Blind Japanese pianist wows audiences at international contest
FORT WORTH, Texasn -- With a dramatic bow of pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii's head, rich sounds of the piano, violins, cello and viola broke the concert hall silence as he and a string quartet played Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44.
Just before the final note about 30 minutes later, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition audience began clapping. People jumped to their feet, some whistling or yelling, “Bravo!”
The standing ovation lasted nearly five minutes, so long that the 20-year-old from Japan returned to the stage twice to bow, grinning from ear to ear.
The audience may have loved Friday's performance, but not everyone may have known its significance. Tsujii — who was born blind — had to figure out how to cue the other musicians. That was especially important with the Schumann piece, because all instruments must start playing simultaneously in the first movement.
After his first rehearsal last week with the Takacs Quartet — the University of Colorado at Boulder-based group that performs with all 12 Cliburn semifinalists — Tsujii said he decided to nod his head as a cue.
He had only played with a chamber music group once before, recently in Japan, after learning it would be required should he advance to the Cliburn semifinals. He previously performed with symphony orchestras in Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and he followed the conductor's breathing, he said.
But Tsujii said his blindness has not limited his playing opportunities and that he doesn't want to be known as the pianist who cannot see.
“The most important objective as I'm performing is that the audience is going to be moved,” Tsujii said through an interpreter.
While playing on stage, first violin Edward Dusinberre occasionally glanced at Tsujii, and he and the other Takacs Quartet members also seemed to rely on musical cues.
“We've had a great time working with him,” Dusinberre said before Friday's performance. “There is of course a tremendous intensity to his listening to what we're doing, and his sense of timing is very natural, and so we're having a great time communicating with him.”
Cliburn officials initially said Tsujii was the competition's first blind competitor but recently were reminded about a blind pianist who didn't advance past the first round in 1973.
Tsujii, nicknamed Nobu, already had fans in Japan but has gained even more since arriving at the Cliburn. So far, video of his preliminary round performance on the contest's Web site has about 11,400 views, the most of the 29 pianists who started in the competition.
Van Cliburn, the legendary classical pianist and namesake of the prestigious contest held every four years, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Tsujii's playing was “absolutely miraculous” and “truly divine” after hearing him last week.
Tsujii was just a baby when he showed an interest in music, said his mother, Itsuko Tsujii of Tokyo.
“When I would put on Chopin CDs, he reacted very actively, patting the sofa, and seemed to be enjoying it,” she said through an interpreter.
After he played the toy piano she got him at age 2, he started taking lessons at 4 and began learning to read music in Braille. But because that method took too much time, he listened to music recorded by his piano teacher and memorized it, which took a few days for some pieces or a week for longer, more complex ones, he said.
“Although he is blind, you never know that when listening to his music,” Rena Miyamoto, an assistant piano teacher at Ueno Gakuen University in Tokyo who recently began working with him, said through an interpreter. “His music is from his soul, his heart.”
The six Cliburn finalists will be announced Sunday night. All of them will receive managed concert tours worth US$1 million, and each of the top three finishers will receive US$20,000 and get to record a CD, among other prizes. The winners will be announced June 7.
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