Besides evoking a joyous holiday atmosphere, how else could the popular secular song “Jingle Bells” inspire people? For 23-year-old Japanese classical pianist and composer Nobuyuki Tsujii, who has been blind since birth, the song was a catalyst that helped awaken his extraordinary musical talent as a born piano prodigy. At the age of two, he was able to play the melody with harmony on a toy piano, along with the melody his mother hummed. Nobuyuki Tsujii is popularly known as “Nobu,” and his rise to stardom has been dubbed the “Nobu boom.” He will present recitals in Taipei on June 15 and Kaohsiung on June 19, with a program of piano works ranging from the Classical era to the Romantic era.
At the 2009 Van Cliburn Internatonal Piano Competition, which some would say is the world’s most challenging piano contest, Tsujii tied for the gold medal with 22-year-old Chinese pianist Zhang Haochen, who has also been invited to present concerts in Taiwan later this year. Tsujii’s triumph marked a significant milestone in his career as a piano virtuoso, and he was the first blind pianist to win the first prize in any of the world’s first-class international piano competitions. Michel Beroff, one of the jurors at the competition, told the Japanese monthly piano magazine Chopin, “The special thing about his performance is his sound. It has depth, color and contrast — the genuine music.”
Tsujii made his Taiwan debut in 2000 as part of an event organized by pianist Azusa Anna Fujita, founder of the Frederic Chopin Foundation of Taipei. Along the road to stardom, Tsujii has studied piano with Masahiro Kawakami, Yukio Yokoyama, and Kyoko Tabe. He graduated from Ueno Gakuen University last year. When learning a new piece, instead of visually reading music scores like most others, Tsujii has to work hard to overcome his visual impairment by reading Braille music scores with one hand while playing the piano with the other. He listens to many recordings and memorizes the musical articulation markings, which his family, teachers or friends read out loud or record for him. One can imagine how difficult and time-consuming Tsujii’s learning process is. Nevertheless, thanks to his musical talent, prodigious memory and dogged determination, he won the first of his numerous music prizes at the age of seven, debuted on stage with a professional orchestra at 10, and gave his first piano recital in the small hall of Tokyo’s Suntory Hall when he was 12 years old. Organizers of a press conference held in Taipei last Tuesday said that tickets to Tsujii’s concerts usually sell out quickly.
Since the release of his first album Debut in 2007, Tsujii has recorded numerous albums, and sales for his CDs have skyrocketed in the wake of his Van Cliburn success. In 2009, Tsujii was featured in a documentary film about the 13th Van Cliburn competition entitled A Surprise in Texas. In the film, Tsujii plays his own musical composition Whisper of the River, which he wrote when he was in high school to express his love for his father. Tsujii’s compositional style seems to be influenced by popular music, but he has expressed his wish to be regarded as a professional classical pianist. According to the tour organizers, he would like to shake off the image of a young and naive musician, despite his round-faced and boyish appearance. Tsujii’s interpretation of music is lyrical and reserved in style, which may have something to do with his personality.
Tsujii’s fingertips serve as his eyes, and he plays scores with a sensitivity that goes beyond the auditory sphere. He has given numerous charity concerts to help Japan’s earthquake and tsunami victims, and his uniquely warm expression of timbre has won him the title of “the light of Japan.” 78-year-old pianist Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr. told the Texan daily Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “[Tsujii] was absolutely miraculous. His performance had the power of a healing service. It was truly divine.”
Last November Tsujii played a debut recital in the main hall at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of the Keyboard Virtuosos II series, whose line-up of world-acclaimed pianists includes Maurizio Pollini, Andras Schiff, Evgeny Kissin and Mitsuko Uchida. Tsujii performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, (“The Tempest”) and Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition, taking the New York audience by storm. In his recitals in Taiwan next month, Tsujii will play these two works by Beethoven and Mussorgsky, plus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331.
Some people may wonder how Tsujii visualizes the images portrayed by program music, such as Pictures at an Exhibition, as opposed to the absolute music of Mozart and Beethoven. The artworks he imagines may not be the same as what the rest of us see, but his subtle artistic interpretation mesmerizes audiences nonetheless. What color is the wind today?, a book written by Tsujii’s mother that has touched people’s hearts, tells a story of Tsujii’s battle to overcome his disability and his education. The title of the book is supposed to be a question that a young Tsujii asked his mother as a child. Tsujii’s Taiwan concerts may well be one of the most significant and special musical events held in Taiwan this year.
(Lin Ya-ti, Taipei Times)