2011年05月02日

Interview of Yukio Yokoyama

It has been over 20 years since Yukio Yokoyama, one of Japan’s leading pianists, gave his prize-winning performance at the 1990 Chopin International Piano Competition. The two pillars of his repertoire are Chopin and Beethoven. Ever since the competition, he has been playing Chopin’s music continuously, holding a variety of concert series and working intently to deepen his interpretations.

Then in May of last year he accomplished the amazing feat of performing all 166 of Chopin’s numbered works in a single day, setting a Guinness world record. This year he plans to top this achievement: on May 3, at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, he will perform 212 Chopin pieces consecutively, including the composer’s posthumous works. The concert will be an attempt to set another Guinness record. Starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 2 a.m. the next day, it will be an amazing 18 hours in length. Consisting of four parts, it will be a sonic journey through Chopin’s 39-year life, from the Polonaise in G minor which he wrote at the age of seven, to the “Fantaisie Polonaise,” composed near the end of his life.

Many of the artists who win prizes at the Chopin Piano Competition subsequently take a break from the composer’s music, for a variety of reasons. Some feel the need to get away from Chopin for a while because they performed his works exclusively at the competition following a long period of practice, and as winners were asked to perform Chopin works in numerous concerts afterwards. Others want to prove that they can play different kinds of music. Still others grow tired of Chopin after being asked to play nothing but famous pieces. But Yukio Yokoyama continued even after the competition to keep Chopin at the core of his repertoire and perform Chopin works in many concerts. 

“I’ve loved Chopin since I was a child,” says Yokoyama, “so I feel really lucky that I was accepted into the Chopin Competition and was fortunate enough to win a prize, and that I’ve had more and more opportunities to play Chopin since then. Of course, to some extent I can understand the feeling of competition winners who get tired of being asked to perform the same famous, popular pieces all the time. But I never get tired of playing Chopin, because every time I play his works I make new discoveries and gain deeper insight into his music.”

From 1992 to 1999--the year commemorating the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death--Yokoyama held a twice-yearly concert series of the complete Chopin works. 

“At the time I really wanted to understand Chopin more fully. I thought that playing the complete works would help me get to know him better. That’s why I did the concerts. Then in 2005 I did a marathon concert of all five Beethoven piano concertos in one day. I performed with the Japan Chamber Orchestra, and we all experienced a strange kind of euphoria−we didn’t want the concert to end. We played the concertos in numerical order starting from No. 1--and from around No. 4, both the orchestra and I were accelerating steadily and focusing more intently on the music. We had more and more energy. I’m a slow starter, so it takes time to get my engine going. (laughs) Just as the concert was ending, I finally felt I’d reached my mental peak, the sound interaction with the orchestra was really intense, and a feeling had sprung up among all the musicians of not wanting the concert to end.” 

At that time the thought occurred to him that it might be possible to do the same kind of thing with Chopin--to play all the works in a single day. The Chopin who set his innocent childhood talent down on paper, who eventually awakened to love, acquired good friends, and deepened his compositional style with the advice of teachers…from these works we catch glimpses of the genius in each period of his life. Then the Chopin who suffered the anguish of permanent separation from his native land, who matured in the context of various relationships, and who at every juncture projected his thoughts and feelings into his music. The Chopin who never forgot Poland, who even on his sickbed continued feverishly writing works based on the dance music−mazurkas and polonaises−of his native country. Yukio Yokoyama conceived this one-day program to enable audiences to follow Chopin’s life story together with a pianist.

“Last year the actual concert was finalized at the last moment, so I approached the performance based on all of the playing, interpretation, and content that I’d accumulated up until then. People told me, ‘It sounds really tough,’ but actually my regular practice sometimes goes on even longer. I use my physical strength and stretch every nerve to the limit when I face the music score, so I don’t feel like the performance is really that tough. Naturally, there’s some pressure on you when you keep playing for a long time. But I’m the one who thought of this project, and once it was set, there was no turning back. (laughs) At the point when the Tokyo FM live broadcast was confirmed, I was ready.”

In fact, just after last year’s concert, Yokoyama gave an on-stage interview and was asked, “What’s your next goal?” At the time he answered, “I want to give a higher-level performance.” A year later, many people were eagerly anticipating this higher-level performance, which will be realized this spring in the form of a concert of 212 consecutive Chopin works. 

