Music

Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii sets the bar high with new concert series

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

As pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii appears on stage at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, hand in hand with violinist Fumiaki Miura, the capacity audience that flocked to the Oct. 5 matinee gives a warm shower of applause in anticipation of the duo’s performance.

Led by the soft chords of the piano, the quiet melody of a violin started Johannes Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1, also known as “Rain Sonata,” one of the two pieces from the duo’s first joint album, released in June.

“As a pianist, I have (previously) mostly performed alone or in collaboration with orchestras,” Tsujii says. Born blind, the 31-year-old has an exceptional musical talent that his mother discovered at an early age. His parents nurtured their son’s talent, giving him the best possible musical education, including the pianist course at Ueno Gakuen University.

In addition to solo recitals, including his first performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2011, and concerts with numerous orchestras, such as the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms in 2013, Tsujii has explored the joy of more intimate chamber music in recent years, “thanks to the collaboration with Miura.”

Tsujii and Miura first met in 2015 at a series of concerts that featured the two promising talents who had both won renowned international competitions in 2009 — Tsujii tied for the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, while Miura won the Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition Hannover at age 16, making him its youngest-ever recipient.

“At first we met as the soloists of respective concertos with an orchestra in the program, but during the concert tour, we had meals together and talked with each other,” Tsujii says. At one concert, they did an encore together, playing a short piece from George Gershwin’s preludes.

“We immediately felt that we were compatible,” Tsujii says, adding that they went on to enjoy fishing together in the river near the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Tsujii and Miura began to play together more exclusively, paving the way for the launch of the Suntory Hall Ark Classics programs last year. In those concerts, the pair serve as the music leaders, as part of the annual Ark Hills Music Week festival around the hall.

The latter part of the Oct. 5 matinee concert featured another piece from the CD: Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by Cesar Franck. Tsujii and Miura chose the masterpiece for their first collaboration and have performed it many times since 2016.

“I think that we have common musical directions and ideas,” Tsujii says. “Of course, we discuss important points in words, but we prefer having conversations with our sounds. When Miura plays his part in a certain way, I respond by performing my part. Such musical dialogue changes from the rehearsals through the show and gets better each time.”

Standing in front of the piano, Miura performs almost entirely without looking at Tsujii. However, the subconscious flow between the two is almost tangible.

As Tsujii points out, the two artists have some things in common: genuine performing skills, clear sounds and a straightforward style. In a sense, their collaboration has allowed them to deepen their music. They listen to and wait for each other, co-creating one piece of music with impressive changes of pace and impeccable timing, while making the most of color and tone. Based on trust and respect, their vigorous musical dialogue boldly heats up toward the finale of the show, thrilling an audience that bursts into enthusiastic applause.

The Oct. 5 evening concert is larger in scale and features a variety of collaborations. Tsujii and Miura play with Ark Sinfonietta, a newly formed chamber orchestra of around 20 young artists who are active as soloists or chamber musicians, as well as experienced musicians such as harpsichord player Mayako Sone and violinist Akihiro Miura, Fumiaki Miura’s father.

Following a vibrant performance of Mozart’s Divertimento, conducted by Lithuanian-born violinist and conductor Julian Rachlin, Fumiaki Miura’s teacher in Vienna, and the high-tension counterpoint ensemble of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor, with Rachlin and his pupil Miura serving as soloists, Tsujii then appears on stage with Miura.

To cap the evening concert, a version of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, arranged for piano and string orchestra, is performed by Ark Sinfonietta, with Tsujii as the soloist and Miura serving as conductor for the first time.

Obviously, it was a new challenge for Miura to lead the chamber orchestra in harmony with the solo pianist. What he would do as a violinist when collaborating with Tsujii and how to convey it to the orchestra members as a conductor are two different things. While feeling from behind how Tsujii was performing and understanding exactly how he wanted to play in the next moment, Miura tried to lead the orchestra and generate the sounds accordingly.

The performance moves forward at Tsujii’s pace, while the pianist listens to the chamber orchestra and reacts as he feels appropriate.

The collaboration suggested the great potential for a more interactive performance when the conductor, who understands Tsujii better than anyone, could effectively lead the chamber orchestra and Tsujii could deepen relations with each of the musicians.

As the performance finishes, Tsujii and Miura bow deeply, with their arms around each other.

Marking 10 years since winning his Van Cliburn gold medal, Tsujii has become more sought after at home and overseas.

From the end of October through early November, he will collaborate with the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano, on its tour of Japan.

“I’ll take on the challenge to master a new piece,” Tsujii says. In collaboration with the orchestra, he will play Franz Listz’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for the first time. Since childhood, Tsujii has learned new works by ear. He listens to recordings and practices until “the piece is perfectly in my body.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I love playing the piano.”

From late November through early December, Tsujii will perform in Piano x Art, a series of more relaxed concerts featuring musical gems by French composers as well as his own compositions.

Tsujii says that he has always enjoyed performing in public, even at a young age.

“I feel excited and motivated when there is an audience,” he says. “I feel the audience with all of my senses. No matter what kind of concert venue it may be, my feeling about performing is the same. It’s my great pleasure that people enjoy listening to my music.”

When he was a junior high school student, Tsujii attended a concert by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin at Suntory Hall.

“I was moved by the beauty that his slightest sound carried so far, to the back of the hall,” he says.

Tsujii says that the piano has been a constant presence in his life.

“Piano is part of my body. I would rather express myself in sounds than words,” he says. “If I had not played the piano, I wouldn’t have become what I am now. Piano is something I can express myself with.”

Nobuyuki Tsujii will perform with the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra from Oct. 31 through Nov. 7 at venues across Japan. His “Piano x Art” concerts take place from Nov. 21 through Dec. 8 across the nation. For more information, visit avex.jp/tsujii.

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