By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Fresh from an appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (“Nobu”) visited Seattle Symphony on Jan. 26 and 28 to play one of Sergey Rachmaninov’s most popular works, Piano Concerto No. 2. It was a feather in the cap for the Symphony and a delayed dream of Mei-Ling L. Liu, a female admirer who started a website for Nobu’s international fans.
Nobu had been to Seattle before, to participate in the Symphony’s 2013 Celebrate Asia concert, but Liu felt that the virtuoso pianist, blind from birth, was not given his due. Famous in Japan, he was not as well known in the United States. It happened that, at the 2018 wedding reception of the Weekly’s publisher’s—Assunta Ng’s—son, Liu, Ng’s sister-in-law, had the opportunity to speak to then-Japanese Counsel, Yoichiro Yamada, about her wish that Nobu return. Unfortunately, due to a change in personnel at the Consulate, as well as within Nobu’s management, not to mention the impact of COVID-19, Nobu’s next visit to Seattle was delayed until late last month.
Liu remembers the first time she heard Nobu play. A professor then, she was grading papers with the television on, when the sound of a piano caught her ear.
“I looked up and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him because he’s a very engaging pianist,” she shared. “He’s really quite remarkable…His music, to my ears, is outstanding.” Liu started an online website for Nobu. “I volunteered to become a focal point for his international fans…It keeps me busy. It keeps my mind engaged.” Through Nobu, Liu rediscovered piano, taking up playing again herself, and attends every one of his performances that she can, including his recent show at Carnegie, where she said, “He got a raucous reception; people couldn’t get enough of his music.”
On Jan. 26 and 28, the piano was rolled onto the stage at the Symphony for what was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Nobu was enthusiastically welcomed by a primarily Asian audience as he came in on the arm of Czech conductor, Jiří Rožeň. Nobu is small in stature, yet his smile is gigantic, as is the talent for playing piano. It was impossible not to be mesmerized by his hands as they danced across the keys, sometimes crossing each other, running the entire range of the scales as he played the piece by Rachmaninov—a composer whose work is famous for being difficult and requiring a pianist of great range and skill.
“This concerto is particularly important and a special piece to me because I played this piece at the Van Cliburn Competition,” Nobu told the Weekly, referencing a pivotal moment in his career from 2009. “By playing this piece, it led me to win the competition which changed my life drastically.” Piano Concerto No. 2 was also a turning point for Rachmaninov.
“It is a well-known story how this concerto helped Rachmaninov recover from the failure of his Symphony No. 1,” Nobu continued. “It would be a little absurd to compare Rachmaninov’s life with mine. However, there is a similarity…I think this piece symbolizes gained hope by overcoming difficulties.” Nobu said that he hoped the audience would “feel this piece as a process of reflecting and evaluating yourself through struggles and challenges, and then winning hope.”
Although Liu was not able to attend this long-awaited performance, which she in great part had helped orchestrate, she was happy that this shared goal came to fruition.
“If I could have a time machine that could bring me right there, I would be there,” she said. To her, Nobu “came at a time when I needed a passion, after my career was over, I was at the point of retiring. After I discovered him, I became interested in classical piano music…he gave me a reason to travel around the world to concert halls, to performances, to visit the cultural sites…Nobu rekindled my interest in playing piano. I dusted off my 30-year-old piano and now I play every day.”
The power of music is undisputed and Nobu is emphatically aware of his audience.
“The audiences’ applause from all the performances have always left deep impressions in my head,” he shared. “I practice piano imagining the audience’s circumstances, and there are many moments when I connect to the audience through my performance by feeling the audience’s energy and atmosphere.”
It was fascinating to watch the interplay between Nobu—swaying rhythmically to the music, in turns facing the audience, the piano, and the conductor—and the Symphony, expertly and exuberantly led by Rožeň. The piece itself had an echoing effect that served to emphasize this supportive, complementary relationship even more.
Rožeň had bounded onto the stage for the first piece, Carnival Overture, by Antonín Dvořák, a fellow Czech. Without any preamble, he and the Symphony dove into a rendition of the overture that was joyous and full of pride. Anyone not a fan of Dvořák instantly became a fan. Audience members were even bobbing their heads, which reminded that this was the popular music of its time. The evening ended with another Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů, and his Symphony No. 6, Fantaisies Symphoniques. In the middle was the inevitable standing ovation for Nobu, who awarded the audience with an encore—on Jan. 26 with J. S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (arranged by Myra Hess); and on Jan. 28 with Nikolai Kapustin’s intricate Eight Concert Etude Op. 40 No. 1 “Prelude”—before finally leaving the stage.
“The piano was like a best friend,” said Nobu, recalling his childhood, “and this has not changed, even now as an adult. I was happy that the Symphony made good on its word,” expressed Liu.
Translation of Nobu’s interview responses with the Weekly provided by Yuko Ariga.
Liu’s Nobu fan page, which and includes upcoming performances by Nobu, is at: https://sites.google.com/site/nobufans/.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.