22 May 2024

Join host Yannick Dondelinger for an intimate conversation with Dame Mitsuko Uchida.

In this heartwarming discussion, Mitsuko shares her life story, from her musical upbringing to becoming one of the most revered pianists of our time. Discover the deep roots that music has in her life and how they have shaped her career.

Mitsuko also shares her unique connection with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, her appreciation for Mozart, and touches on her upcoming role as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival

Throughout the episode, Mitsuko's modesty and optimism shine through, painting a portrait of an artist deeply rooted in her love for music and life. Tune in for an inspiring episode that celebrates the life and career of Mitsuko Uchida, only on Between the Bars.

A full transcript of the episode is copied below. 

Enjoy listening to the latest episode of the MCO's podcast, Between The Bars, on your favourite streaming service.


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Yannick Dondelinger: Hi, I'm Yannick Dondelinger and welcome to another episode of Between The Bars, the podcast of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra: Rooted in Music - a chat with Dame Mitsuko Uchida.

[W.A.Mozart: Piano Concerto No.17]

Mitsuko Uchida: Without missing a beat, I said no. And he asked me why. I said I know nothing. I am searching and searching. If I know nothing, how can I teach other people? So if I were weak at that point and said, oh, well, maybe, I would have been a Frau Professor of the Musikhochschule at the age of 20. And that would have been the end of my life.

[W.A.Mozart: Piano Concerto No.17]

Yannick Dondelinger: Pianist Mitsuko Uchida, telling a story from her studies in Vienna in a way that only Mitsuko can with tenderness, honesty and a slight touch of irreverence. And where would we be if she hadn't said no? Instead, she left to explore the world, and found her own in London, in New York, in Tokyo, in Salzburg, in Berlin, in the audiences that still flock to see her perform and listen to her many celebrated recordings. You're listening now to a clip from a live performance of Mitsuko's from one of the many concert tours the Mahler Chamber Orchestra has shared with her. And there will be plenty more golden piano moments popping up throughout this episode. But where to start when interviewing a living legend? I asked her if it was clear growing up that classical music and the piano were going to be her life.

Mitsuko Uchida: No, not at all. I come from an absolutely non-musical background, and I belong to the generation that can be called the post-war generation. My parents were separated during the war and father came back in September or such time back to Japan. My mother stayed there with my older sister and so on. And then my brother was born and then I was born. So I'm the last child. And when I was around, there was an upright piano in our house. The house was tiny. People had to evacuate out of Tokyo because of that amazingly, uh, unthinkable event that Japan attacking USA.

Yannick Dondelinger: Pearl Harbor?

Mitsuko Uchida: Yeah. Pearl Harbor, I mean, what did they think?

Yannick Dondelinger: And the consequences, of course.

Mitsuko Uchida: Of course. And for the Europeans, it was God sent because America was hesitating to get so quickly into the European war. That brought America into this war. And so therefore, the end result of today's world was because of that Japanese unthinkable action of of Japan. And when father came back, he escaped from Berlin. He spent the entire war in Berlin, and he escaped on the day before the famous day in May 45, he escaped to the south and there were only three people, younger people, young people at the embassy. He escaped as long as he could through Czechoslovakia to Austria, in order not to be caught by the Russians. The Russians were coming and two days later the Russians came in. So therefore. And if so, I wouldn't have existed. He would have disappeared into some sort of gulag. And that was the end of the story. But he did it in order to be caught by the Americans. And he was caught by the Americans in Bad Gastein, in, in Austria, in the countryside. And he made it there. Then probably they ran out of gas and, and and one day when we were in Austria and we had a holiday, nobody knew except for him why we went to Bad Gastein to have a holiday. Yeah, it was a lovely place. Salzkammergut and all of that. But, um, me having been sort of the only child who had a good connection to him, and we went for a walk together, the two of us. And then he told me, here I was when I was caught by the Americans and before that, I spent the most peaceful two weeks of my life. And I knew nothing. Nobody talked about the particularly in Japan. Nobody talked about the first half of the 20th century. The 20th century. History started in Japan with the fall of the atomic bomb.

