Noriko Ogawa in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My sixth interview in the Classical Conversations Series features Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa.

Noriko won third prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1987 and has since worked with leading orchestras and conductors, such as Dutoit, Vanska, Slatkin and Otaka. She is also renowned as a recitalist and chamber musician, performing with artists such as Evelyn Glennie. In 2001 Ogawa established a piano duo with Kathryn Stott and they regularly commission new works performing premieres of pieces by Fujikura and Kanno.

Ogawa was appointed Artist in Residence to the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester where she was Artistic Director for the Reflections on Debussy festival, hosted by the BBC Philharmonic and Bridgewater Hall from January-June 2012.

Ogawa is an exclusive recording artist for BIS Records. Her discography includes Takemitsu Riverrun (Editor’s Choice – Gramophone Magazine) and Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (Critics’ Choice – BBC Music Magazine). She has recently concluded a complete series of Debussy recordings which has won considerable critical acclaim and has also recorded a new Mozart disc for BIS Records.

Noriko has received the Japanese Ministry of Education’s Art Prize in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the global cultural profile of Japan. Since 2004 she has acted as artistic advisor for the MUZA Kawasaki Symphony Hall. As a writer, Ogawa has completed her first book (published in Japan) and is currently working on a Japanese translation of Susan Tomes’s book Out of Silence – a pianist’s yearbook.

She is passionate about charity work, particularly after the earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan in early 2011. Since the earthquake Noriko has raised over £20,000 for the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Fund and is keen to keep fundraising, also working with the Japan Society through 2012. Ogawa also founded Jamie’s Concerts a series for autistic children and parents.

The transcript, for those who prefer to read my interviews:

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Japanese concert pianist, Noriko Ogawa, came to the public’s attention when she won the third prize at the International Leeds piano competition in 1987. And since then she played all around the world and developed a very impressive career. She enjoys playing contemporary music and has a real interest in charity work and music education. So I’m delighted that she has joined me here today at the Fazioli room at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London. Thank you very much for joining me here.

 NORIKO OGAWA:   Well thank you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   It’s great talking to you.

NORIKO OGAWA:   You too.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   And I would just like to start by talking to you about your music education. How did you started playing piano? How old were you and what was the catalyst? Do you come from a musical family?

NORIKO OGAWA:  Well, yes and no. My father is not musical at all whereas my mother is a piano teacher so well since before I was born she was teaching so I- I must have been listening to her teach when I was in her stomach.


NORIKO OGAWA:   But in any case when I was a baby she would- she used to teach an upright piano and my mother tells me that when I was a toddler, I used to sit at the-at the corner of this upright piano listening to all the piano lessons. So… When I was about two already, I was very very enthusiastic about it. And umm… If dinner time I say “Mummy piano.” Both my parents would say “Oh dear, not again”.


NORIKO OGAWA:  So they had to hold my back because I could fall of the piano stool. So I was really that keen then.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   That’s really wonderful isn’t it? Yeah.

NORIKO OGAWA:  Yes, I started umm… proper piano lessons when I was four and a half? My aunt saw me playing at the keyboard, at the piano all the time. And my mother was busy because I had a younger sister. And uhhhm… But then my aunt says “Come on sister. You sh-you have to take your daughter to the piano lessons.”


NORIKO OGAWA:  And that’s how it all started.

 MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So which teacher do you think was the most crucial in your development as a pianist? Which one kind of influenced you the most, do you think?

NORIKO OGAWA:  Well, Well right from the beginning everybody was very very important. Of course my mother was such a- an influence- big influence for me really.


NORIKO OGAWA: I mean she was always making sure I practiced every day. So in a way I had a tutor at home. And uhh.. Of course Mrs. Kruda who really taught me how to use each finger. She was very important. All the teachers, yes. And then I started with Madame Yecuchi was, you know, one of the best known piano teachers in Japan. But probably I would say the biggest influence, I would say now, that I had is from Benjamin Kaplan who is in London. He, very unfortunately, he passed away recently. But he was the biggest influence. He was the teacher that I found by myself and umm… For me, I have not been yet in London without him. So I would say really…

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So how old were you when you came to London to study then?

NORIKO OGAWA:  I was already fully grown.


NORIKO OGAWA:  Well, I was a junior student when I came across Benjamin Kaplan and he was visiting New York and I was a very difficult, frustrated student then.


NORIKO OGAWA:  Rather cynical, because I would go to competitions and I would always do okay but never really really well because I was a very frustrated student, not getting what I wanted so I was not able to have any kind of magical click with anybody at the Juilliard.


NORIKO OGAWA:   Because music education was a very personal thing.


