Pianists corner

Interview Akiko Ebi – Paris, May 2019 – Manuel Gaulhiac

POST BY Pianists Corner


The great Japanese pianist Akiko Ebi was presented to us as a privileged interlocutor concerning the history and place of the piano in Japan. Originally from Osaka, it was there that she began playing the piano, before coming to Paris at the age of twenty and embarking on the international career that we know her. The biographies, however, mention very little about his apprenticeship years in Japan.

We meet her in Paris, charmed from the outset by her radiant smile and kindness. In her native country, she is very generous, mixing her memories with the names of the great pianists and teachers, as well as with the tutelary figures of Leo Sirota and Lazar-Lévy.

The wealth of names and anecdotes she provides will naturally lead us to this interview, where we discuss among other things her apprenticeship in Japan and France, her vision of music, the profession of pianist, Maurice Ravel, Martha Argerich…

Interview Paris, May 2019 – Manuel Gaulhiac

Hello Akiko Ebi, you’re a Japanese pianist from Osaka, tell us about your first contact with music.

My first contact with music was in Hiroshima at the age of three and a half. I started playing the piano at the same time as my older sister. My parents were music lovers. My father played violin, saxophone and clarinet, and my mother played piano and organ, mostly as a teenager. My paternal grandmother played the violin and the piano and had studied at the Osaka Music School. She was also a teacher of the tea ceremony. I remember very well the Yamaha upright piano that came to the house: it was a gift from my maternal grandmother. My paternal grandmother’s piano had been burned during the war.

During her musical studies in Osaka, my grandmother met the famous shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo instrument that looks like a clarinet) musician, Mr. Tozan Nakao, who was in her class, and with whom she was going to marry. Tozan toured Russia and China. They divorced a few years later, but my parents remained friends with him.

I remember very well when I learned to draw the treble clef. My mother had set up a small table and a small chair in the garden so that I could copy the treble clef. As I was repeating this drawing, I thought: what a strange shape!

At home there was always music coming out of a speaker that my father had made. He would put on vinyls, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, Johann Strauss’ Swan Lake or Annen Polka, Beethoven’s violin concerto, Beethoven’s symphonies No. 5 and 6, and many other things. Meanwhile, my sister and I were dancing on the music. When the music wasn’t coming from the womb, my mother would play Schubert’s Lullaby on the piano for us. At night, when my sister and I were in bed, our parents would dance the tango. Through this childhood, music remained engraved in my heart.

I started playing the piano with my mother, and soon afterwards we went with my older sister to Hisako Endô. Motonari Iguchi came from Tokyo regularly every two months to give master classes with this great teacher. He had worked with Yves Nat at the Paris Conservatory, and was one of the leader figure of the Japanese musical world. He is the founder of the Tôhô school.

I studied music theory with Kazukiyo Inóùé, who was still very young. He later founded the Hiroshima Citizens’ Orchestra, which later became the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra, of which he became the first permanent conductor.

I also remember my first public concert, it was for NHK Radio at the age of 4. With my sister we also played some Diabelli pieces with all four hands.

When I was 5 years old we moved from Hiroshima to Tokyo. It was because of Mozart’s concerto in A major K.488, which I had been given to learn, that I decided to become a pianist. I was seven years old.

Can you describe the musical atmosphere then, did you go to concerts a lot, did you listen to records?

At the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where I was a high school student, there was a big craze for western music. It was almost a century after the sudden opening of the country to foreign countries in 1868.

Many Western artists and composers came to Japan to give concerts, like Prokofiev, who stayed in Japan for 2 months while waiting for his visa to go to America. He was fleeing the Russian revolution. Violinists Mischa Elman and Jacques Thibaud came to Japan several times. My grandmother loved to listen to Mischa Elman.

In 1970, the year of the Universal Exhibition in Osaka, came the Berlin Deutsche Opera, the Rome Chamber Orchestra and the Bolshoi Theatre Opera. I was able to go and listen to Richter’s concerts in Osaka and Tokyo thanks to my mother, who had been queuing long into the night to buy tickets. For Richter, who came from behind the Iron Curtain, it was the very first time you could listen to him in Japan. I will never forget his interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It was a revelation, which still lasts to this day.

