By M. L. Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
The 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in 2009 ended with a common scene, the winner cradling his trophy while simultaneously crying and laughing. However, the winner, then 20-year-old Nobuyuki Tsujii, is unlike any of the other competitors — he is completely blind.
In late January, he will be performing in Seattle.
Nobuyuki Tsujii was born in Tokyo, on Sept. 13, 1988 to a physician and television presenter, with a developmental disorder of the eyes called microphthalmia. Nobu’s musical talent was first discovered by his mother. Baby Nobu kicked his feet to the recording of Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise performed by Russian pianist Stanislav Bunin. One day, when Nobu was two years old, his mother Itsuko – making dinner and singing “Jingle Bells” in the kitchen — was startled to hear an echo of the tune coming from the next room, played by little Nobu on the keyboard of a toy piano, in chords played with both hands.
Itsuko Tsujii instilled in her only child the belief that he can see with “the eye in his heart.”
Growing up, his mother would take him to unlikely venues, such as museums and fireworks. Everywhere they went, Itsuko described the sights to her son. She guided his hands over objects and introduced to him the notion of colors by associating a specific hue with a favored food item: eggs for yellow and cherries for red. One day, when he was a child, Nobu asked his mother, “What color is the wind today?” That question became the title of a book about Nobu, co-written by his mother.
Nobu began his formal study of piano at the age of 4. In 1995, he won first prize at the All Japan Music Competition of Blind Students by the Tokyo Helen Keller Association. In 1998, at age 10, he debuted with the Century Orchestra in Osaka. He gave his first piano recital in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall at age 12, following which he made his overseas debut with performances in the United States, France, and Russia. In October 2005, at age 17, Nobu reached the semifinal round and received a Critics’ Award at the 15th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw, Poland.
At age 20, Nobu was a sensation at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth, Texas. He thrilled judges and audiences with virtuosic performances of all 12 etudes of Chopin’s Opus 10 in the first round, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” at the semifinals, and Chopin’s Piano Concerto Number 1 in the finals.
“He was absolutely miraculous,” Val Cilburn said. “His performance had the power of a healing service. It was truly divine.”
Juror Michel Béroff, an award-winning internationally known pianist, told the Japanese monthly piano magazine Chopin, “The special thing about his performance is his sound. It has depth, color, and contrast, the genuine music.”
Since winning the Cliburn gold medal, Nobu has traveled around the world to perform in recitals and concerts, astonishing audiences everywhere.
On Tuesday, Jan. 22, Nobu will play a recital of Debussy and Chopin works. Then, on Sunday, Jan. 27, as part of the Celebrate Asia, Seattle will be treated to Nobu’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, accompanied by the city’s esteemed symphony orchestra.
In Japan, Nobuyuki Tsujii is revered. A biography about him was on this summer’s reading list for the nation’s school children. The popularity of Nobu in his home country is such that some of his concerts sell out in minutes and lotteries are held to distribute tickets. Although not yet as well-known outside Japan, Nobu’s fame is rising fast, and he is reportedly in great demand worldwide. (end)
For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.seattlesymphony.org.
M. L. Liu is a retired college professor. She is the owner of an unofficial website for the international fans of Nobuyuki Tsujii, https://sites.google.com/site/nobufans.
M. L. Liu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.