|MOL: When did you
start playing the piano?
I wanted to play the piano when I was four years old. But, my parent didn't know if I was
going to give it up a couple of years later so they bought me an electronic piano instead.
After a couple of years had passed, when I was six, they realized that I was genuinely
interested in playing the piano. Then, they decided for me to take formal piano lessons
and bought me a real piano... and that's basically how I got started.
MOL: Was either of your parents a musician?
JN: No. Neither of them are musician.
MOL: Since you were four, have you always
wanted to play the piano?
JN: Oh yes! Ever since then, and I knew that
basically that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
MOL: I understand that you have never attended a
music conservatory and learned the piano privately only. Is there any reason why you chose
not to attend a conservatory and attend a Liberal Arts school instead?
JN: I had considered attending a
conservatory when I younger, such as, Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, or the
Curtis Institute of Music. However, I had two reasons for not moving to the East coast to
study music. At the time, I had such a wonderful relationship with my piano teacher.
Therefore, primarily I didn't want to change teachers. The second reason is that I was
very interested in languages and I wanted to learn another... further, I wanted to
diversify and basically be able to broaden academically. Therefore, I stayed on the West
coast and went to Stanford University.
MOL: Is there any reason why you chose to study
JN: I believed that studying German, more
than any other language, can help in music. I wanted to read literature that inspired
Mozart and Beethoven and I believed it is a great communication tool in Europe. So,
together with the fact that I like the language, those are the reasons why I chose to do
something different. Music, then, was my ultimate goal. But learning another language and
culture was something I enjoyed doing. Later on, I got into the Master's program in
education and that lead me to teach German in high school. I did this basically to support
myself and to travel to compete in various competitions and to perform. Well, it was like
having two careers for a long time.
MOL: How did you manage to find time to practice?
JN: It was very difficult. When you teach in
school, you bring all the work to home and sometimes it was impossible to practice the
piano for a week at a time. But when competitions and concerts come up, then I devote [my
time] to the piano as much as possible.
MOL: What competitions did you enter before?
JN: Well, I entered many competitions both in the US and in
Europe. I won the US Chopin competition in my early 20s and that gave me a lot of concerts
to perform... and in 1993, I competed at the Van Cliburn Competition and I was rejected at
the screening level. So, when I tried this time, I really didn't know [if] I wanted to try
again. But this would have been my last chance so I tried anyway.
MOL: Were you teaching just prior to entering the
JN: Oh yes. I was teaching up to the time
when I left for the competition.
MOL: Wow! You must have been probably practicing
JN: Oh yes! Very very late into the night.
MOL: Did you live in California all your life?
JN: Yes, I was born and raised here.
MOL: Do you plan to continue living there or
elsewhere in the future?
JN: Sure, at this point, California is the
place that I will always call my home but maybe I will end up living some place in the
future... but I don't know.
MOL: Tell us about your family.
JN: Well, my grandparents left Japan. They
came to Hawaii and then started their family there. So, my parents were born in Hawaii and
most of my relatives still live there.
My parents got married and moved to California before we were
born, that is why we were born and raised in the mainland. So we are the first generation
MOL: Do you have any siblings?
JN: I have one brother, who is younger and
who is not a musician.
MOL: What period music do you enjoy playing most
JN: Right now, what I am trying to do is
play composers from all periods and I think at this point, especially somebody who is
starting out in the musical circle, it is too early to specialize and to be typecast into
one type of music. I think that is very limiting and when people only want me to play
Romantic composers, then, this is probably what I will do for the rest of my life and this
is what I really don't want to do. I think it's important for me, personally, to study
composers from all over the spectrum because you only know then why you are studying older
ones. So, I am hoping that the promoters and managers will allow me to explore this kind
of repertoire and not only certain type of music.
MOL: Is there any period of composition that you
are comfortable with?
JN: Well, I feel comfortable with works from
all periods and my programs are kind of mixed in general. But I don't feel that there is
one particular I want to develop more than others at this point.
MOL: In your opinion, what is your strength in
your playing? What did people say after you won the competition?