[W.A. Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10]

Mitsuko Uchida: One of the things though, when he was released, he was a little fish, being a civil servant in the Japanese embassy in Germany. So he was released after having been to a prison in America. Three months later they let him go and he came back on a on a boat out of America, and my mother went to pick him up, meet him, and on a very slow train going back to this place called Atami, where they had evacuated mother and, and father's parents. On that train he apparently asked my mother, why isn't Motoko, that is my older sister's name, why isn't Motoko playing the piano? And she just said, well, I think we had war. And he said, well, see to it that she has a piano lesson.

[W.A. Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10]

Mitsuko Uchida: So what he saw in Germany, he spent over ten years in Germany as a young man at Heidelberg University and at the embassy in Bonn. He saw the Germans having the house music. The children played. He loved it and he wanted his family to do that to.

[W.A. Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10 ]

Mitsuko Uchida: When I came about, there was already a piano in the house, so. And sister was playing, and my brother and the kind of music I must have heard is impossible. And one day the piano teacher was teaching and asked mother that she would love to teach boys as well. And her son was the same age as my brother. And I want to teach those two boys. It's always girls. It was a matter for girls to play the piano. It's like flower arrangement and tea ceremony and piano lessons, and that was very useful for all your bio when you are looking for a husband. That was it. Different times, different world. And there is still, that part of Japan is still there. Don't you think that it is that modern. So anyway. And there they were. And and the piano teachers offered the piano lesson to my brother. And one day, apparently. And he was four and then I was two, and one day the piano teacher apparently said, you know, the baby that you are bringing because you can't leave her at home, that girl is more interested in what I'm saying than both boys put together. I much rather want to to teach that one. And so it started, apparently, and I remember nothing. I don't remember the time that I didn't play the piano somehow, and the only music that I heard was some old 78 recordings scattered around. And that was it. I never knew a single string quartet. I have heard few things, a few things. And and I went to the Toho school and and because there were that was also everything was by chance. And so I started to play the piano. And then I landed in Vienna at the age of 12. And from then I never really returned to live in Japan. I then stayed in Europe.

[W.A.Mozart: Piano Concerto No.17]

Yannick Dondelinger: And during your journey to becoming the globally recognized artist, you are. Did you ever feel you were breaking any of the established barriers, glass ceilings, or other obstacles of the industry? Or was that never over all these decades something that's been on your mind?

Mitsuko Uchida: No. What have I broken?

Yannick Dondelinger: Well, maybe...

Mitsuko Uchida: The Japanese will tell you the first Japanese to do this, and you are the first Japanese to do that. And I say, so what? Right. I might be the 179th Japanese on never and whatever. So what? It doesn't mean anything to me.

Yannick Dondelinger: But you are a child of Japan, musically educated in Vienna as you as you just started to talk about. And as we'll get on to finally settling and making your home in the UK, how have these journeys of emigration affected who you are? Do you ever feel, let's say, confused in your roots?

Mitsuko Uchida: My roots are in music. It is not my parents, but it is the music that I live for. It's not the country of my origin. It's interesting. I'm grateful about it that I was born in Japan to Japanese parents of a certain type and of a certain, uh, age group.

Yannick Dondelinger: But I guess you would honestly say then, your roots are where your piano is. Maybe. Could one say that?

Mitsuko Uchida: No. It is the music. It is music. And piano is the one, I love the instrument, but piano is the only instrument that I discovered later that how much I love this instrument.

Yannick Dondelinger: Well, you talked very briefly now just about your educational years in Vienna. So now we've gone from Japan to Vienna. And of course, you arrive in London. You love London. I know you love London. You've lived there now the majority of your life, I would guess. And you live. Uh, I know this, I have been there. You live in a lovely house in a small street opposite to your piano studio, in a lovely part of London, and your partner for many years lives in the house next to you. And the English half of me would say, I don't know if you know this phrase, snug as a bug in a rug. What keeps you a happy Londoner?

Mitsuko Uchida: Actually, after the Brexit, it is not that simple. I think it was one of the biggest disasters.