NORIKO OGAWA:  And I needed to have someone that I could fully trust musically. And a friend of mine in New York said “Why don’t you play for Ben Kaplan who is visiting New York? Not for a very long time but you know, he might be able to spare an hour or two for you”. So I went along to a flat where he was staying and then I played to him and I have to say it was musical love at first sight and then I knew I found somebody I was looking for and it was really well worth it for me to go all the way to New York spending years being a frustrated student just to meet this piano teacher. He was- he was the right from- one for me. And umm… So he found me some scholarship in London and I came here absolutely penniless. And ummm… I had lessons as many times as I wanted. And ummm… Suddenly, all the doors opened and starting from the Leeds.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, yeah. What do you think then is the difference between learning the piano in Japan compared to learning it here in the UK? Do you think that there’s a tremendous difference or do you think it’s quite similar in the approach?

NORIKO OGAWA:  Well, Umm… I have to say that ummm… The stages of my life were so different. I was a child and I was- I was a teenager when I was in- in- in- Japan and then when I came into London, I was a grown up person. So I cannot actually compare in a very simple way. But, what I would say is that in Japan, we are, we are always- well it is actually a basic thing in Japanese society. You do what you are told to do and in here you have to find what you have to do and both easy and not easy, both good and bad. I mean I shouldn’t say good or bad  but umm… For Japanese children could be very demanding to be given too many opportunities to think right from the beginning because we are born in to a society where you do what you are told and suddenly if you are free then it could be too much pressure in a very strange way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, I see what you’re saying.

NORIKO OGAWA:  Yes ummm… For Japanese children like I- I was, it is good to have some kind of frame up to some- I don’t know, during formative years, I would say.


NORIKO OGAWA:  And then up to umm… After maybe teenager time it would be fantastic to have a kind of education that ummm.. British music world can offer. Free to think, choose what you want to play repertoire. Go and find what you like to do and uhhh… Explore all kinds of possibilities. It’s really too much for Japanese children, I would think. I- I don’t want to sound a bit too chauvinistic about it. But it’s- it’s just a reality, I think because I am one of them but this kind of freedom and umm… endless opportunity that we’ve got in this British music world is really absolutely fantastic. It’s like a honey pot really, for every musician.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   That’s good. How did you develop your technique?

NORIKO OGAWA: Ummm… I started piano lessons with rather Japanese old school, very very strict and you have to be aware of each finger of your both hands and ummm… Making sure that they are very independent. So that sort of thing I developed in Japan, definitely. But ummm… When I was about twelve- thirteen I remember my friends and my friends’ mothers used to say Noriko’s sound is very pretty but it sounds like it’s very muted as if she has got the una corda down all the time!

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Hahaha, go on.

NORIKO OGAWA: And- and uhh… but then when I was a child I didn’t really worry about that. I was, in a way, chuffed that they thought that I made nice sound. That’s- that’s what I wanted to hear really. But then when I was thirteen- fourteen I started to notice maybe it might not be enough. Maybe I should project that a little bit more. Then I came across a- a- a pianist who was very active performing at that time, Mr. Hironaka, and he taught me how to relax the body and arms and how to use this kind of power from here to there using the weight of the arms and I remember when I was about sixteen, I think. I was practising and then suddenly a pain dropped really and I thought, this is the right to use my body and then suddenly I started to project a lot. So I had all this kind of guidance by different teachers but suddenly when I was about sixteen, it all added up and it suddenly came to my body. It was like a magical moment very difficult to explain because it’s a very physical thing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, and a personal thing as well in a way. And you won this third prize from the Leeds, How did it change your career? It must’ve changed it tremendously.

NORIKO OGAWA:  Oh, yes. Over night. Over night.

NORIKO OGAWA:   I wouldn’t be here without it.


NORIKO OGAWA: Umm… I had lessons with Ben almost every other day up until the Leeds and then I went there and when I went there I just wanted to play to a British audience. That’s all I wanted to do and I just went further and further and I thought, my goodness. What am I going to do now? And uhh… I then was in the finals and I- I didn’t even tell my parents then because I- it was really so much for me and then I came third and I was absolutely over the moon. Then, over night, I had an agent in Japan and then ummm… I made some phone calls to British agents and at that time the Leeds was so exposed.


NORIKO OGAWA: That ummm… I had an agent in the UK, overnight as well. So the day before I was a student pianist and the day after I was a professional pianist and the changes were very big, yeah.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So do you feel competitions are still very important. There’s a lot of debate amongst pianists whether they can still launch you in the way that you were launched. Do you think they are still very powerful?

NORIKO OGAWA:  Well, for pianists without any connection, important connection, useful connections, yes it is. I- yeah- I come from Japan. I went to Juilliard’s and I was a frustrated student and then I came here just as a student competitor studying with Ben Kaplan and very very personal. I was not exposed to any agent, promoters, conductors, orchestras, nothing. All I wanted to do is to play well each round.


