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Motoki Hirai: Spreading the power of music

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

Growing up in a family of professional musicians where everyone could play at least two instruments, it is hardly surprising that Motoki Hirai became a concert pianist and composer. However, Hirai has expanded his horizons well beyond the realms of conventional performances, with music facilitating his participation in a variety of cultural, philanthropic and international exchange activities.

Hirai’s father, Takeichiro, is a professional cellist and his late grandfather, Kozaburo, was a well-known composer. Moreover, his mother is a pianist and his brother a conductor, while his grandmother was a violinist. “We were so lucky to have lived together with our grandparents. We learned a lot from them. Music was just everywhere — it was like the air we breathe or having a meal,” he says of his childhood.

While the piano is Hirai’s main instrument of choice these days, the violin was his first love and he recalls his debut solo public performance at the age of 3. He performed a piece chosen by his grandfather: the British national anthem “God Save the Queen.” This seems quite fitting in hindsight, given that England became his second home.

Hirai says there was no pressure from his family to pursue a musical path in life, and he was encouraged to try a variety of activities, including sports. However, during his senior year at university in Japan, he made up his mind to follow in the family’s footsteps and seek a career as a professional musician.

It was the distinguished British pianist Frank Wibaut who inspired Hirai to move to England in 1996. After hearing Hirai perform in Tokyo, Wibaut invited him to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where Wibaut was teaching at the time. London has been Hirai’s professional base ever since, and the launch pad for a career that has seen him tour some 70 countries.

One particular performance that Hirai says was seminal for him was a recital he gave in 2005 in London as part of the EU-Japan Year of People-to-People Exchanges. Among the pieces he performed was one of his own compositions.

“It was probably the turning point for my career both as a pianist and composer,” he says. “The aim was to promote a greater mutual understanding of European and Japanese society and culture.”

While Hirai treasures his Japanese culture, these days he sees himself as more of a global citizen, saying, “Obviously, I identify myself as Japanese, but I do feel that I am cosmopolitan, rather than bound by one country.” Spending time in London, he explains, has facilitated this, offering relatively easy access to the majority of the world’s regions, along with a multicultural environment.

“It sounds like a cliche, but London is indeed one of the greatest melting pots in the world,” he says. “I find that I feel more cosmopolitan when in London.”

Since his senior year of college in Tokyo, Hirai has been traveling the world as an “artistic emissary” for the Japanese government, promoting Japanese music and culture through piano concerts and various outreach programs. One memorable experience he mentions took place in 2010, when he performed at a concert to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sugihara House museum in Kaunas, Lithuania.

Sugihara House honors the life of Chiune Sugihara (1900-86), a Japanese government official who was working in Kaunas during World War II and is credited with helping some 6,000 Polish Jews escape Europe. Sugihara issued transit visas, allowing them to travel through Japanese territory on their way to safe havens abroad. Four elderly women who were among those helped by Sugihara attended the 2010 concert.

“One after another, they started sobbing during my performance. They had miraculously survived, but they had lost their relatives and friends in Poland,” recalls Hirai, adding that he will never forget the raw emotions he witnessed at the event.

Hirai is passionate about using the power of music to heal, and since 2014 he has been involved with The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. He gives concerts in aid of child cancer patients, as well as visiting Royal Marden Hospital in London to perform directly for the young patients.

Coincidentally, he remembers once having the fortune to meet Diana, Princess of Wales, who he recalls spoke kindly to him after one of his performances during his student days in London. Although Hirai didn’t know it as the time, the princess was the patron of The Royal Marsden until her death in 1997.

Hirai has also been supporting fundraising activities to help those affected in Japan by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Tohoku on March 11, 2011 — which, by a sad coincidence, happens to be his birthday.

For Hirai, prioritizing his activities is the key to achieving balance in his life. He credits his two young children, ages 7 and 22 months, with helping him to realize this.

“Certainly, I have given up an awful lot of things, to be honest. But you do have to give up things for something really important to you at some point in your life,” he points out. “I give the highest priority to music and my family. The kids are growing so quickly and I’m always learning a lot from them.”

Irrespective of where he might be, Hirai tries to make the most of each experience and to live in the moment. While he appreciates the atmosphere of some of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, he says he’s equally at home playing in more mundane settings.

“As a musician, I love playing for children in schools and hospitals,” he says. “Even though the quality of pianos and acoustics are far below standard, the inspiration and emotional rewards I get from them are enormous.”

In terms of his career, he says “I feel I’m very fortunate to do what I love,” and has no set agenda going forward. He is content to go in whichever direction his convictions and his conscience take him.

“Music has incredible power to connect people’s souls. My ultimate goal is to make as many people as possible happy through sharing music,” he adds. “I believe this will make the world better, and a more peaceful place for us all to live in.”

Profile

Name: Motoki Hirai

Profession: Concert pianist and composer

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 46

Key moments in life and career:

1994 — Begins activities as an “artistic emissary” for the Japanese government

1995 — Graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Keio University

1996 — Begins postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London

2005 — Performs as part of the EU-Japan Year of People-to-People Exchanges in London

2010 — Following his marriage, moves to the English countryside in Surrey

2011 — Performs a solo recital debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall

2014 — Begins a concert series with The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity

2015 — Performs at Expo Milano 2015 as an artistic director and composer

2019 — Becomes a goodwill ambassador for the Reviving Old Imari Porcelain at Loosdorf Castle, Austria project

Favorite piece of music: “That’s a tough one, since I have so many favorite composers and pieces of music, but if I have to choose one, it would be the piece I am playing at the time.”