Whether their lives were long or short, the classic composers tended to cement their legacies in their final days, perhaps the point in their lives when they were at their most philosophical.
Pianist Etsuko Tazaki is fascinated by the legacies these artists leave, and is turning them into a trio of recitals that focuses on the last piano works of Johannes Brahms (1833-97), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).
The music of these great German classical and romantic composers “has formed my musical backbone,” says Tazaki, who is in the process of crafting quite a legacy of her own as a pioneering Japanese pianist who was one of the first to leave her home to study in the United States.
Born in 1941, Tazaki took up music at the age of 6 in postwar Tokyo. Her mother, an admirer of Western culture, took her to modern ballet classes and then piano lessons, which gave the talented young Etsuko a passion for an instrument “that I could play alone,” she recalls.
Upon graduating her high school course at Toho Gakuen School of Music, Tokyo, she won a scholarship from the Fulbright Program that paved her way to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York in 1960.
The scholarship covered only part of the cost, but her mother was determined and gave Tazaki a sporting chance by writing to the owner of the popular restaurant Sardi’s in Manhattan. To the family’s surprise, then-owner Vincent Sardi offered his generous support to the music student from Japan.
“I am so grateful for Mr. Sardi, who really took care of me as he did for his four adopted children,” Tazaki says.
Her stay, initially slated to last one year, was extended as she continued in her studies. Tazaki recalls that life as an independent pianist in New York wasn’t easy. She made her way by applying for various scholarships, auditions and competitions while attending as many concerts as possible. There were struggles, but she remembers that the good outweighed the bad.
“In those days, virtuosos from around the world gave legendary performances in New York one after another,” she says. “It was just natural for me to stay there, I never even thought of going back to Japan. Time just flew by and before I knew it, 30 years had passed.”
Of course staying in the United States allowed Tazaki to take advantage of numerous opportunities that helped advance her career. In 1976, she was selected by the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation as one of the pianists to commemorate America’s bicentennial at a recital at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Three years later, she made her orchestral debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Georg Solti. She performed Bela Bartok’s second piano concerto, which gained her international recognition. She has worked with maestros such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Leonard Slatkin, Seiji Ozawa and Herbert Blomstedt since.
Out of all these opportunities, however, Tazaki cites the chance to take part in the Marlboro Music School and Festival, a retreat for advanced classical training and musicianship for seven weeks held each summer in Marlboro, Vermont, as providing her with her “musical backbone.” It was there that she studied under Spanish Catalan cellist Pablo Casals and Bohemian-born pianist Rudolf Serkin.
“It wasn’t just their performances, but also their words and attitudes toward music that made an impression on me,” Tazaki says. The philosophy that she learned from her mentors at Marlboro was that performing musicians need to act as servants to the composer in order to re-create the original score.
“When pianists perform a piece, they need to look at the score carefully until they really digest and absorb it,” she says, noting that this process will differ among artists as they look at a piece differently. “I realized the more faithful to the score and objective I try to be, the more my subjective view emerges in my performance and that makes it my own interpretation. I think it’s only possible for us to reach this state by remaining very humble every time we perform.”
Tazaki sees the relationship between performer and composer from a different angle when it comes to creating on new works. In 1976, she premiered “Partita-Variations,” which she commissioned to American contemporary composer George Rochberg as part of her mission as a pianist to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial.
“It was exciting to create a new piece in collaboration with a composer,” she says. “After this experience, I have come to face the scores even in case of classical pieces with a spirit of adventure. It is interesting to look from behind the scores as if they are currently being created by the composers.”
Beethoven composed Symphony No. 9 after he wrote his final piano sonata five years prior to his death, while Schubert passed away two months after completing his three piano sonatas. And Brahms, who died at 64, the eldest among the three, wrote impressive piano pieces well into his later years.
“When I performed Brahms’ last pieces before, I hadn’t reached his age yet. Now that I am older than he was when he wrote them, I can sympathize with his absolute solitude, resignation and gentleness,” Tazaki says. “If Brahms were next to me, I would have no idea how I could respond to his great gentleness.”
After living in New York for 30 years, “a battlefield of international competitions for ambitious people in every genre,” Tazaki returned to Japan in 1990. She now resides at her countryside home at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Tazaki has kept a slight distance between her and the musical community in Japan, but she still enjoys teaching young artists as part of her “Joy of Music” program, as well as performing at her own recitals from time to time. Her “Legacy — The Last Piano Works of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert” series of concerts was held in Osaka last year, and the associated CDs were released in February. After a lifetime of experiences, it seems Tazaki hasn’t yet finished writing her own legacy.
“Legacy — The Last Piano Works of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert” takes place at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan recital hall in Taito-ku on April 18 (2 p.m. start; ¥5,000 in advance; 03-5429-2399). Subsequent performances will take place July 18 and Nov. 14. For more information, visit www.t-bunka.jp/en/ or www.etsko.jp.