Terms of Endearment

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

Nobuyuki Tsujii – twenty-years old,  Japanese, blind, shaggy-haired, pudgy and baby-faced  -- stole the hearts as well as  the show at the 2009 Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth Texas.  Van Cliburn, eminent American pianist and the namesake of the competition, was visibly taken with him, as were most of the audiences in Bass Hall.  Nobuyuki became “something of a darling” of the competition, and, with the spread of his fame through the Cliburn webcast, youTube videos, the competition's documentary and his concerts,  is now adored all over the world.

Just why is Nobuyuki Tsujii so endearing to many people, myself included?
In the early stage of the 2009 Cliburn, Tim Madigan of the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram hinted at it, in a blog post (http://startelegram.typepad.com/notes_from_the_cliburn/page/5/)  :

During Nobuyuki Tsujii's Chopin (Etudes performed at the preliminary), I had the sensation that his two hands were producing something approaching the sound of (a) full orchestra:  such depth, richness and nuance. There was also a humility about him that made his playing all the more endearing.

Prior to Nobuyuki, I had always liked piano music, but not necessarily the pianists.  Classical pianist especially had always struck me as a snooty bunch.  True, they possess a talent that I can only envy, and some also exude considerable personal charm, at least to their fans.  But most of them seem all too aware of their special gift and, having been put on the pedestal from an early age, full of themselves.   I also do not care for how some of them play the instrument: attacking the piano, pounding on the keyboard mercilessly, showboating with exaggerated poses and gestures -- I find them offensive.  It all points to a lack of respect for the music and an exaggeration of personal aggrandizement. 

Nobuyuki Tsujii, on the other hand, is all about music.  Because he is blind, he is not likely aware of the art of showmanship.   He couldn’t be theatrical in a performance, as he has to keep his hands positioned on the keyboard to keep track of the geometry of the instrument.  But you sense that even if he had sight, Nobuyuki probably would be focusing on the music more than on himself.  This is a young man who takes pleasure in making music.  By his own account, he got a taste of concert performance at an early age when, on vacation with his parents in Saipan, he heard a player piano in a shopping mall and whined to be allowed to play.  The store clerk obliged and a very young Nobu played while a crowd gathered around.  There were applause and positive comments afterward, and Nobuyuki soon found his mission in life: to perform for an audience. 

He plays the instrument with a  sincerity.  In the documentary “A Surprise in Texas”, Cliburn juror and esteemed piano scholar Menahem Pressle says,  “I have the utmost admiration for (Nobuyuji Tsujii.)  God has taken his eyes, but given him the  physical  endowment and mental endowment to encompass the greatest works of piano. For him to play the Chopin concerto with such sweetness, gentleness, and a sincerity that's deeply touching:  I had to keep from crying when I listened.”
He plays with an exuberance that comes from within.  John Fleming, art critic of the St. Peterburgs Times, wrote in 2010: "There is something magical about Tsujii, who seems physically -- ecstatically -- inhabited by the music."   During performance,  there is a beatific look on his face that speaks of a world to which he has transported, where being sightless no longer matters. Masahiro Kawakami,who taught Tsujii for 12 years, said  "He has a strong desire to strike a beautiful note, and this conviction that things will go well. His music has a power to make people happy."

Nobuyuki’s music has a purity; he plays with no affectation and pretension, straight from the heart, and the audience at the Cliburn recognized the quality and adored him.   There is an innocence about him, perhaps because of his blindness.: he is free from distractions and he literally could not see the bad things in this world.   When he has hit a strive during  performance, his facial expression is serene and child-like.  Michael Shih, Concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra who performed concerti with each finalist at the Cliburn, said in an interview: “Me and some of the musicians were talking backstage about how Nubuyuki’s performance is pure music in the best sense.  There is no extra-curriculum activities but that.  It doesn’t mean extra-curriculum is bad.  He simply focused on that.  And he makes it … draws you into his music.”  

Then there is the undeniable poignancy that he is sightless, a blind young man who somehow managed to master at the highest level a musical instrument considered by many as the most difficult.  Even the harshest critic has to concede that it is almost unthinkable how he mastered the most difficult works in piano music and perform them with such authority.  We feel a tug in our hearts when we see him being  led on and off stage by his mother, a conductor or one of his managers, and we leap to our feet for him whenever he  completes yet another spellbinding performance.
A veritable musical genius, Nobuyuki backs it up with a boatload of character and sheer hard work. 

One person wrote on amazon.com: “I saw this wonderful pianist on an NHK special Japanese (TV) program, and my heart went to him. The struggle that he has to go through to play his music is beyond your wildest imagination.  He spends eight hours a day to practice and his teacher or mentor records the music on many tapes, step by step. From there he starts imagining the piece, adding a little at (a) time his own music interpretation until he finishes the entire piece, creating through his own mind what the composer may have wanted to envision.”  I had the fortune of hanging around a recital hall in California the day before Nobuyuki was to perform on October 18 2010.  All afternoon he practiced, non-stop, and could not be roused even when people arrived to close the hall.  The next day I heard him practicing again when I arrived an hour before his performance was to start.

