April 22, 2011
All good things must come to an end. The moment that I dreaded is here: The last stop of Nobuyuki Tsujii's 2011 spring tour in the United States is over, and it will be many months before I will have a chance to see him in performance again. Visitors to this site know well what an addict I am to Nobu and his music, and may sympathize with the withdrawal symptoms that I am experiencing now and will be wrestling with all summer.
I missed the first year of his Cliburn tours, not even having heard of Nobuyuki Tsujii until September of 2010. Since then, I have tried to make up for lost time by attending his performances at every opportunity: four concerts on two continents; a meeting backstage in Manchester, England last February; a question-and-answer session this month in Boston. I really can't complain. In my assessment, Nobu is at the height of his youthful exuberance and artistic creativity - fueled by the adrenaline rush from his 2009 competition win, the enthusiasm of his audiences, and his continuing successes. I consider it a privilege and a pleasure to be a witness to his accomplishments at this early stage of what I hope to be a long and distinguished career.
It seems not that long ago that I was following Nobu's eagerly-awaited ten-concerts tour in Japan with Maestro Yutaka Sado and the BBC Philharmonic, when excitement suddenly turned to dismay as news of the devastating earthquake came unexpectedly on March 11th. Dismay soon turned to concern as the extent of the havoc wreaked by the disaster in Japan became known, followed by a nightmarish anguish when the horrors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant unfolded. During those agonizing days, I lost sleep worrying about Nobu, his family and his countrymen. At the time, it was hard to think about the luxury of piano music, and my heart still goes out to people in Japan, who have a long road to recovery. Even after the crisis eased, I was on pins and needles, worrying about whether Nobu would come to this country for his spring tour.
In late March, I shouted for joy when an article published in the U.S. (http://www.dfw.com/2011/03/15/424340/cliburn-winner-was-in-japan-during.html) announced that Nobu and his family were safe, and, to my great relief, that Nobu was on his way to this country for his tour! And quite a tour this was to be: starting on the last day of March, eight stops in the U.S. that span two coasts, extending to Canada before the month of April is over. I admit that I thought of what happened to Fryderyk Chopin, who left Poland at age 20 for Vienna two weeks before his country was lost to the Insurrection, and was never able to return. Nobu is as Japanese as can be -- his heart will always be with his homeland; I was not so much concerned that he would not be able to return to Japan, but more that he would not be able to concentrate on the recital program that he chose for the tour: a daunting repertoire of three challenging pieces: a Mozart sonata, Beethoven's Tempest Sonata -- which I was especially looking forward to, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition suite.
I needed not have worried. While obviously still grieving the destruction back home, Nobu the consummate professional handled the tour with aplomb. Dedicating each recital on the tour to the people of Japan, he crisscrossed this country with his manager Nick Asano. In three weeks' time, he made stops in the states of Colorado, California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. He visited six college campuses and one conservatory, performed in two concerts with the world renown Takacs Quartet, and wowed audiences in six recitals. He received media attention everywhere. Besides published interviews at almost every stop, Nobu was featured on television in a newscast in Colorado (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDkHNjMYXC0) and interviewed on air by VPR, a National Public Radio Station in Fresno, California (http://www.kvpr.org/contact_us.php).
I have now seen Nobu up close on different occasions, and I continue to be fascinated by him. My admiration -- adoration -- for him has only grown. I admire his fearlessness. As pointed out by Richard Dyer at the Boston Q&A session: unlike many other Cliburn winners, on his tours Nobu does not settle for playing recital pieces that he performed during the competition, but instead has opted to expand his repertoire by performing newly learned and challenging works such as the Mussorgsky suite and Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata.
I admire his work ethics. He practices for hours each day, which was what I counted on to find him in Jordan Hall the morning of his performance in Boston. A perfectionist, Nobu strives to give flawless performances even under the most difficult circumstances. Seeing him off stage, you would hardly suspect that Nobu is the big star that he is. He is humble and courteous, always neatly but modestly dressed.
Speaking in his native language, he is unfailingly deliberate and courteous. I have taken to learning Japanese in the hope of one day being able to speak to Nobu in his language and to understand what's spoken on his Japanese videos, and I had to chuckle when I realized that he responds to almost every question with that handy Japanese phrase "so desu ne" ("let's see"), to give himself time to think before dashing off an answer.
He seems to indulge in little, and put up with a lot. On a day in the midst of back-to-back concerts this month, he endured two hours of a question-and-answer evening session in Boston even though he was suffering from allergies and was obviously fatigued - I doubt if very many of his peers would go along with such an engagement. And yet at the same time Nobu is no push-over: behind his low-key and placid facade, there is a palpable steely resolve and an unmistakable pride in his music as well as in his own people.
Nobu has proven that the sensation that he caused at the Cliburn Competition was no accident. His performances are magical and he has continued to wow audiences everywhere. At the four concerts of his that I attended on two continents, Nobu brought the house down each time. Standing ovations, whistles, cheers, bravos: these come to him routinely by now, especially in the U.S, and yet he always rewards his receptive audience with that endearing "angelic ear-to-ear grin on the young pianist's cherubic face." His rapport with the audience is something that most other pianists can only envy. Someone who was at his recital in Arizona -- the last stop on this tour -- posted on twitter that Nobu is a "cutie" and "blows kisses" to the audience!
