Most five-year-old boys in Japan harbor an ambition of becoming a doctor, pop star or professional baseball player but relatively few are able to pursue such dreams throughout their school years and beyond.
One individual who has managed to buck this trend is up-and-coming pianist Takashi Yamamoto, who started piano lessons at the age of five, performed his first concert at the age of eight and has since carried on to become one of the country’s leading musical talents.
Now aged 23, Yamamoto has achieved more in his active musical career than he could have ever imagined. Claiming third prize at the 70th Japan Music Competition in 2001, he has also won third prize in the 56th Prague Spring International Music Competition, fifth prize in the Sixth International Paderewski Piano Competition and first prize in the Fourth International Seiler Piano Competition of Germany.
While such achievements are undeniably impressive, one gets the feeling the pianist knows exactly what he wants out of life and his prizes are just reward for a lifetime of practice and dedication.
Yamamoto claims to play the piano”more as an intense interest rather than a professional job and yet it’s difficult to ignore the obvious focus he brings to his performances. In spite of his age, he carries a measure of calmed assurance and maturity that suggests he knows only too well that he has his own destiny in his hands.
At the sound of the curtain call, the lights dim and the general babble that wafts around the concert hall quickly subsides. A solitary grand piano sits in center stage, illuminated by a single spotlight. In little more than a few seconds, a tense silence consumes the audience that is deafening and the only sound that can be heard is the sound of mobile phones being switched off by certain members of the crowd. There is a moment’s silence. A door then opens at the side of the stage and Yamamoto appears wearing a formal black jacket that looks a little oversized for his slight shoulders. Thunderous applause erupts from the audience that dies away almost as quickly as it started when the virtuoso takes his seat.
Yamamoto then performs a series of ritualistic actions he will go on to repeat before every piece that evening. He pulls a white handkerchief out of his right pocket, wipes his forehead and his hands, wipes the keys from right to left on the piano, wipes his hands again, puts his handkerchief back into his right pocket, adjusts his stool, adjusts his jacket and trousers, and then takes a deep breath.
For the audience it is a tense prequel that suggests something monumental is about to happen ﾐ and it does. Raising his hands slowly to where the keys glisten under the spotlight, he plays the first note…
After starting piano lessons at the age of five, Yamamoto continued his studies at the Toho Gakuen Music School in Tokyo and graduated with honors in 2002. Like many children in Japan with raw musical potential, he traveled to Poland for Chopin immersion and became involved in an active performance career with orchestras in Europe and Japan.
Currently a student at the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw, Yamamoto studies under Piotr Paleczny, one of Poland’s most prolific pianists and teachers. Such is his standing in the country’s music industry that the president of Poland has even conferred on Paleczny the title of professor.
Under the wing of Paleczny, Yamamoto came fourth in the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition that was held in Warsaw in 2005. The notorious Warsaw competition attracts young pianists from all over the world every five years and is so tough that it’s common for the judges to decide not to award first prize to any of the entrants.
But Yamamoto has wanted to be involved in such an environment from an early age. The pressure doesn’t seem to phase him and he is just pleased to be doing what he loves best.
ﾒFrom when I was young, classical music seems to suit me, Yamamoto says.”I listen to all kinds of music but when thinking of the message I want to convey to the audience classic music fits me well. I don’t really listen to CDs by other pianists as I don’t know too much about them, but I really respect composers such as Chopin, Mozart and the like.
Yamamoto is not alone in his love of Chopin and commentators have observed a curious obsession by Japanese for the Polish pianist, probably stemming from their love of the romantic image as much as the music. Such a phenomenon baffles sociologists and a Polish juror called Janusz Olejniczak even accuses Japan of having”a tradition of industrial espionage.
It’s also worth noting that a significant number of the jury for the Chopin competition in Warsaw are Japanese, while a swath of tourists from Nippon fly in just to watch the event. Competitors from Japan have won prizes at every competition since it was held for the first time in 1980 and the Japanese presence has been even further aided by the inclusion of Maxell of Japan as the first corporate sponsor.
What’s more, ambitious parents dream of sending their talented children to Europe to develop their musical careers. Such admiration is not misplaced, says Yamamoto, adding that the city has an egalitarian attitude to classical music that simply doesn’t exist in other countries. The music scene in Warsaw is far less elitist and, as a result, perhaps more helpful in developing an independent perspective of a musician’s unique style.
