Thwarted prodigy scales the heights

by Kana Ishiguro

In the world of popular classical music, few stars shine brighter than that of pianist Fujiko Hemming, whose debut CD, “La Campanella,” has sold more than 900,000 copies worldwide and collected a Japan Gold Disc Award and numerous classical album of the year awards since its release in 1999.

Yet who knows what may have happened, and what even greater heights Hemming may have reached had her career not been blighted as is was beginning to peak more than 30 years ago.

Born in Berlin sometime in the 1930s (she has always refused to reveal her exact age), Hemming moved to Tokyo at the outbreak of World War II, at age 5, with her father, Russian-Swedish architect Gosta Georgii-Hemming, and her Japanese pianist mother, Toako Otsuki. Around that time, she began studying piano under her mother, who she described in a recent interview with The Japan Times as “quite a strict teacher who often criticized my playing.”

Nonetheless, she also fondly recalls one of her most cherished childhood memories, saying: “After my brother and I went to bed, my mother would go to the piano and play Chopin or something. It was so beautiful that my heart would start pounding.”

Soon, though, Hemming’s own playing began to set other hearts pounding, and at age 9 — by which time she was being called a “child prodigy” — she was featured on a radio program.

Hemming, however, disliked playing in front of people, and it wasn’t until she was 17 that she made her concert debut. As she recalls: “When guests came to our house, my mother would tell me to play. I always felt embarrassed, because my feet are rather big compared to those of Japanese [girls], so I used to ask my little brother to crawl under the piano and hide them. But I couldn’t do that on a real stage, could I?”

That same nervousness has lingered long with Hemming, who admits that until her 30s she couldn’t tell if her playing was good or bad — and that she never saw herself perform on video until about 10 years ago. When she did, she recalls, while smiling charmingly, “This is not bad at all. Not at all.”

Nervous or not, she embarked on a professional career straight after graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music. Then, in her late 20s, she went to study at the Berlin Institute of Music, and her distinctive performance there led her naturally into a career in Europe after she graduated.

With eminent musicians such as composer-conductor Bruno Maderna, pianists Shura Cherkassky and Paul Badura-Skoda and the conductors Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein among her admirers, it seemed then that all those who had long predicted she would “one day be a star” were about to be able to say instead, “I told you so.”

Then, in 1969, immediately before a major recital in Vienna organized by the superluminary Leonard Bernstein and other leading musicians — a recital that seemed set to see her dreams come true — Hemming was suddenly struck deaf after she succumbed to a high fever. In deep despair, she moved to Stockholm and — with about 40 percent of the hearing back in her left ear — she gained a piano-teaching qualification in order to be able to work while receiving medical treatment there.

Two years later, despite little or no further improvement in her hearing, she resumed playing concerts around Europe while supplementing that income with teaching. Among those who heard her in the more than two decades she lived in Europe, mostly in Germany, the overriding memory appears to be of her “unique tones,” with some reviewers even remarking that this often makes audiences wonder if the instrument she plays is the piano they used to know.

She, too, agrees this is among her fortes, saying with a mischievous smile, “If you find a pianist with prettier tones than I’ve got, will you bring the artist here?”

Warming to her theme, she declares: “I like the Impressionists — both the painters and composers like Debussy. You see, when you look at a painting, you sometimes find a strong brush and other times a soft brush, and such — so I just try to do the same thing with music. In my mind, I have a picture I’d like to portray with my music.”

In fact, she says that “having always been good at painting and design, if I hadn’t become a pianist I may have become a designer — not a clothing designer but rather of posters or logos.” Indeed, Hemming herself designed the artwork for “La Campanella” and her several subsequent albums.

In 1995, Hemming returned to Japan and a TV documentary on her playing and life story broadcast in February 1999 made her, almost overnight, a household name and virtually guaranteed the success of her debut album released that August.

A firm believer that one of the most important things for an artist is “to have a world that cannot be imitated easily,” it appears that in her four-week tour of Japan with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra that ended Oct. 12, Hemming lived up to her own ideal. Speaking afterward, the conductor Yuri Simonov declared: “I have played Tchaikovsky and Chopin concertos with many pianists, but Fujiko is so unique and so not traditional; she does have her own world. And she is different every day. This kind of improvisation makes the performance interesting each time.”

Echoing such sentiments, Alexander S. Bezrukov, chief director of the Moscow State Philharmonic Society, summed up the members’ views of Hemming’s “amazing musical expressiveness,” saying: “It is dramatic, but at the same time technically refined. She is a pianist who can show the full picture of the music while reflecting its most delicate details.”

Music to her ears, indeed, for an artist who says she doesn’t really appreciate musical performances that are “too technique-oriented,” as she believes music should and must “reflect the artist’s humanity, so that your character and personality naturally show through — that is what moves people.”

In Hemming’s case, her humanity is not solely expressed through her music. In Japan, people were also deeply moved by her decision to donate an entire year’s CD royalties to Sept. 11 charitable organizations, as well as handing over concert performance fees to aid Afghan refugees. She also supports numerous animal-welfare projects, notably for cats and dogs.

Though Hemming, who lives alone with her cats (but gleefully admits to being in love with “a German gentleman who comes to my apartment every day”), devotes so much to others who are suffering, she still lives with the effects of her 1969 hearing loss. Now, after a long day of recordings and performances, she finds it difficult to hear her own playing. “Sometimes, it makes me worry. You know how fine flowers are often fragile. When you water them a bit too much, they easily die. I think I am somehow made delicately myself, and that’s why I have a lingering fear.”