Monday, March 6, 2017

How did Noriko Ogawa become a Debussy specialist?

Pianist Noriko Ogawa with a young Filipino admirer Photos by Amado Chua

How does one become a specialist in the music of Claude Debussy? He doesn’t seem to be the warhorse kind of composer the way Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt are.

But to Noriko Ogawa, 54, a Steinway artist who visited Manila recently for an exclusive concert and a lecture-recital open at the Santiago Hall of the BDO Corporate Center in Makati, she knew Debussy was “it” for her when she first saw someone performing his music on TV.

“That was the beginning,” she said. “My teacher didn’t let me study Debussy, saying he was for weak fingers and that I wouldn’t develop well. So I became a secret Debussy player. My mother would be upset, to put it mildly, if I practice something not in my lessons.”

She used to sneak out to go to a music store. There she’d play Debussy pieces on a piano until she estimated that her absence would be noticed by her mother, then she’d return home. She recalled, “The pressure from my parents was incredibly great. It was very suffocating for me, but now I’m grateful to them. I can just cry thinking of them.”

She was something of a “wild child” but one who never forgot to practice her piano until the day came in her teens when her teacher told her she needed to speak to her parents. At the time, she played on a Yamaha. Nervous and all wrought up before the teacher-parent meeting, she overheard the teacher say, “Your child needs a better instrument like a Steinway.”
Being macho, her stoic father, replied, “I’ll get her one.” Her mother, although a piano teacher, was against the idea or maybe thought the family couldn’t afford a Steinway. The father kept his word, telling his daughter, “This is the last thing I’ll buy you.” Ogawa laughed, “Which is true!”

Ogawa went on to win the Leeds International Piano Competition. The Telegraph described her performance as “ravishingly poetic playing.” She is also the translator of Susan Tomes’s book Out of Silence, a pianist’s yearbook that has been reprinted several times. After the tsunami in Japan in 2011, she raised over €40,000 for the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Fund. She is the founder of Jamie’s Concerts, a series for autistic children and parents, and cultural ambassador of the National Autistic Society.

With piano prodigy Hansel Ang

She is a credible and animated storyteller on her subject’s life. She narrated how Debussy was born to poor parents (his father’s porcelain business was unsuccessful) whose recourse for their children to survive was to farm them out to aunts and uncles to be raised.

Debussy grew not wanting to talk about his childhood. But as a child there was money for piano lessons. His talent was recognized. At age 10 he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire which had “extremely high standards,” Ogawa said, “and this showed how talented he was.”

But his parents couldn’t understand or appreciate this, expecting the conservatory to be a regular school that would teach their son spelling, arithmetic and the like. Because Debussy’s primary education, particularly his arithmetic, wasn’t good, his music manuscripts have a lot of human errors. Nevertheless, he was good at sight reading, dictation and singing notes and was an “amazing piano accompanist who won plum prizes. His musicality flourished in Paris.”

The Frenchman admired Chopin and, like him, wrote ballades, mazurkas, etudes and preludes. Although he also respected the techniques in German piano tradition, Debussy, being French, “wanted beautiful things like clarity and simplicity,” Ogawa said. “He decided his music would float in the air and express more natural incidents of life.”

This was Impressionism in music. “Impressionism,” however, is not a positive word for many. Ogawa was taught this, and she wondered, “What’s wrong with it?”

She told the students in the audience, “We piano teachers know when you copy. You have to look at the music carefully. It has to come from you, not from YouTube. You can’t come from an impression—that’s the negative way.”

She narrated how Debussy entered many composition contests but didn’t win much so he concentrated on writing. Among his early pieces was “Clair de Lune” which Ogawa performed. Later, she said, “I recommend you learn this to use as an encore or to play at a party or a recital. It’s a very useful piece. The movement in the middle has beautiful tones. It requires a good instrument.”

Through this and other pieces, Debussy established his impressionist style which he preferred to call symbolist. When he saw the 1889 Paris World Exposition, he was so impressed with Asian music that he gave the “impression” of it in his “Pagode.”
Ogawa said, “Although he wasn’t able to go to Asia, based on the gamelan music, he was able to capture the hot, steamy air of the tropics.”

Sadly, she noted, all that Debussy wrote were “miniature pieces. He didn’t write a sonata for the piano, no half-hour long pieces like Liszt and Brahms did.”

Watercolorist Amado Chua's impressions of the Japanese pianist

To her studying and practicing Debussy is “about the beauty of the sound, not about Debussy or his relationships though he had dramatic ones. I look at the music and get directly the messages from the piano, not from something romantic. This is not about Debussy falling in love with a girl. ‘Clair de Lune’ is about the moon. Look at the music he put down, all the things he wants us to do. His music makes us imagine scenery, but for me the sound comes first, then the images of water come in.”-- Elizabeth Lolarga

This article appeared in a shortened version in today's issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer Arts and Books section.
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