Blind Pianist’s Magic Touch
Blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii has magic hands and an amazing ear for music.
The award-winning Japanese musician makes his Singapore debut tonight at the Esplanade Concert Hall, playing Chopin and Debussy at a recital promoters say sold out nearly two months ago.
“Chopin is one of my favourite composers so I hope the audience enjoys him too,” says Tsujii in Japanese during a Sunday interview at the Copthorne King’s Hotel. He is fresh off the plane from recitals in Vietnam and will be going to Berlin to record a CD for Japanese label Avex Classics.
The pianist, who turns 25 this year, shot to fame in 2009 when he tied for first place at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas with Chinese pianist Zhang Haochen. They were the first Asians to win the career-launching piano contest.
Tsujii has gone on to regular tours as a concert soloist in Asia, America and Europe, playing with well-known names such as Britain’s Philharmonia Orchestra under noted Russian-born conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the BBC Philharmonic.
Recent tours are taking him around South-east Asia and he says he loves visiting new places and trying the local cuisine.
While mostly self-sufficient, the bachelor does require help getting around, mainly provided by his long-time manager Nick Asano, in his 50s.
“I really love travelling,” Tsujii says with a smile, making a note to try Singapore’s chilli crab. It is his first visit here. “From very long ago, I have dreamt of doing this, travelling around the world and now that it is a reality, I am very happy.”
Tsujii was barely eight months old when his mother, a former TV announcer, noticed his partiality towards Chopin out of all the classical music she played in their Tokyo home. “I would move my legs to the rhythm,” he says with a laugh. “Because I enjoyed music, when I was two years old, my mother bought me a little toy piano and I would play the keys as she sang.”
Video footage from that time shows his ability to perfectly replicate songs he heard just once or instantly compose accompaniment as someone sings. An only child – his father is a doctor – he was also interested in the violin but decided at age four to concentrate on piano lessons.
“While I liked both, the piano has a wider range of tones and can bring out more sounds,” he explains.
Music scores are available in Braille, but Tsujii learns new works aurally – by listening to recordings made by a team of pianists. Early instructors at the Tokyo School For The Blind also helped him pick up basic fingerwork.
At age seven, he won the All Japan Blind Students’ Music Competition and played with Osaka’s Century Orchestra three years later. At age 17, he won the critics’ award at the 15th International Frederik Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland, but it was the Van Cliburn win that truly launched his star.
A graduate of Ueno Gakuen University in Tokyo, Tsujii has recently been making a name for himself as a composer. His soundtrack for the 2011 movie Kamisama No Karute (God’s Chart) won the grand prize at the 21st Japan Film Critics’ Awards last year. In November 2011, his recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall included a personal composition in tribute to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan earlier that year.
Playing before an audience is his primary passion and he can put in up to eight hours of rehearsal time before a concert.
Asked about his first concert, he laughs and recalls a family holiday to the island of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean when he was only five. In a mall, they came across an automatic piano and he insisted he be allowed to sit at it and “play”.
“The shop assistant kindly agreed. The people around were also kind enough to say: ‘Bravo! Bravo!’. So from that experience and their friendliness, I’ve always felt it is a lot of fun to play before people,” he says. “Just before I start playing, I’m still a little nervous but once I start hitting the keys, I’m not nervous at all.”