September, so far, has been a busy month for organist Mari Fukumoto. At the end of August she moved from her base in Hamburg, where she has lived for the past eight years, to Weimar, around 300 kilometers south, where she is preparing to take up her “first ever job” as a music teacher at the University of Music Franz Liszt.
October, though, will likely be even busier and more stressful as she sits, or in this case stands, for a final exam in orchestral conducting. For that she’ll go back to Hamburg, where she’ll guide a full orchestra as they tackle “Die Schopfung” by Haydn.
“When that finishes I will be happy and able to relax,” Fukumoto says during a phone call from Weimar.
Now 32, Fukumoto left Japan when she was 24 to continue her studies in organ and church music in Hamburg. Fluent in German and English — she studied English at school and took up German by herself while still living in Japan — she has since performed widely in Germany as well as in Poland, Italy, Russia and Japan.
When I ask if her family were especially interested in music, Fukumoto says “no.” And, to emphasize the point, she says it five more times, while laughing.
Like many other children in Japan, though, she started learning music at a young age, playing piano as a child. The concentration needed and having to sit still, she recalls, proved a struggle.
“I didn’t like it,” she says. “Almost every girl learns piano and I thought that was boring. Also, I’m not that kind of person who can stay calm and elegant in front of the piano. I couldn’t do it. I needed something that required more activity, like sports.”
The reason she switched to the organ was quite straightforward, at least for a child. She first heard the organ being played during the morning services at Aoyama Elementary School and was impressed by its size and sound.
“I just wanted to play this big instrument and that’s why I moved on to the organ,” she recalls.
She first started playing the organ in junior high school and became a member of the organ club.
“The teacher at that club always said positive things like ‘you’re great and you’re amazing’ and that’s when I thought, yes, ‘I’m really great,'” she says. “I was mistaken,” she continues, laughing. “But that was the start, and I thought, ‘I have to be a great organist.'”
From high school, Fukumoto continued studying the organ at the Tokyo University of the Arts, which is where she also completed her masters.
One of the main reasons Fukumoto left Japan to study in Europe, she explains, was that she needed to go deeper in context. In Tokyo she had a formidable schooling in content, but the teaching and learning system was predicated on a one-way system.
“If your teacher says so and so, you needed to accept it … I think this is the kind of education system in Japan. At least it was for me,” she says. “I needed to improve myself.”
The music of Bach, to this day the most influential composer of music for the organ, continues to be a huge inspiration for Fukumoto.
“German music sounded very familiar to me somehow. I don’t know why,” she says. “I can imagine what it means, or what it could be. And that’s why I needed to know more about it. For that, I needed to come to Germany.”
Studying the organ in Germany became a dream for Fukumoto, so when she announced her plans to move to Germany it came as no great surprise to friends and family.
She had already visited twice while in college, hoping to lock down a school to continue her studies, but those reconnaissance missions proved unsuccessful. When in 2011 she finally found a mentor — Wolfgang Zerer, an organist and professor of organ at the University of Theatre and Music Hamburg — she was initially hesitant, since he had tutored many Japanese pupils. She had hoped to take a path less travelled.
But when Fukumoto met with Zerer, listened to his music and had a first lesson, it was a turning point and she decided she had to go to Hamburg, where he was based. She gained a two-year scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which allowed her to make the move.
“It was really big for me,” she says, explaining that up to that point she didn’t have any outstanding prizes for playing the organ and hadn’t garnered any special attention.
Subsequently she was able to support herself through other scholarships from the Rohm Music Foundation and the Japanese Government’s Agency of Cultural Affairs Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists.
The change in lifestyle and schooling that Hamburg offered was one that Fukumoto relished.
“For me it was a big opportunity to get to know other people and their backgrounds, and to understand how big the world is,” she says of her experience of meeting many students of different nationalities and cultures.
Between practising and working through a full curriculum, there wasn’t much free time, but her fellow students studying church music and the organ became a second family. It helped that Fukumoto was proficient in German and English.
Since 2012, Fukumoto has toured widely, first in Germany and Japan, but also at festivals and concerts throughout Europe. Going on the road and performing also allowed Fukumoto to experience different kinds of audience response to organ music. One concert that left a lasting impression was just last year in the historic city of Yaroslavl, about 250 kilometers north of Moscow. It was her first time in Russia, and her first encounter with a Russian crowd.
“The audience was so passionate and excited. They clapped along with the music and cheered as if it were a soccer game,” she recalls. “I was really happy with the response, especially as that’s not the usual reaction to organ music.”
She regularly returns to Japan to perform, saying, “I’m an only child and my parents are still in Japan, so it’s nice that they can enjoy my music. That’s important to me.”
But looking ahead, Fukumoto has a clear overseas goal in mind.
“I want to become the first Asian organ professor in Germany,” she says. “That’s why I’m happy I got the job in Weimar — it’s a starting point.”
Name: Mari Fukumoto
Profession: Concert organist
Key moments in career:
2009 — Graduates from Tokyo University of the Arts with the Acanthus Music Prize and the Doseikai Prize
2011 — Moves to Hamburg, Germany
2012 — Wins the 7th International Organ Competition in Musashino, Japan.
2013 — Wins the International Organ Competition at the 62nd International Organ Week in Nuremberg, Germany, and graduates from Hamburg University of Music and Theatre
2014 — Completes post graduate from Tokyo University of the Arts, releases first CD through Naxos Records and wins the 4th International Daniel Herz Organ Competition in Brixen, Italy and the 3rd International Organ Competition Agati-Tronci in Pistoia, Italy
2018 — Awarded Slovak Radio Symphony prize and performs in Russia for the first time.
2019 — Takes up teaching position at University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar
Things I miss about Japan: “Being Japanese: When I talk in English or German, I feel as if I am a different person from my Japanese character. But I don´t know yet which one actually is my standard personality.”
Words to live by: “We are free to do what we want. It´s not that we have to, or that we should; rather, we are allowed to.”