ﾒWhen I first went to Warsaw, the culture was very different to Japan and the look of the city itself was very simple, he recalls.”It’s very calm, I like it a lot and it’s very good environment for work. In Japan when you think of a classical concert, the image is a bit difficult, a bit stiff, but in Warsaw it’s part of the culture that one might go to a classical concert with one’s family on a Sunday. When I saw that, I was very surprised and found it very endearing.
Accordingly, Yamamoto believes in making classical music something that everyone can enjoy. Asked where his favorite places to play are, the like.
To perform in a beautiful concert hall in a city in Poland is a privilege but I also play a lot of concerts in the countryside, where the halls aren’t so big and the pianos aren’t always in the best state, he says.”However, the audience is very warm and the distance between us is small. It’s a different experience altogether. I want to play not only in big cities, but anywhere where there is someone who wants to listen.
This down-to-earth attitude harks back to why Yamamoto plays music in the first place: being successful on the piano is secondary to making his audience ﾔfeel’ something. Although just 23, Yamamoto already shows an acute awareness of the importance of inducing emotions and bringing the audience back to the real meaning behind the notes.
There are things you can’t explain in words and certain feelings that you can express with a piano,he says.”My main goal is to make people who attend the concert feel a sense of joy when they go home. If they leave feeling even slightly happier than when they entered, that is enough for me.
Halfway through his second piece Frederic Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Funeral March Yamamoto starts to tug on the audience’s heartstrings. The somber notes hang in the air as he plays each in turn and one can feel a real sense of remorse spread throughout the crowd.
Yamamoto is playing at Hamarikyu Asahi Hall, which may not be the biggest venue in Tokyo but does have excellent acoustics and brings the talented musician within arm’s length distance of his audience. The barebones setting provides him with an intimate atmosphere he can take full advantage of as he weaves his magic on the stage.
The audience is made up of a broad cross-section of society, and includes school kids, senior citizens, couples on dates and even the odd A-list celebrity. (Ikebana guru Shogo Kariyazaki can be seen enjoying the show just a few rows back, and pops in for an impromptu photo session with the young musician after the show.)
And yet Yamamoto is seemingly oblivious to the audience listening to him. He sways on his stool as his hands ceaselessly dance to the score sheet he has committed to memory (he uses no score sheets in any of his performances) and forcefully strikes keys with an accuracy most computer-bound journalists would be thrilled to possess.
As the song winds down to a close, his movements become more serene and peaceful, and it is as if the emotion that has built up inside him during the piece is finally exhumed and shared amongst the crowd. A round of applause follows soon after the last note is played. The funeral march is over…
When asked where he finds the energy and emotion to play such classical pieces, Yamamoto says it is probably not off-the-cuff.
When I look at the score, my imagination begins to flow as to what kind of song it is and what kind of things it wants to express,he says. This happens a lot when I practice, so practicing is a very important time for me.
However, this dedication isn’t without its drawbacks and with a grueling schedule of six-to-seven hours’ practice a day, Yamamoto has had to sacrifice childhood hobbies such as skiing because he is concerned about picking up an injury. Such fears almost seem unnatural for someone who grew up in Nagano and spent much of his childhood on the slopes with his father.
In addition to his social sacrifices, Yamamoto says he also struggles to maintain a consistent technique and there are some days when he simply doesn’t feel up to scratch.
Even if I’m not feeling well, I have to maintain a certain level or standard of playing no matter how I am feeling,he says. Sometimes that is quite difficult, it can be tough.
When asked how classical music can compete in modern times with the allure of catchy pop tunes, Yamamoto sees this as a positive challenge ﾐ and one he is keen to take up.
ﾒWith any music classical, pop, jazz the music changes according to who performs it,he says. For example, there is an image that classical music is stiff or rigid, but that depends on the way it is played. If we make [classical music] something that can convey a message, it becomes enjoyable for all kinds of audiences. That is an important goal of mine and I would like people who don’t know a lot about classical music to appreciate it. In future, I hope it’ll become a music that even more people can enjoy.
As the last notes of the performance die away, the audience breaks out into a period of sustained applause. They demand an encore and clap as if their hands can force the issue. Three times the young pianist comes out and three times he departs, leaving the audience wondering if he even has enough energy to play them a parting tune. His body looks sapped of vitality and it’s reasonably clear he has poured his heart and soul into his performance. The exertion of effort has been phenomenal.
And yet, despite his weariness he does indeed come out for an encore. It’s not nearly as long as his prepared pieces but the emotion evident in the score is there for all to hear. The audience can leave quietly content.
As a leading figure in the changing face of classical music in Japan, Yamamoto sports a pop-stari
Story by Manami Okazaki
From J SELECT Magazine, February 2007