Meeting Mitsuko

Blimey, there are some amazing pianists around. I’ve just spent two evenings absorbing two very different approaches to improvisation from exceedingly different musicians – first a team from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama led by John Irving and David Dolan in Mozart concertos, then last night the phenomenal musical volcano that is Gabriela Montero. As you’ll know if you ever read Hungarian Dances, I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about improvisation so I’m saving this for my next Standpoint print column. But meanwhile, here is another pianist who, to me, is one of the greatest in the world: please welcome Mitsuko Uchida, DBE. She’s at the South Bank on Tuesday and her Schumann CD – Davidsbundlertanze and Fantasie Op.17 – is exquisite.

My profile of her is in the Independent today. Well, about 2/3 of it is. Here is the article and below is the bit that didn’t make it. (This, by the way, in its entirety, represents only about half our interview and at some point when I have more time I’d like to offer the rest on this site.)

Uchida seems all about finding creative solutions to problems that might defeat someone less positive. Stage fright, for instance, which she says she suffers constantly. “One thing helps: to breathe well. When you are frightened you stop breathing.” Qigong exercises can help, she adds. “I used to feel light-headed during concerts from oxygen starvation. I still remind myself while I’m playing: breathe!”

She designs her own concert clothes — besides looking fabulous, they are supremely practical. Long skirts trap feet, so she prefers trousers; and the light organza wrap she devised originally for directing concertos from the keyboard. “It provides cover, because I think women look terrible conducting in sleeveless clothes; it’s something about the armpit,” she says. “And strapless dresses are impossible — people just wait for your dress to fall off! I wear things that don’t distract the audience from the music.”

Aside from performing Uchida devotes much time to two vital efforts to help younger artists. She is co-founder with Ilaria Borletti Buitoni of the Borletti Buitoni Trust, which supports the career development of a select number of young musicians: “What I personally don’t want is brash, vulgar, sales-oriented playing,” Uchida says. “That’s the only thing I stop.” She’s also co-director with the pianist Richard Goode of Marlboro Music, the summer school in Vermont founded by the great Rudolf Serkin. “It’s still Serkin’s musical world of the 1950s-60s,” she says, “and it’s thriving, maybe because Richard and I are both hugely old-fashioned people!” She laughs, but there’s a hard-edged point: “Music-making is about music. If music colleges give ‘career classes’ telling youngsters that PR and saleability are the most important things, where the heck are we?”

It often seems that high-quality musicianship is being submerged under the industry’s preference for youthful glamour and egotistical barnstorming. But Uchida has a huge following; and she is optimistic that her values are alive and kicking. “The young people at Marlboro are so balanced and such good musicians that that gives me hope,” she says, sipping the last of the tea.

UPDATE, LUNCHTIME: Sorry, was in a rush this morning. Meant, of course, to offer some footage of Mitsuko from Youtube. Here she is in an extract of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.3 with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. The whole thing is available from that doughty orchestra’s digital concert hall – you’ll see the URL on the screen.

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