Yannick Dondelinger: That's a massive conversation...

Mitsuko Uchida: For me it was such a ghastly event and it was a pure mistake, partly a mistake by some idiot in the Conservative Party and then heaps and heaps of lies. I mean, if we left the, uh, being in, in the European Union, we will have 35 million. What was it, £35 million per week for the National Health? Oh, they were.

Yannick Dondelinger: Oh, they were plastering it on the side of buses.

Mitsuko Uchida: I mean, we laughed, but people believed in it or something like that. It's unspeakable how stupid that was. So it is not as simple as that for me to say yes, I outright that I love being a Londoner. Well, I love being a Londoner, but this Britain has been slowly changing as well and that is a great pity.

Yannick Dondelinger: How would it have been for you, I don't know if you've ever thought about this, if you hadn't moved to England, if you had stayed a person of Vienna or a person of Austria.

Mitsuko Uchida: I mean, if I were to have said yes one day, I was I went for a walk with my teacher, who had been sick quite a while. He was a heavy, heavy, heavy smoker and he had some, some heart problems and lung problems. I knew, and we were sitting in Prata where his wife was walking this gigantic dog and we sat together and I was just about 20, I just graduated and from, from the Musikhochschule and, and all that. And, uh, he asked me, would I be his assistant? And without missing a beat, I said no. And he asked me why. And I said. I know nothing. I am searching and searching. If I know nothing, how can I teach other people? And he had nothing to say. Three months later, he died. So if I were weak at that point and said, oh, well, maybe I would have been a Frau Professor of the Musikhochschule at the age of 20, and that would have been the end of my life. But at least I knew I knew nothing. And from then on I knew that I had to go to somewhere which is open. It was Vienna which knew everything.

Yannick Dondelinger: So moving to England, you felt the freedom to explore these composers on your own terms.

Mitsuko Uchida: I went to the place where they didn't have enough of those composers that that, um, uh, that who say, oh, well, Purcell, only we know. The British never said such things. So it was somewhat, uh, open and tolerant. Intellectually tolerant.

Yannick Dondelinger: That's very beautiful. Maybe politicians of today in England could maybe learn a bit. Listening to that.

Mitsuko Uchida: They ought to, absolutely.

[W.A.Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22]

Yannick Dondelinger: Mitsuko, I'd love to ask just one question about your pianos. You have several of them. 3 or 4. I think it was four last time I interviewed you. Um, and I don't know if one of them or all of them are in and out of the studio going to different parts of the world, but, um, what I'm interested in is when you decided you had to have your own piano on touring with you, because this is still, you have to correct me if I'm wrong, it's still a very unusual, rare thing.

Mitsuko Uchida: Yeah, it is still a rare thing. When I was a youngster, there was only, there were two people. One was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. He took pianos and he was completely loony but but he played really, really perfectly. And he aimed at perfection. I never aimed at perfection. I know perfection is in a way, if it happens to happen, congratulations. But not for that sake. If you aim at perfection, I think other things die. So therefore you have to risk to make mistakes and you have to, if you have to jump, you have to jump and hope that you can land on your feet.

Yannick Dondelinger: So you're saying you're more comfortable to take risks when you have your own instrument with you?

Mitsuko Uchida: That as well, but not only. Taking with me, started really late 1990s. From a given point, I always recorded only on my instruments because I saw that complete irresponsibility of the piano companies and the different parts of the piano companies, and I even, uh, postponed the recording, having arrived at the recording studio and the piano, that I chose, they sent it in a horrendous shape. So I thought the only answer was to own one, and I owned one already at that point. It was a Bösendorfer, and I still own a Bösendorfer, a little Bösendorfer that I bought at the age of 17. At 16, I left home and I went back to Vienna and then the rental piano was so horrible. My teacher organized that I could lay my hands on a reconditioned little Bösendorfer at a fantastically good price. And I spent every penny I had saved on that piano, and I still own it. That one is still working so beautifully and very, very special. And then the other, the next instrument is 1988 89. And I was recording Debussy, and they sent the wrong piano. And then another piano, and then they lied their heads off. So anyway, i ended up renting a piano, a suitable piano for Debussy Etudes.  And at the end of that I decided I buy this one, and that one I own and so on. And I accumulated over the years, so I have three pianos in London. The number three... The number four is a junior, as I call it, it is in London. But number three is on the European side. I have it parked in Germany. And cleverly because of the awful Brexit. It's so difficult to cross the barrier and then you don't know precisely how long to send it to a concert tour. How about if it gets stuck?

