YU KOSUGE

Playing to tell her tales

by Benjamin Woodward

Storytelling lies at the heart of Japanese pianist Yu Kosuge’s art.

“I loved to write, and when I was a child, I would write a story for each piece I played,” says the soft-spoken 24-year-old in English. “Back then I would imagine dances with elephants or squirrels. Now my stories are a little more complicated, more intimate, emotional.” She pauses. “I hope,” she adds, laughing.

Kosuge’s own story has seen her move nimbly from success to success, avoiding the hype of the usual competition route to fame, and along the way navigating the treacherous waters from child prodigy to adult musician.

An exciting new talent lauded by critics and colleagues alike, Kosuge was born in 1982 in Tokyo and was playing the piano by the age of 2. By the age of 4, she had been accepted into the prestigious Tokyo College of Music and at age 9, she performed her first recital and her first concerto in public.

“I had no fear as a child, none at all,” she says. “I didn’t think about the audience. It was just about having fun. The piano was like a toy to me.”

Around that time, Kosuge had her first chance to play abroad. It was in Cologne, Germany, and the experience was an eye-opener.

“The audience was so open and welcoming, but more importantly, I got in contact with musicians of my own age, not just pianists, but violinists and cellists,” she remembers. “I hadn’t played much chamber music before that.”

In the following year, 1993, she moved to Germany to study in Hanover, where, despite not speaking a word of the language, she balanced intense music studies with a regular education. The learning curve was as steep as it was invaluable.

“In Japan, I had a very good music education — theory, harmony and so on. But somehow there was still this wall between me and the music,” explains Kosuge, who is now a fluent German speaker. “In Germany they brought out my personality. They were always asking me, ‘What do you want?’ “

Less than 10 years on from then, she has already released four records, published a book “Jonetsu no Cadenza (A Passionate Cadenza)” (2005) about her experiences in Germany, garnered rave reviews for her playing and come to the notice of a number of prominent pianists, among them Budapest-born Andras Schiff.

At the end of 2005 she made her U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall in New York, and now from her base in Salzburg, Austria, she works a busy concert schedule in both Europe and Japan.

So which pianists does she hold as her models? “The dead ones,” she says, laughing. “Schnabel, Arrau, Fischer, Rubinstein . . . They could express such emotion, they played so naturally and with such personality. Their interpretations were richer, more individual. For example, Rubinstein, when he played Chopin, he made it into his own music.”

What about her own interpretative skills? The era of recording has paradoxically brought about a greater uniformity of interpretation and, more recently, greater pressure on younger musicians to rework the standard repertoire, running the risk of mannered and distorted performances in pursuit of their own personal vision.

“I don’t feel that pressure. I am different just because of who I am,” says Kosuge. “I don’t have to try.”

This isn’t to say that she doesn’t pay attention to other pianists.

“It’s important for me to go to live concerts, not just piano recitals, but orchestras, operas,” she says. “And I go backstage and talk to the musicians afterward.”

So far, Kosuge’s tastes have been fairly conservative. She has stuck to the staples of the concert pianist’s repertoire — Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff — with a slight leaning toward the Germans. She reserves, though, a special fondness for Schumann, with whom she shares her love of tales.

“He’s like a brother to me, so honest, so intimate, so lyrical, and so crazy. He is a man of extremes, a man who wants to change the world, but a man with a bitter sense of humor,” she says. “His music has so many layers, so much vitality. Every time I go on stage I find something different in his music. And I find something different in myself too.”

The mention of more contemporary music provokes an enthusiastic response, although it’s an area that she has yet to explore in depth. The late composer Toru Takemitsu is the key exception, having been a staple of her recital repertoire from an early age. Recently, too, composer Akira Nishimura wrote a concerto for her titled “Kalavinka.”

“It requires a very hard sound, like ice. The piano here is a shaman, a medium for the divine, and the sound of the piano becomes something different, something otherworldly,” she says. “It’s erotic and filled with vitality.”

Vitality is a word that Kosuge continually returns to as a term of the highest praise, as she seeks to imbue her playing with as much of life as possible. It isn’t a word often associated with classical music, with dire predictions about its future beset as it currently is, even if online downloads of classical artists are giving hope.

“It’s a pity,” she admits, but, as a young musician, she is optimistic that she can reach out to people of her generation as long as they too make an effort. “The quality is important. I don’t think people should be making pop music out of classical music. But if people go to a really good concert, they will have a good experience. They just have to take the first step and try.”

Yu Kosuge performs with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Dec. 1 (6 p.m., ¥2,000-¥7,000, [044] 520-1511); Ryutopia, Niigata City, Dec. 2 (5 p.m., ¥2,000-¥6,500, [025] 224-5521). Recitals: Machida Shimin Hall, Dec. 7 (6:30 p.m., ¥3,000, tel. [042] 728-4300); Sai-no-Kuni Saitama Arts Theater, Dec. 9 (3 p.m., sold-out); Hatsukaichi Cultural Hall, Hiroshima, Dec. 11 (7 p.m., ¥1,500-¥3,000, tel. [0829] 20-0111); Kanagawa Ongakudo, Dec. 13 (7 p.m., ¥4,000, tel. [045] 263-2255).