin Scherzo Number 2 melts my heart, and who had so endeared me that I spent untold hours on the web looking up information about his thrilling victory at the Cliburn Competition.    And there, right in front of me on that day, was his unassuming self -- dressed in a loose-fitting blue sweat-shirt and light-colored slacks, a backpack on his back.   Absolutely no one else in the busy concourse gave him any notice.  The two of them, Nobuyuki and his manager, were walking very briskly towards the same gate that I was heading for.

My heart stopped, and for just a moment, the world stood still.  It was now or never, I thought; I would never forgive myself if I didn’t take advantage of this serendipity.  I gathered my courage, rushed up and caught up with them.  Drawing next to Nobuyuki, I blurted out, in English, “Mr. Nobuyuki.”  I shudder now to think that I might even have tapped him lightly on his broad shoulders; I am not sure.  He kept walking, but turned his face towards me in recognition of his name.  I started babbling about how I am a big fan of his and that I was listening to his music just then, even as I was aware that he couldn’t see my iPod ear buds, and he probably didn’t understand half of what I said.  But he did recognize something, perhaps the word “fan”.  To me alone, Nobuyuki Tsujii said, in that voice and that accent that I had come to know so well, “Thank you very much”.

I noticed stubble on the face of Mr. Karburake, as if he didn’t have time to shave that morning -- they must have started very early from North Carolina, but Nobuyuki was fresh-faced, as always.  In person, Nobu looks little different than on the videos.   It is difficult to be observant when one is so caught up in excitement as I was.   I do remember especially that Nobu’s hairs seemed very dark and thick on that morning, and his baby face very round.  He looked like a very boyish college student  -- which he is -- that can be found on any university campus. (In January 2011, I read in a blog by a Japanese writer -- who accompanied Nobu on part of this tour -- that Nobu spent a night in San Francisco, so he and his escorts didn't start that morning from North Carolina - they must just have gotten up late.)

Sensing that they were in a rush, and not knowing what else to say without speaking his language, I dropped back and noticed that there was a third Japanese man walking behind them.  This, I would learn, is a gentleman who calls himself “Nick” (to Americans).   I had read that Nobu was traveling with interpreters on this trip, and immediately assumed that Nick was an interpreter.  I asked him how Nobu is doing with all the traveling in this country.  Nick looked at me, probably wondering who this person is, but, in typical Japanese graciousness and in good English, said he’s doing okay.  I had also read that Mr. Karburake  told a Texas reporter that “making connections at airports (in this country) is most difficult.” So I mentioned that, and Karburake, who does not speak a lot of English, looked back at me when he heard me said that.   I told Nick that Nobu’s concert had sold out (as reported by a local paper)  – he seemed pleased to hear that, and asked me if I was going to be at the concert.  I told him loudly yes and again babbled about what a big fan I am of Nobuyuki.  He asked me where I was from.

And then we were at the departure gate from which my flight was to depart in another hour.  Nobuyuki, still hanging onto his manager,  stopped at the counter.    It turned out that they had a good reason for their hurry: a commuter flight was being held on the ground for them.   Sadly, my own flight was the next one, and all I could do was watch them get on the exit ramp to the waiting plane.  I begged the clerk at the counter to put me on that flight, to no avail.  She was clearly agitated at this trio of Japanese who messed up her precious flight schedule.  I couldn’t help but slipped in a question, asking if she knew that, that, was a famous pianist who was at her counter just now.  She glared back at me coldly.

Nobuyuki’s flight took off soon thereafter.  I stood behind the glass windows in the terminal to watch the small plane taxi off the tarmac and waved a silent goodbye, wishing Nobuyuki a good flight.

As it turned out, they were fortunate to have gotten off the ground.  My flight was supposed to take off within the next hour, but it was held up due to the notorious San Francisco fog, which rolled in soon after.  When, hours later, I finally stepped on my own flight, I cringed to think about the steep ramps that Nobuyuki had to negotiate to get on the cramped propeller jet (with about 30 seats), and the noises that he must have had to endure throughout the flight.

I kicked myself for not getting on the same flight as Nobuyuki – imagine being on the same flight with him!  I wondered if anyone on that flight recognized him.  But I couldn’t complain, after all, I just had an experience, brief as it was, that a lot of people would envy.

