by Bruce Duffie


This week's concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bring the return of Principal Guest Conductor Pierre Boulez for another of his eclectic programs.  True to form, he'll give us music of the century just past: a recent work by his young protege, Marc-Andre Dalbavie; the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel, featuring pianist Mitsuko Uchida; and a ballet of Bartok,  "The Miraculous Mandarin."

While the Bartok is the largest piece, it's the Ravel Concerto which brings us the soloist, Mitsuko Uchida.  Born in Japan and raised in Austria, she has become known for several specialties, especially Mozart.  She played and recorded all the sonatas and concertos by Wolfgang some years ago, and that put her on the map.

In a chat with me, Uchida told me a bit about herself. "I have passion for various composers," she said.  "I have a passion for music.  Having played Mozart for so long, I probably developed a sixth sense, an instinct, a notice of detail that I wouldn't have done unless I'd spent so much time on one person.  I wish I could do so in the future on some other composers.  It just turned out this way."

I asked if there was a secret to playing Mozart.  "There is no secret at all," she responded.  "If there was, I wish I knew, or that someone would be able to tell me."  So with all that in the past, does she want to abandon Amadeus?  "No, but I feel strongly that I must do somebody else's music as well.  10 years on Beethoven would be fantastic."   She certainly got her wish, playing the sonatas and recording all the concertos.  Might that be a good balance - Mozart and Beethoven?  "For the career, no, but personally, yes.  I never know what is good or bad for the career, so I don't think about it.  Ultimately, you need to balance out.  To get too involved with one person is fine, but not forever."

She then spoke about several famous creators, saying that the most difficult to play was Beethoven, and made comparisons.  "Chopin had vocal hearing.  So did most of the others, but not Beethoven.  He was purely instrumental."  She says it's easy to switch from Haydn to Beethoven, and from Mozart to Haydn, but not from Mozart to Beethoven.  "It's quite complicated.  Beethoven adored Mozart, especially the minor-key works.  Even with a strong link, the differences are staggering."

I then asked her an easy question - about the purpose of music in society!  "Any art is to give you some new ideas outside your own thoughts and outside the real world," she declared.  "It doesn't need to be easily accessible or easily beautiful, but it must give you something which would speak to your emotional world.  You go about your everyday life, and music should transfer you to something else, as a great painting does."  Will is all last, I asked?  "The greatest of anything survives the time.  What is done at any moment is fine, but the greatest of art survives time."  She went on to say that performances are different.  "There seems to be a certain style that goes with time, but performers are not very important.  We are just passing things to make the music survive.  I float in and I will float out."  In the end, though, she says she wouldn't want a life without music.  "I belong to the very lucky few in the world who can make a living out of what we really want to do."

Being an experienced artist, she tours the world as soloist alone in recital, and as collaborator with major orchestras.  What are the differences?  "In general," she says, "the concerto world has a much wider variety of sound because of the orchestra.  Ideally, there's a wonderful orchestra and wonderful conductor.  Sometimes, though, there's a fight you wish it was a recital.  That happens now and then, but all in all, the difference for me is that in a concerto, I'm part of the entire music.  When I'm solo, I have to carry the entire responsibility.  It's me alone and no one else touches it.  In a concerto, you have to throw the ball and hope it's caught.  In a solo recital, I throw it in the air, and not just to one, but everywhere."

I inquired if her technique changed for each new venue, and she said it did.  "Acoustics and the piano in combination have to be taken into account.  You have to have the ability to adjust every time, which is very, very hard."  Did she ever wish she played a more portable instrument?  "Violinists, for example, may have a hard time finding and purchasing an instrument.  But once you have it, you can use it and concentrate just on the hall.  We face a different instrument each time."  Then she told me about her own piano.  "I do use my own instrument for recordings, but that is a luxury.  It's very mellow, very round.  I adore it.  But I made the mistake of taking that beautiful instrument into Royal Festival Hall in London.  It's not hard enough for that hall.  Ideally, I'd travel with 3 instruments and a van and driver and technician... that would be lovely.  But then I'd have no excuse any more!"

Uchida's most recent recording is the Piano Concerto by Schoenberg, along with other works of Berg and Webern, with Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra.  Does she think about the discs she's made?  "I forget about recordings when I play the same work in public.  They're in the past and I try to re-think about what I'm doing now."  She continued, "I hope that I play now better than on the record.  I have to be working on new things all the time."  She does feel the public would be happy if she stuck to Mozart for the rest of her life, "and it would make my life easier.  But it's not right."  I suggested that she record, then retire some works, and come back to them later on for the public.  "You have to keep them alive," she said, "while working on new things."

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Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 for over 25 years.  Visit his WEBSITE at .

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CityTalk Magazine, April 27, 2001