At that time, my mother used to buy a lot of concert tickets. With my mother and sister we went to listen to Rubinstein, Kempff, Arrau, Andor Földes, Hans Kann, Samson François, Nelson Freire, Eric Heidsieck, Martha Argerich, Ludmila Timofeeva, Julius Katchen, André Tchaikovsky, Steven Bishop Kovacevitch, Lili Kraus, Alexander Brailowsky, Jean-Bernard Pommier, Ingrid Haebler, Hans Richter-Haaser, Paul Badura-Skoda, Jörg Demus, Sviatoslav Richter, etc. (You don’t know some of them because you are still very young!). Also Japanese pianists: Kiyoko Tanaka, Kazuko Yasukawa, Takahiro Sonoda, or Toyoaki Matsura. In other words, almost all the pianists who came by at that time. We also listened to records that my father had bought: Wilhelm Backhaus, Dinu Lipatti, Walter Gieseking, Edwin Fischer, Samson François, Guiomar Novaes, Agustin Anievas, Yehudi Menuhin with Louis Kentner etc. Conductors also: Karl Richter, Furtwängler, Nikisch, Toscanini, Böhm, Walter and the Busch Quartet.

At the music school, we listened and discussed together the recordings of these great artists, comparing the versions by Toscanini, Furtwängler or Mengelberg. With my sister we had the chance to go and see the Ballets Russe playing Swan Lake.

What teacher did you have in Japan and how was the teaching going?

My mother was my first teacher, at the same time I took lessons from Hisako Endo. I was three and a half years old at the time. From the age of six it was with Yoriko Kojima who was young then. This woman had a lot of passion for music, but she was very strict towards children. She worked a lot on technique, and in fact it was her who gave me the Mozart concerto when I was seven years old. This concerto had totally enchanted me, and made me wanting to become a pianist. Kojima’s lessons were severe and I always had a stomach ache every Sunday when I went to her house. I consoled myself by playing with my neighbour’s white dog. After two years of lessons, I stopped going to her house. Then my mother guided me for the next three years. I was filled with this freedom, because it allowed me to do what I wanted to do. I imagined many things, making up stories about every piece I worked on. It was a happy time for me in my relationship with the piano. After 3 years, however, I began to stagnate, and I repeatedly asked my mother to find me a teacher. It took some time, as she was looking for the right person, the one who could point me in the right direction.

After a long search, she contacted Rié Okamura, who had just returned to Japan after studying in Paris and Berlin for more than ten years. When I started studying with her, she immediately gave me the opportunity to work on Chopin’s studies (I was a ten-year-old child), as well as many Beethoven sonatas and works of Debussy. Rié Okamura was a kind of oasis for me. She had an inimitable Parisian charm, and I had a great thirst for learning. After two years she returned to Berlin, and I continued to work with Susumu Nagaï. She was, together with Motonari Iguchi, one of the most important musical personalities. Nagaï taught me the naturalness, good taste and authenticity of the German tradition. He talked about the importance of listening to yourself. I worked with him for six years. At the age of eighteen, I continued with his disciple Toyoaki Matsuura, who won the First Marguerite-Long Prize and 7th Tchaikovsky Prize, the year Van Cliburn won the first prize.

An important source of the Japanese piano school is Leo Sirota. Tell us about him and his students.

Before talking about Leo Sirota I must mention Kôsaku Yamada, a great composer and conductor, known especially for his works for voice. He is one of the founders of the first Japanese orchestra (future NHK Symphony Orchestra), he was very important in the Japanese music scene. It was him who had the first contact with Leo Sirota. They met in Europe and then in China, in Manchuria. Kôsaku invited him to come to Japan. Sirota lived in Germany and Austria, but the rise of Nazism in the 1930s forced him to leave Europe because he was Jewish. The Nazis stole his papers, so he could not return to Europe, and stayed in Japan for a long time.

Being an excellent artist, Sirota had immense success as a teacher with Japanese students. Among his disciples were Susumu Nagai (my teacher), Noboru Toyomasu, Takahiro Sonoda, Haruko Fujita, Sonoko Tanaka, etc.