After I arrived in Arcata, I immediately headed towards the recital hall, knowing that there was a chance that I would find him in practice there.  And sure enough, I heard that unique tone of his piano playing even before I entered the building.  Inside, I found his two escorts seated in a lobby while Nobu was, by himself, practicing in the recital hall just down the hallway.  I struck up a conversation with the two men.  Nick in particular was quite approachable.   He told me that Nobu would rather play the piano than even eat.  And he was not joking, because Nobuyuki played and played that afternoon, for at least five hours, while his two escorts sat and waited in that very uncomfortable lobby.   By 6 PM people arrived to close the hall and to take Nobu and his escorts back to their hotel, but they simply couldn’t make him stop.   I sat on a stairway all that time to listen; having Nobu’s beautiful music all to myself  This is a university campus and students would walk by the recital hall without paying any attention to Nobu, and unaware of how special the music was coming out of that piano in that less than glamorous recital hall.  In the end, one female student did sense the superior quality of Nobu’s music and asked me who he was.    A small group of us gathered around outside the open doors to the recital hall and watched  Nobu – his back towards us and still dressed in that blue sweatshirt -- as he worked his magic on the keyboard, oblivious to our presence.

That close encounter was so unreal that I could hardly go to sleep that night.  Coming to a small town has its reward after all, I thought.  

The next day I would attend the concert and sit on the stage not more than twenty feet from Nobu, and would have the pleasure of handing a bouquet of flowers to Nobuyuki, through Nick, as he led Nobu off stage 

The concert itself was almost an anticlimax.  The facilities of the concert hall were outdated: its noisy air-conditioning system had to be turned off during performance, while the spotlights on stage could not be dimmed – I could sense Nobu’s discomfort performing in his tuxedo in the warm, crowded room.  

It didn’t take anything away from his performance, though.  For almost two hours the small recital hall reverberated with that brilliant music that has become such a big part of my life.   The audience listened with rapt attention; no one even coughed.  When the last note of “The Great Gate of Kiev” ended, we leaped to our feet and yelled out “bravos”.  I screamed “Bravo, Nobu”, at the top of my lungs, as he passed by us on stage,  but my voice was drowned out among the thunderous applause.  And then it was over.   The last I saw of him was Nobuyuki being led away, by Nick,  from a small crowd that had gathered in the lobby after the concert.

A month later, the memory of the concert has dimmed.   But I will never forget that moment when I recognized Nobuyuki at the airport, and that sweet “thank you very much” that he said to me. I have been told that in Japan, where Nobuyuki is such a superstar that his concerts can sell out in ten minutes,  a close encounter like mine would never happen, nor would the opportunity of hanging around to listen to him practice all afternoon.  

I didn’t get to speak to Nobu again after that encounter, but I did talk to Nick the afternoon before the concert.    The last thing I said to him was this: “Take good care of Nobuyuki.  He’s special.  He’s a treasure.”  Nick looked at me in surprise, and I would like to think a little touched.  He said thank you to me.  I hope he remembers my words well.

And I will be going to many more of Nobuyuki's concerts.

Footnote: Only recently I discovered a beautiful video on youTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=at3KFiYisbQ&NR=1, posted by Avex Classics (Nobu’s music label in Japan) to promote Nobuyuki’s “My Favorite Chopin” album  (released in March 2010).  In the opening of the video, Nobuyuki – in winter garments, is seen being led to the front door of the Teldex Studio in Berlin, walking on snow-covered ground.  The man that Nobu is holding onto, in that scene, is Nick.  I cried when I saw that video for the first time.

Another footnote: Just today (Nov 18, 2010)  I got word about a trailer (http://www.tv-tokyo.co.jp/solomon/)  for a TV show to be broadcast in Tokyo this weekend, 「ソロモン流」 "Solomon Ryu", a documentary about Nobuyuki’s October 2010 tour in the U.S.  There is a scene in there showing a man wiping the feet of Nobuyuki after he (Nobu) had apparently been on a sandy beach in Texas.  The man is, again, Nick.

Nobuyuki Tsujii in Berlin's Teldex Studio, 2010

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