Another testament to the character of Nobuyuki Tsujii is the award that he won at the Cliburn for performing a new composition.  For the semi-final round of that grueling competition, the twelve competitors were required to perform a new composition.  Roger Evan wrote in a June 7  2009 article entitled “Nobuyuki Tsujii Triumphs with John Musto’s Bluesy Counterpoint” (http://rogerevansonline.com/2009/06/07/nobuyuki-tsujii-triumphs-with-john-mustos-bluesy-counterpoint/) : “(M)any of the competitors have told interviewers that they chose a work from the four possibilities based on what they thought they could learn in time. And who can blame them? John Musto‘s difficult 'Improvisation and Fugue' thus was played by only one of the semi-finalists, Nobuyuki Tsujii. But that twenty-year-old not only took a gold medal but won the large cash award for the best performance of a contemporary piece for his crystalline interpretation of the Musto work. That he learned it in a short time and played it with confidence is a great tribute to him.”

Continued Evan: “The young Japanese pianist did not choose the Musto as his only challenging work by any means. He played hours of major works (including, among many other things, the Hammerklavier Sonata <editorial: considered one of the most difficult works to play in piano>, a Schumann quintet, and concertos by Chopin and Rachmaninoff).”

I would add to that the gutsy playlist that Nobuyuki chose to perform in the first round of that competition.  Tim Madigan of  the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram  wrote of Nobuyuki’s performance at the Cliburn preliminary (http://startelegram.typepad.com/notes_from_the_cliburn/page/5/):

Less than 25 minutes until one of the most anticipated preliminary round recitals in recent Cliburn history. Blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii brought the house down during his Fort Worth audition and will probably do the same tonight. Particularly impressive is his opening music, Chopin's 12 Etudes. Will he be up to the hype? We will soon know

Not only did he live up to the hype, he knocked them dead and brought down the house.  Nobuyuki played all twelve of Chopin’s etudes, op.10, opening with the  thunderous etude 1.  He then followed up with  Debussy’s Image Book 1, finally ending with a spellbinding rendition of Liszt’s La Campanella,  the videos of which have, combined, garnered over a million views on youTube. 

Nobuyuki’s music can be devastatingly beautiful.  His notes are crystal clear.  He has a heightened sense of hearing tonal quality, and has developed a style of playing the piano that is uncommonly lyrical.   Many have commented on the special touch that Nobuyuki has on the piano: an exquisite delicacy and fluidity especially evident when he plays Chopin’s most poetic works such as Scherzo No. 2, Andante Spinato and Concerto No. 1.  His music conveys the sweetness and innocence of himself, plus a soulfulness that was first noted by some commentors on youTube.   Watch and listen to a well-visited video on youTube of Tsujii, at age 15, performing Kapustin’s Concert Etudes for Piano Op.40-2, and you can see why one commenter, in French, characterized his music as nectar. 

And, at just twenty-something, Nobuyuki plays with a maturity that belies his youth:

After Nobu's (preliminary) performance, I watched Linda Yax leave Bass Hall with her hand over her heart, looking almost stricken.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Yax, who is visiting Fort Worth from Buffalo, N.Y. "I just can't believe it. He seems so young. For someone to play that way must require a special kind of talent."  -- Tim Madigan of the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram.

It is rare to see in a young man the patience that Nobuyuki exhibits in his performances as well as in the elaborate way that he learns the works.  Listen to the second movement of his Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 -- to how he takes his time for his piano music to play pas de deux with the wind instruments, or to the way he allows a note to suspend in mid-air with exquisite timing in the melancholy parts of Chopin’s Concerto No. 1,

At the Cliburn, many in the audience shed tears during his performances, in particular during the Chopin Concerto.  And he has drawn a similar response everywhere he performs that masterpiece.   The lyrical quality of that particular sublime work of Chopin is tailor-made for Nobuyuki, who shapes the “arpeggios, arabesques, emphatic chords” and phrasing with such heart-rending tenderness and beauty that grownups in the audience and even orchestra members are reduced to tears in the concert hall where he performs this concerto.

Nobuyuki would be an outstanding pianist even disregarding his blindness.  I cannot help but think about how this immensely gifted young man has never seen -- and would never be able to see – delicate flowers, flowing water, falling snow and twinkling star lights, the images of which his music conjures up so beautifully.  On a video “Miracle Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA_AQSqhJ6A), there is a scene that shows him reaching up to touch a statue of Chopin in Poland, accompanied by his devoted mother.  Nobuyuki will never be able to see a picture of Chopin or Beethoven, nor an image of his parents, for that matter.  Wrote a youTube viewer: “My sister in Tokyo told me about this young man's story. He was born blind, he has zero sense of colors and objects. His mother wrote a book about raising (him). One excerpt drove me to tears: ‘...On one really windy day, Tsuuji asked his mother "Mom? What color is the wind?’”  Listening to his own composition "Whisper of the River", I can believe it when Nobuyuki said he can see with his heart, but that pang in my heart that I feel for him is all too real.
Many have commented that Nobuyuki Tsujii is a gift from God.   I am not religious, but there is no doubt that Nobuyuki is a miracle.  His music has opened my eyes to the true beauty of the works of Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven and other grand masters, and my life is immeasurably enriched for that.   He infuses me with a tenderness that I had not felt before.  His innocence and sweetness melt my heart.   

To me
Nobuyuki has brought a gift of the pleasure of enjoying great music, and  a happiness coming from knowing that, in at least this one instance, there
is goodness in us, and in the American people in particular.   For once, at the 2009 Cliburn Competition, people set aside prejudice, pettiness, pretensions, self-aggrandizement and xenophobia to embrace and give recognition to a most unlikely but  most deserving  young man. 

And now the world knows and adores Nobuyuki Tsujii.

Nobuyuki at the 2009 Cliburn (photo by Paul Moseley, Star-Telegram)