“I’m not doing the same thing as last year. This time I’m including works that Chopin didn’t want to publish in his lifetime, works I didn’t play last year, and works that came out posthumously−perhaps because Chopin didn’t like them. It turned out to be 212 pieces in all−46 more than last year. Chopin was a perfectionist, so all the works are incredibly high in quality and each is unique. On the other hand, when you study them, you see that even the ones that weren’t published in his lifetime have a Chopin-like quality. Some of them reveal his inner thoughts and feelings as if by accident−it’s fascinating. It’s like when an artist sketches freely, or when an author writes a letter to a friend−often, the essence of the person comes out at those times. Works that pianists rarely have chances to perform, like some of the short pieces and Piano Sonata No. 1, reveal a different side and give us deeper insight into Chopin.”

The program order follows the sequence of the National Edition, a compilation and editing project of the Polish government which was finally completed after many years' labor. The National Edition scores−edited under the direction of Jan Ekier, one of Poland’s leading pianists−are very different from previous editions in terms of phrasing, articulation, fingering, and so on.

“I’ve internalized the various scores I’ve used over the years, so now I practice with the National Edition scores on my music rack. But I don’t always play according to this edition−instead I use it as a valuable resource. For one thing, there are extensive notes at the end. I study a range of editions and play the works in the way that makes the most sense to me. For that reason among others, in the program for this concert we’re going to include a Chopin chronology, and I plan to write the notes for each selection. Actually, this is the only part that’s really tough. I honestly wish I had a lot more time. I’d like to find someone with time to spare and take some of theirs. (laughs)”

As a student, Yukio Yokoyama would practice for 10 straight hours. Now, too, he is devoting himself to practice in order to perform the 212 selections in the concert. He wants to present the audience with an exceptional musical experience−that is why he is focusing completely on this performance. But he also needs to keep up his strength. He maintains his physical condition by playing tennis−one of his favorite pastimes. And to keep up his spirits, wine is a must.  

“I do various things to be in the best possible condition for practice. In the concert, if I can play the way I want to and achieve the best results from practice, I think it will be a joyful 18 hours. I plan to enjoy playing and play as if I were channeling Chopin. At the same time, I’d like the people who come to the concert to be able to relax and listen in a leisurely way. It’s a long concert any way you look at it, so I think it’s enough if the audience can enjoy the life of this great genius along with me−something like, ‘Oh, so this is what Chopin’s childhood was like; OK, so now he’s a young man; this is the period when he had a lot of troubles; at the end of his life he composed this miraculous masterpiece; and this was his last work; then he went on to the next life.’”

At last year's concert many audience members brought along travel goods like slippers and air cushions. Each person came to the hall with items they thought would keep them from getting tired.

"You know how time passes at a leisurely pace when you're on summer vacation and spend the day lounging on the beach, looking at the horizon? The color of the sea changes, the sky changes, your feelings change. I'd like people to savor that kind of feeling. I hope they'll think, wow, all of Chopin's works are wonderful. I'd like them to enjoy the process of giving form to a genius's music--of taking in Chopin's life story in a single day. If the concert was split up into three days, for instance, there would be people who couldn't come to hear everything; it would be fragmented. Of course it's tough in terms of both time and stamina, so people who decide to come and hear only certain works from certain periods are most welcome."

Yukio Yokoyama says, "I no longer think of Chopin as someone separate from me." He can say this because of all the time he's spent playing and memorizing the composer's works and looking ever more deeply into the essence of the scores. It takes a pianist who really loves Chopin to do this. His feelings seem to be concentrated in the comment above.

"When you continue playing Chopin for a long time, you keep discovering things. This is important. The reason I never get tired of playing this music--no matter what piece I play or how many times I play it--is that I truly love Chopin. I put my mind into high gear and practice with absolute concentration. It's an amazingly happy time. I'll continue playing Chopin as long as I live. The Chopin I experienced in my teens, the Chopin I discovered in my twenties, the Chopin I came to understand in my thirties--these are all my treasures. I want to share them with audiences."

This event is to be a charity concert for victims of the Tohoku earthquake. I strongly encourage you to go and see it. It's certain to be a special day in many ways.

"When I thought about what I could do now, as a pianist, I decided to do this charity concert. A lot of concerts are being canceled now, but it's especially in a time like this that I want to do something to help people even a little. And I'll be gratified if I can give just one person courage through music." 

Interview and text by Yoshiko Ikuma
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