Updated Friday, January 18, 2013 at 07:01 AM
It’s not unusual for a young virtuoso to make a big splash at an international competition.
But Nobuyuki Tsujii’s performance at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition deeply stirred jurors and critics alike. Cliburn himself said Tsujii’s playing “had the power of a healing service ... truly divine.” The judges concurred, splitting the gold medal for just the second time in the contest’s history, awarding it to both Tsujii and Haochen Zhang.
Born blind, Tsujii, 24, began playing publicly at age 7 in his native Tokyo. Noted for the colors and depth of his sound and an affinity for Chopin, Tsujii offers two upcoming performances in Benaroya Hall: a recital program of Chopin and Debussy on Tuesday and as a guest in Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s perennially dynamic “Celebrate Asia” on Jan. 27, where he will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.
A Q and A with Tsujii is below (his remarks have been translated):
Q: What should the audience know about the Debussy and Chopin program?
A: Last year was the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, and Chopin is my life’s work. Both Debussy and Chopin were active in Paris, so I thought it was a good combination. However, the most important reason is I simply love and respect these pieces.
Q: Critics and admirers speak of your playing in deeply emotional and even spiritual terms.
A: When I play, I just try to devote myself to music, to the composer, and to the audience. Because these pieces are so beautiful, I’m simply happy to play them, and I just hope the audience feels as happy as I do. I wish the composers could hear my performance and comment about it.
Q: You started playing piano at a very young age. What did music give you?
A: When I was 2, my mother bought me a toy piano. One day she found I was not only duplicating her singing but also adding harmonies and ornaments. I feel as if piano has been with me since birth and is a part of my body. When I was 5, I found a piano at a shopping mall and played a pop tune. When I finished, there was a group of people around me — my first “audience.” They said “bravo,” and “beautiful.” I understood I had successfully communicated through music. Music has always given me joy and I’m very grateful.
Q: In December 2011, you played a grand piano — part of your benefit work for earthquake victims — that was restored after being damaged in Japan’s quake earlier that year.
A: In March (2011), the eastern part of Japan was hit by a huge earthquake, and coasts were seriously damaged by a gigantic tsunami. In May, I met students from a devastated area. A young girl said her house had been washed away and she had lost her piano. It was shocking and heartbreaking. I imagined that one day, if I lost my piano, I would feel as if I’d lost my life.
Since then, I’ve wished to help and use music to soothe the pain and sorrow of those who lost family, friends, a lover, or other important parts of their lives. In December, I was given an opportunity to play this restored piano that had been totally washed out by the tsunami.
It was carefully and patiently restored, though it was not at the standard of a normal concert grand. But when I played it, I felt as if the piano was telling me stories about its own painful experience. The piano had survived, but, probably, he may have lost his partner, the person who had shared the joy of making music together. And there were many other pianos who lost their partners, and many people who lost their pianos. I felt the piano was moaning and grieving. Yet, those who had survived, including the piano, have the future to live. It was a deeply emotional experience.
Tsujii plays Debussy and Chopin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; call for ticket availability; Tsujii also performs at the Seattle Symphony’s annual “Celebrate Asia” program, 4 p.m. Jan. 27, $19-$76; both at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).
Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii performs Jan. 22 with Seattle Symphony and in the Jan. 27 “Celebrate Asia” program.