Yannick Dondelinger: You mean to get it back to England to perform in England. So it stays in the European Union.

Mitsuko Uchida: The Passport for the piano and ... Awful story. So I have one piano. I have one stationed here and with two actions, and so that I have a slight option of a concerto date, but this one is that one that that number three piano. I bought it second hand and it's very special and I love it. But I also recently ended up owning a completely brand new piano. And I hope it will work out.

Yannick Dondelinger: Steinway as well?

Mitsuko Uchida: Steinway, yes.

[W.A.Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22]

Mitsuko Uchida: I adore of course, what I would really want to own is the original Graf 1820s.

Yannick Dondelinger: Are they still around somewhere.

Mitsuko Uchida: No, real good ones, no. But if that existed. Wow.

Yannick Dondelinger: Christmas present wish.

Mitsuko Uchida: Yes, exactly.

Yannick Dondelinger: The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has been one of your primary musical companions for some years now, touring to some of the most celebrated halls around the world, building what I hope is a unique relationship. I think it is. But soon, in June, in fact, we are going to do something a bit different when we travel to the United States, to California, to the town of Ojai, just outside Los Angeles, to do something rather special. I know it will be rather exhausting and epic. You are the curator of this year's Ojai Music Festival. Could you tell us a bit more about about this unique festival and what you've got cooked up for it?

Mitsuko Uchida: Well, we have cooked up quite a lot of things. I am doing it because my very close friend called Ara Guzelimian. He is the, the director of Ojai, and I have known Aras ever since he was an artistic administrator of the L.A. Philharmonic. And over all those years. And then he went to the Carnegie, and he was the dean of Juilliard, etc., etc. and in between he was an Aspen Festival and so on. And Ara is a great friend, and he wanted me to be, uh, to be doing it. And we cooked it together. A certain number of things that I have, uh, kept my, uh, hands off because, well, I don't know whether people know how Ojai Festival started. Uh, some local person founded this festival. This tiny weekend festival of two days, probably at the beginning, possibly three days. And just three concerts or something like that for Igor Stravinsky and Stravinsky lived nearby and so in order to play Stravinsky's music, new music. So that was purely for the new music's sake. And then it had to be to develop. When I am involved, although it is a special, uh, Schoenberg year this year, I do care about hugely about Schoenberg. But this festival, I mean, I don't think about events because it's the birthday or something. What a thought. So it was going to be just that there is some wonderful Schoenberg there, the Chamber Symphony is there, the second quartet is there. That is the one with, uh, with soprano. And I play one of the pieces as well. But there is a group of composers alive and dead, people who have something to do with the Marlboro Festival also, as well as, for example Kaija Saariaho, who just recently died, passed. It is such, such a well, it's so tragic. But she was such a wonderful person as well as a fascinating composer, totally honest and and she was so kind to everybody, including me. And we have got, uh, music by, Helmut Lachenmann. And that's a mish mash of all sorts of stuff, and also, uh, the Sofia Gubaidulina and so on. So that is not that impossible, but still doable.

Yannick Dondelinger: It's an intensive festival.

Mitsuko Uchida: It is very intense.

Yannick Dondelinger: So you've curated the festival as a mixture of important composers, friends, ensembles, things that you've done in your career.

Mitsuko Uchida: Yes. But on the other hand, Ojai is new music. So therefore we have all of the other possibilities and morning concerts and afternoon whatever. I do my part in it by adding the Second Viennese School and Mozart from my side, and then all of the other people, other possibilities that come in in today's music.

