Mitsuko Uchida speaks her mind

Mitsuko Uchida is one of the world’s most important pianists, known for his crystalline touch and interpretations of Mozart and Schubert. She is popular in major concert halls and festivals and is a renowned mentor to young performers. She is tall and often travels with her 1,064-pound Steinway Model D concert grand piano and a dedicated technician.

For about two years, I have been trying to secure an interview with Uchida, 75, who was born in Japan and moved to Austria when she was 12, where her father served as Japan’s ambassador. While his diplomatic career took him elsewhere, she stayed there to study music and now lives in London. At this point (many of her recordings are considered standards), she needs little publicity. But on a recent afternoon, she agreed to speak to discuss California’s Ojai Music Festival, which begins Thursday and for which she will serve as this year’s musical director.

When we meet in the lobby of a hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Uchida is attending a particularly busy concert. Almost immediately, our conversation took an unexpected turn, as she made it clear that she was tired of my questions about her life and music.

When I asked her how she viewed this stage of her career, she had a blunt and direct answer: “I don’t analyze myself.”

But she sat for 75 minutes and spoke candidly about her views on the world, discussing creativity, new music, the pandemic and why she doesn’t conduct Beethoven from a keyboard. (Noting the “conflict and antagonism” in Beethoven’s works, she said “it is difficult to induce and incite conflict in others against me while I am playing.”) She talked about her plans for Ojai, where she will play Solo work and conductor of the Mozart Piano Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (“Mozart is conversational; it is an opera”).

Uchida, a scholarly artist who wanted to test my musical knowledge, interrupted the interview several times to ask me about the German Renaissance, the invention of music copyright, Bach’s “St. John” and other questions. St. Matthew Passion and the deaths of Schubert and Webern. She was unmoved and at one point suggested that I quit my job for a year and study music full-time.

Toward the end of the interview, the hotel’s fire alarm rang, and Uchida asked me if I had any more questions. I thanked her for her time and she said she enjoyed the discussion, even though she wasn’t always sure what I was looking for. I told Uchida that interviews are not always predictable. She said acting isn’t that different.

“I call them autumn leaves,” she said. “We come and go. Once we’re dead, that’s it. The rest is what has been written.

Worried that I might not have enough material, I later called Uchida at her home in London, where she practiced Ravel. She agreed to speak for another 45 minutes. Below are edited excerpts from both conversations.

How do you view artistry at this point in your career?

My artistic talent? excuse me? I take it one day at a time.

What do you mean?

Do you think I look at my belly button every day or something? Sorry, I’m a musician. I’m not an important person or anything. I just wanted to understand the music. that’s all.

Tell me what excites you about the Ojai Festival.

You think I went to Ojai because I was excited? No. I feel connected to this community.

The first time I went to Ojai, I went with Pierre Boulez, which was a great thing. The origins of Ojai – the idea of ​​someone in rural America starting a new music festival – I thought it was an exciting idea. But beyond that, what else excites me, I don’t know.

You were originally scheduled to appear in Ojai in 2021, but your schedule changed during the pandemic. How do you think the pandemic has changed the cultural world?

During the pandemic, the selfish wish that “my life should be great” has become the norm – think of it this way. So people give up easily. I see this in many, many areas.

A lot of top hotels in Japan, if you ask me, I’d say this is a failure. The restaurant I love, doesn’t taste the same now because they put in chefs during the pandemic. Newly employed people will come in and say, “If I like it, I’ll stay, and if I don’t like it, I’ll go somewhere else.” But life isn’t that simple. You have to try it.

Have you changed during the epidemic?

I bet I have. But I’m not self-analyzing.

Has it changed your daily life?

I’m happy to be home. I don’t like traveling. This time, I can waste time. marvelous.

What do you do in your free time now?

When I have free time, I study or play music at home. I want to have time to think. You need to breathe and dream.

When you take the time to dream, do you learn anything about life or music?

I have never had a revelation in my life. Or even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.

You mentioned that part of what drew you to Ojai was the opportunity to play with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Chance, no. I will have many opportunities. But for them, this is an opportunity. They wanted to go to Ojai. I do it for them.

Ojai has a special atmosphere. At the corner of the park where the concert was held, there was an old tree. I love playing in that open space—not in a box, not in a hall—where the music just flies by. Some people hate it. But I love hearing sounds that just disappear into the air.

In “Ojai” you will perform three of Mozart’s concertos and his Fantasy in D minor, as well as Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces.”

In an ideal world, I might consider playing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra without a conductor. But it requires a lot of rehearsal time. Can I tell you how life works? No one can afford it because it requires a lot of rehearsal time. Who pays for these 40 people to stay in a hotel for a week or ten days just to rehearse? nobody.

People don’t usually associate you with new music.

Someone told me a long time ago, “Ma’am.” Uchida, you don’t commission that many new works. I just said, “How do I know what that fool is going to do?” Not knowing exactly what the piece is going to be is very dangerous. So I’m glad I’m not the first to do this. But I admire composers like Georg Kurtag a lot. Few were more honest than he was.

How would you describe your connection with Mozart?

In Mozart’s works, even if there are sad moments, he will constantly look upward – he has fallen in love with the lovely girl who passed away. His world is a world where humans run around. To an extreme degree, I think in Mozart, every note is a child – every note is trying to go in a different direction. This is the extraordinary freedom of Mozart’s music: all the notes behave like a child.

In Schubert’s work, by contrast, you describe a sense of isolation.

Schubert was a lonely man, and his music is completely lonely. His music is a dream. It was all the sadness in his life; it was a hopeless situation. But there is still a desire. He never lost this desire, and that’s the absolute beauty of Schubert.

Are you concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence on music?

Creativity happens in the human brain and in the human soul. It must be astonishing to know the brain of someone like Mozart. And Johann Sebastian Bach – wow, he was capable of so much! This cannot be done mechanically.

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