A dozen years ago, pianist Shoko Sugitani owned nine pianos, which she kept in different places. She is now down to seven, some of them in Duesseldorf and the rest in Tokyo. She has a favorite piano that she takes with her to important concerts. For the concert scheduled with the Warsaw Philharmonic National Orchestra this month, she has borrowed a made-in-Hamburg Steinway full concert grand piano. It’s the tuning of the instrument that is critical, she explains. She has high, demanding standards, saying, “It is very difficult to find someone who can tune the way I want it.” She relies on Masayuki Matsunaga of Yamaguchi Prefecture to tune the Steinway grand she is borrowing from him, to tune her own Steinway, and all the pianos she uses for her recitals and recordings in Japan.
For her, the piano is the only instrument that has the capacity for effective solo performance. Other instruments, she says, need support to achieve the harmony and melody that a well-played piano can produce on its own. She has not wavered in her devotion to the piano since she began music lessons when she was 6.
After Sugitani graduated from the National University for Art and Music, she went for graduate study to West Germany. “I promised to return after one year. I extended that time. In fact I have never returned to live only here again. I live in both Duesseldorf and in Tokyo, and on concert tours make the round trip three or four times a year,” she said.
During her first years in Europe, she won prizes and medals in international competitions. She had the benefit of tuition from excellent teachers. She received an outstanding distinction when the celebrated chief conductor and general manager of the Bavarian State Opera House, Wolfgang Sawallisch, chose her to be soloist in the first international Schumann Musical Festival. On her visits to Japan she played with several leading Japanese orchestras.
On one early return visit, she met a young man who went back with her to Germany, where they married. A student of Buddhist philosophy, her husband in Germany mastered the language as she had done, studied Western philosophies and established himself as a lecturer at Duesseldorf University. He respected his wife’s career and the demands it made on her. On domestic journeys he drove the van while she sat behind practicing on a small portable piano. “The people thought we were a street show,” Sugitani said. “When we stopped and I continued playing, passersby gathered and tossed coins.”
In 1984, as a soloist Sugitani recorded the complete works of Brahms. She was the first woman in the world to do so. On another memorable occasion, she played a concert duet with Wolfgang Sawallisch. She presented her own “Evening With Brahms” in London. Shortly after that, when she was playing in Tokyo, her fans noticed a change in her. She had lost weight.
“I didn’t lose weight for just appearance,” Sugitani said. “With extra fat on my arms, my touch on the keys was different. To be an artist, it is essential to have more than physical fitness. It is necessary to have control of life in every detail. It is very severe to be so single-purposed and to live with such discipline.”
The self-imposed severity has paid off in her musical triumphs. At a 1991 Tokyo concert with the Moscow Chamber Music Orchestra, in the presence of the Crown Prince of Japan and Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany, Sugitani played without a conductor. He had died unexpectedly shortly before the visit.
Over the following years, Sugitani played with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in Berlin, and with the Bohemia National Symphony Orchestra in Amsterdam. Her recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano concertos are still selling well. She has recorded Mozart’s piano concertos with the Poland National Symphony Orchestra. She says that it is at “high speed” that she is now making three CDs a year.
This year Sugitani is at the keyboard with the Warsaw Philharmonic National Orchestra, at its special concert Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. in Tokyo’s Opera City Hall. It is special, as it is the last time for Kazimierz Kord to be conducting this orchestra. Next year’s three recitals in Japan are already scheduled to coincide with the release of her new CDs. Sugitani plans for them to play her favorite piano, finely tuned, so that “I can express myself truly, as I want,” she said.
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