JN: Ah... well... It's very difficult to
MOL: I attended your Carnegie Hall debut
recital last month. It was a solid performance and your phrasing was very smooth and
JN: Well, one of the things I try to focus
on ... have been concentrating on over the years... is to focus on details of the
composition. Basically what I hear in others playing are shelves. What I mean is... you
hear the overall structure of the work but not necessarily anything that is hidden that's
deep... that's intricate... that's less obvious. Focusing on details of music and be able
to find the hidden phrase... that is what makes music and playing unique and interesting
... and individual.... it brings out things that are not readily apparent and paying
attention to where the phrase starts from and where it goes and really thinking of
maybe the human voice or string or wind instruments... to make it sound musical, you have
to approximate the human voice or ... a kind of living intensity that I think is
missing in a mechanical playing.
MOL: Do you have a favorite pianist or musician?
JN: ... well, there are so many... ah..
I grew up listening to a lot of recordings of pianists who are no longer with us...
like Hoffman and Friedman, Levin, to modern pianist Weisenberg, Rubinstein,
Horowitz, Richter and Zimmerman... You can learn so much from every one of them for
different reasons... so.. I don't really have one favorite pianist.
MOL: People say that old masters are different
from the young generation pianists. What is your opinion on this?
JN: I think its different. I mean ... it's a
different time and the way we play reflects a different take on musical interpretation
also... Hmmm...is the early part of century and the last part of former, there was
tremendous freedom in terms of what you can do with the work. In some cases, it was to the
point where the performer was more important than the composer. In the middle of this
century, of course, the focus was more to bring back the composers' intention and take a
look at the stylistic element and not just ignore everything that a composer has to say to
promote your own method of interpretation. However, today, in my opinion, some musicians
have taken that [the idea of brining back the composer's intention] so literally that
often they come up with styles that end up being mechanical and musically uninteresting.
And that's probably one of the differences and what modern pianists in this era, I think ,
[they] are trying to do is reconcile the difference between individual interpretation and
one that is still with historical merit. I think that is the challenge today's pianists
are facing...[that is,] how far do you take it and how far will people accept your own
kind of interpretative gesture and what you will do afterward.
MOL: I think, nowadays, pianists and all the
musicians have to digest a wide repertoire in a short time and be able to handle a heavy
concert schedule, whereas 80 years ago, performers usually had sufficient days to
recouperate and to practice before another concert. This allows performers to know about
themselves and give time to digest their interpretation about music and develop their
characteristics. However, today's musicians have limited time in all these things. What is
your opinion on that?
JN: I can't agree more. Pianists today have
to do far more in far less time. I think also that there are far more people trying to do
this also compared to back then. Once, you had just a handful of great international
artists touring. But now, we have 300- 400 international competitions all over the world
producing very powerful pianists. The atmosphere is totally different today. There are not
enough venues for all these people to play at the level they want to. And there are
other kinds of economic concerns. It's difficult... maybe you don't have to be good in
everything... you could end up specializing in kinds of repertoire. and I think a lot of
pianists today who are successful are admired for a certain repertoire type and certain
composers and not everything. I think that is something that evolves, not something that
happens when you are young.
MOL: How many different recital programs do you
JN: For two years or just this year?
MOL: Two years.
JN: For two years, I have about five
different recital programs.
MOL: and you have 10 or so concertos?
JN: Yes, and next year, I'll have about 12
MOL: Do you like other forms of art? such as
painting? a favorite writer?
JN: Yes, I enjoy going to museums, and
definitely, I try to do it [visiting museums] as much as possible when I am on a tour...
and writers... I studied a lot of German based on writers in College and I try to continue
whenever I have time.
MOL: Any hobbies?
JN: I enjoy cooking... especially making
desserts and I love to play Racquet ball. In fact, I was quite involved in various sports
when I was in college.
MOL: What do you hope to achieve ten years from
now in your music career?
JN: I am hoping to be able to continue to
perform as a primary social livelihood and I hope to develop a plan to get to markets
where I have not [yet reached] and to play many repertoire that can broaden who I am
[discover who I am]. I also like to get involved in educational aspects of music... not
necessarily in teaching all the time ... but to reach out to the audience to inspire them
MOL: I think we need to wrap up at this
point. So on behalf of MusicalOnline, we would like to thank you for your time and we wish
all the success.
Interviewed on November, 1998