It is also worth mentioning the name of Leonid Kreutzer, who had a great influence in the Japanese piano world with Leo Sirota. These two artists were in Japan about at the same time. Kreutzer was a professor at the Hochschule in Berlin. Because of the Nazis, he emigrated to Japan in 1933 and stayed there until the end of his life. He taught at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music from 1937. Among his students were Jun Daté, Miyaji Takaori, Saburo Takayama, Akio Yashiro (a great composer who later studied at the Paris Conservatory), Akiko Iguchi (wife of Motonari Iguchi), Kiyoko Tanaka, Sumiko Nagaoka, Mayako Muroï, Yasuko Nakayama, Atsuko Ôbori and Fujiko Hemming.

Japanese piano school also has a French influence through Lazare-Lévy. Can you tell us about it?

When Lazare-Lévy arrived in Japan, he gave concerts and master classes. In fact, there is a book on his master classes that contains all the advice for each pianist. I would often read it when I was a child.

Here is an excerpt from the list of his Japanese students:

  • Chieko Hara 1912-2001 She married Gaspar Cassadó.
    She was the first Japanese girl to graduate from the CNSM in Paris with the First Prize, first nominated at the age of 15 in 1932. Alicia de Larrocha enjoyed her game very much. It was her who invited Lazare Lévy to Japan for the first time.
  • Rié Okamura 1939- (my teacher) She was a disciple of Chieko Hara in Japan, before coming to Paris at the age of 15 in the class of Lazare Lévy at the Conservatoire. After few years she went to Berlin to study with Helmut Roloff. Together with her husband Tomoyoshi Takatsuji, professor of German literature, she translated Paul Badura-Skoda’s book “The Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven”.
  • Kazuko Yasukawa (maiden name Kusama) 1922-1996 She brought French musical culture to Japan. Throughout her life she was very active: taught, gave concerts, was a jury member at international competitions. She was a very important personality in the Japanese musical community.
  • Kiyoko Tanaka 1932-1996 First Japanese winner in the history of all international competitions. Winner of the Geneva competition in 1952, ex-aequo with Ingrid Haebler, 4th prize at the Long-Thibaud 1953, 10th prize at the Chopin competition 1957 (first Japanese winner at this competition). She suffered from Collagen disease as early as 1968.
  • Futaba Inoue 1930- Disciple of Kazuko Yasukawa, Lazare Levy and Vlado Perlemuter. Her father was a diplomat, so she spent her childhood abroad: in Australia, Germany, Hungary. She has given the complete works of Fauré in concert, and has played under the direction of Jean Fournet, and in chamber music with Jean-Pierre Rampal. She loved to play contemporary music. Akira Yashiro dedicated many of her piano works to her. She also wrote a book on French music with Yasukawa.

Kazuko Yasukawa lived in France for twenty years and then moved to Japan. She was a great lady of the piano. Tell us about her.

Kazuko Yasukawa was an ambassador of the French piano school in Japan, she’s a kind of Marguerite Long in Japan. She spoke French very well. Throughout her life, she gave many concerts, taught a lot, and published scores of French music such as the complete piano works of Claude Debussy with her fingerings and use of pedals. She also translated the Méthode Rose. She met many French musicians such as Henri Dutilleux, Geneviève Joy and Reine Flachot. Having spent her youth in France, she was close friends with Josette François, Samson François’s sister. When Josette used to come to Japan, she used to come to her home. Until her death she was responsible for several associations and musical foundations.
Many of her students came to study in France afterwards. I myself worked with Mrs Yasukawa for my entrance exam to the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. My professor Nagaï was then hospitalized, and I had five classes with her. I continued to see her from time to time. Her teaching was more focused on calm and distant observation. She knew how to identify the heart of problems with great accuracy and with a minimum of words. This laconic dimension of the character was coupled with a natural, almost aristocratic chic.
When she spent time with her French friends, especially in Paris, her behaviour changed completely, becoming the one of a teenager. Her face softened, became expressive, and she became very talkative, which was impossible in Japan. She was so happy, like a fish in water. Maybe she was showing her true nature.

Among Yasukawa’s disciples is Yûko Yamaoka who has done a lot for international pianists by creating the annual concert in Yokohama. She invited 4 to 6 young foreign pianists and gave them the opportunity to play in Japan.
She passed away 10 years ago. I have taken over the task of director since her death. There are many pianists who have become renowned pianists after moving to Yokohama. Many French people have also been invited to participate.

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