Nobu's rise in the rarefied realm of classical piano has been characterized as "meteoric", and he is reportedly in demand worldwide.
But I have come to the sad realization that even the lofty writings in classical music are not above hyperbole. Although some published literature would have you believe that Nobu has "conquered major concert halls all over the world", in truth most of his stops in the U.S. and Europe have been at small venues. On this tour especially, his performances have largely been on small campuses in cities in which other famous pianists -- such as Nobu's idol Evgeny Kissin -- have probably never deigned to set foot. Perhaps it is the intention of the Cliburn Foundation for the 2009 winners to visit these far-flung places to generate enthusiasm for piano music and to cultivate long-term audiences, but the effectiveness of such appearances remains to be seen. (One of the 2009 Cliburn winners has withdrawn from these tours all together.)
At Ithaca College in New York last week, the 700-seat concert hall was not filled even though admission to Nobu's recital was free of charge. (However, a campus official explained that the campus is remote and that the attendance was excellent compared to other events in the same series.) Nobu's recitals did sell out in smaller concert halls, those with 500 seats or less.
So, objectively, it must be said that Nobu has not yet attained the star power of Kissin, who packed them in at his March recital this year in Boston's Symphony Hall (seating capacity 2,600). But then Kissin has been a legendary star for nearly 30 years, and I do wonder if even he can sell out a concert hall in some far-out corner of this country.
(The first time I attended a performance of Nobu's in California in 2010, I asked his manager why Nobu, the super star that he is in Japan, agreed to perform at such a small venue. And Mr. Asano said that Nobu is doing it as a payback to the Foundation, in return for the fame that the competition has brought him. Mr. Asano also mentioned a line that I read in some interviews: Nobu does not see the Cliburn win as a culminating victory, but instead the beginning of his worldwide career. Coming from just about anyone else, these words would sound hollow, but Nobu is always candid.)
What has yet to happen is an open-armed acceptance of Nobu by the old guards of classical piano music outside of Japan. Nobu's performances have not received any notice from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times of this country, nor from the Guardian and the Telegraph in England. On the other hand, it is heartening that his performances of Mussorgsky's knuckle-buster "Pictures at an Exhibition" -- a piece that was particularly challenging for Nobu to interpret (see Nobu conquers "Pictures at An Exhibition" ) -- have consistently received good reviews, both in the U.S. and in Europe. And it cannot be a coincidence that so many of the conductors and musicians that perform with him seem so taken with Nobu.
For myself, my fascination with Nobu is far from satiated, and in fact I would gladly see him on stage again, any time. I very much cherish having had the good fortune of being among the first to hear his "Tempest" sonata performed live, and I will pay good money for the privilege of listening to it again, especially in the company of an appreciative audience. I would happily travel to Tokyo this June to get a Nobu fix and listen to his performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"), but tickets for the two concerts in which he will appear with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra are long gone.
It will be a long, dry summer. But I should count my blessings. Among the memories that I relish are: The brilliant and riveting tone that Nobu makes on the piano in every concert hall; the sight of Takacs viola player Geraldine Walther, a lady, leading Nobu on stage three times to accept the applause of the audience after his performance of the Schumann Quintet; Nobu, sniffing and coughing from allergies, courteously answering questions at the Q&A session in Boston; Mr. Dyer's unmistakable affection and admiration for Nobu; the standing ovations and Nobu's ear-to-ear grin; meeting other Nobu fans in Boston. And I am grateful to have these to enjoy during the lull: the Tchaikovsky No. 1 CD released in February, numerous youTube videos, many of which I personally uploaded; and recordings of BBC broadcasts, the Fresno interview, and the Boston Q&A session.
I close with this endearing note that I received from someone, a piano teacher, who was at Nobu's recital in Boston:
"Nobu is a love! I was wondering if somewhere, down the line, Nobu's pinky (small finger) sticking in the air; and his head whipping, might cause him physical problems. If he could take some time to study with Wha Kyung Byun, in Lexington, MA, I think that she could help him with these issues, and also add to his color palate, on the piano. I want to see him continue to succeed!!!!", and," Ask his management to dress him, for interviews, in more becoming outfits!"
I imagine that Nobu gets well-meaning advice like this all the time.
His appearance at the Carnegie Hall this November will be a crucial milestone. Nobu is aware of the challenge. Said he: "I’m extremely honored and happy to be selected [to perform] in the same series as world’s top class pianists like Pollini, Kissin, and Uchida Mitsuko-san. I want to deliver a powerful performance and use this as a chance to broaden my performing career abroad."
In another week Nobu will have performed in Canada and be free to return home to his family in Tokyo, which he must have missed so much ("Everyday I think of my family I left in Tokyo," Nobu told a U.S. reporter at the start of the tour.) Take care and fare well, Tsujii san! Enjoy your much deserved summer break. This fan will be there to support you at the Carnegie Hall in November.