Yannick Dondelinger: Mitsuko, you have so much energy. I want to move on to the future. Uh, it's mainly because I think if I think of myself, it's on my mind. I'm starting to realize I have probably less years on the planet than I've lived. Mortality is the one sure thing. Do any of these thoughts pop up in your mind?

Mitsuko Uchida: No, I think of, particularly in the last 3 or 4 years, I think of when rather than if. When the time will come that I shall stop performing. I never thought about it. I was thinking that I will play until the day before I died, and that I don't think anymore. I have been working so hard throughout my life, but now harder than ever before. But the better one can understand things and the more precisely you know what you really are after, the harder you have to work and you get tired and you can't quite say, oh no, no, no. I always got tired. Of course I always got tired, but I can see the day that I would be stopping. So now I think often what would I have wanted to have done, absolutely done before I die.

[W.A.Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17]

Yannick Dondelinger: That's the first time I've ever heard Mitsuko mentioning the possibility of retiring from the stage . And to be honest, in the interview, I had to hide a feeling of shock. You're listening to a clip from the last movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto number 17. Actually, the very first piece the Mahler Chamber Orchestra ever played with Mitsuko back in 2013 on a tour of Spain and Portugal. I asked her how this now celebrated relationship has grown.

Mitsuko Uchida: It grew from the first year. It sort of grew each time. And by now it is a a family event, although there are still many, many people who join in as because of the nature of the group. I mean, even in this wonderful tour, I have some people, key players with whom I never played, and that frightens me because I'm not a conductor. My hands are on the keys and my brains may not work that well in terms of how to remember everything and then what to say, what not to say and and with whom what not to say is almost more important. That people can do things without being told.

Yannick Dondelinger: It requires so much trust, doesn't it? To trust someone else with your musical ideas who you don't know?

Mitsuko Uchida: Exactly. And that trust has been forged over the years to such a degree. That is a pleasure. It's beyond pleasure. It's a gift.

Yannick Dondelinger: I hope the trust has grown, that you can trust. We will always produce the best we can in the moment, from from the relationship we have.

Mitsuko Uchida: Yes. And I feel that so strongly. That is a gift.

Yannick Dondelinger: For me no interview would be complete without a question about maybe your most important life's companion, Mr. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What has he taught you about life and music?

Mitsuko Uchida: He, I think, is the most connected human being that ever existed. To the overtone series and to the laws of physics of music and sound. One note happens and the next note may decide to do something else, as if every note was a child that decides to do things. And for me, that fascination, plus incredible amount of love that he has to people. He always had some girl to talk to. And he was in love and somebody else passes by, huh, immediately, the other one. I was always a lonely child, and I think human beings are ultimately lonely. But you look at Mozart and you think, no, it isn't.

[W.A. Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10]

Yannick Dondelinger: If you had a chance to interview your 20 year old self, what advice would you give the young Mitsuko Uchida in retrospect?

Mitsuko Uchida: I wouldn't say anything. There is nothing you can say because every day is a different day. And I am actually an optimist and that I know. I am not as strong an optimist as  Beethoven, but as I am an optimist: Well, carry on, you'll see what life offers to you.

[W.A. Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10]

Yannick Dondelinger: Performing with Mitsuko Uchida is always a deep privilege. But for the musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, sharing the stage with her encores will probably be what we all remember till the end of our own lives. I leave you with Mitsuko performing one of our favorite encores, the Andante cantabile of Mozart's Piano Sonata No.10 on tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Thank you for listening to Rooted in Music, a chat with Dame Mitsuko Uchida. The music for this episode was taken from live concerts of Mozart's Piano Concertos number 17 and 22, and the Andante cantabile from his Piano Sonata No.10, performed by Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on tour. Mitsuko is an Artistic Partner of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Between The Bars would like to say a huge thank you to her for agreeing to be interviewed during a very busy project, and thanks also to her management team IMG for their understanding and help. Lastly, a special thank you to the musicians who are the artists and the performers of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for their inspiration and their energy spreading the phenomenon that is the MCO around the world. The Between the Bars team is, as ever, Matthias Mayr, Laura Thompson and me, Yannick Dondelinger

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