NORIKO OGAWA:  Then I needed to get some kind of prize or I needed to have some kind of connection through the competition so I needed it. Umm. the young pianists who are exposed to a lot more things, for example, born in this country, if they know the BBC since they are children, if the know right producers, right piano teachers who knows a lot about agencies then those pianists may not need them. But I did.



MELANIE SPANSWICK:   And you really impressed in contemporary music. How did this come about?

NORIKO OGAWA: Well ummm… When I was a child, umm… I read biographies about Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Those three books, my parents gave me at one Christmas and I read from cover to cover so many times and yet I thought they were mythological, coming from Japan. Completely different-


NORIKO OGAWA: Society. I just did not think they existed. So for me, still a part of me tells me that those people may not have existed, some kind of gift from somewhere. So ummm.. for me, it is very important to meet composers in flesh that actually human being who only has got one heart, two eyes, two hands and actually write that kind of music and for us to materialize or realize that these pieces it’s still for me is something beyond comprehendible. I cannot quite- still today I cannot quite come to terms with it. So it is important for me to keep doing it. It is a good fun and it is- I’m sure you know, Melanie. It is the most scary moment to play. To a composer…..


NORIKO OGAWA: Yes, and then I can only play about 50% of what I practiced.


NORIKO OGAWA: Usually the first time. You know I- You know I just trip over everywhere and then I say “Oh, I’m so sorry I could play a bit better in my studio.” I always say. But uhhh.. It is a nerve-racking phase and it is a fantastic thing at the same time. And then also, not only the ummm… They ask us- what we- you know- they want us to do as composers, also they discover what we can do.


NORIKO OGAWA:  And what we cannot do realistically speaking, piano only has got this much keyboard and our hands are this size and uhh… It is fantastic umm… moment to walk towards each other. So although it is uhhh… Hard thing to do, it is a good thing to do.


NORIKO OGAWA: So that’s why I keep doing it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   And you play a lot of Takemitsu to critical acclaim. You’ve been really ummm…

NORIKO OGAWA: Well, thank you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Really praised for your wonderful performances. What is it then  that draws you to his style?

NORIKO OGAWA: Well, I was- well simple, really. When I started going for international piano competitions, umm… It says in the semi-finals, play a piece from your own country.


NORIKO OGAWA:  Contemporary blah blah, written in blah blah so and so. Ummm… It started that way. I needed to find some kind of repertoire for my country and I was talking to a friend who was a composer student and he said that “Well, why don’t you play Takemitsu. He is- he’s pieces are very very pretty, very musical, very beautiful, dadadada.” But then when I started playing I thought, woah, actually because Takemitsu wrote a lot of film music, I felt quite close to him I might have heard his pieces without knowing it was by Takemitsu and then I really so enjoyed it but then ummm… Until I actually met Takemitsu I wasn’t looking for his music that much because I was so busy with all these other Beethoven and Chopin to go to competitions and then I met Takemitsu and what a lovely man and so una-unassuming but then dreamy at the same time, I thought I would really like to play more pieces by him. So I did. And then, there was a moment which was so magical and so heavenly it really touched my heart so I wrote him a fan letter and then he wrote me back and that encouraged me even further so this kind of personal touch gave me very extra enthusiasm to get into his music.


NORIKO OGAWA: To this music, yes. So that’s now it came about, different stages.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I heard you recently playing with your duo partner, Kathryn Stott at a BBC Radio Three broadcast and you played ummm…  Circuit by Graham Fitkin and it was absolutely thrilling.

NORIKO OGAWA: Thank you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   It was magical. So do you enjoy playing chamber music or would you rather be a soloist or do you like both?

NORIKO OGAWA:  Well, I do. I do enjoy playing chamber music but it is a lot of responsibility. I find chamber music most demanding. So I do enjoy it but I am not a full-time chamber musician. It’s really too much responsibility to carry.


NORIKO OGAWA:  And I find soloist artists- of course in one way it is difficult because I have to present what I am and who I am. On the other hand, if it goes well, fantastic but if it doesn’t go well in some places, it is okay I take all the blame to myself and- and that’s fine. But ummm… If I cause a problem in chamber music concert, I cannot quite recover from it-

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Hahaha. I know what you mean. Yes, yes.

NORIKO OGAWA: Quickly. So but then working with Kathy is a fantastic umm… thing. She’s a wonderful musician and such generous personality. She’s got such a big heart and I have learned so much from her about being a pianist, about being a musician, traveling musician, how to work with other musicians, a lot of things. So ummm… She’s so busy and so am I so we don’t meet as often as we want it.


NORIKO OGAWA:  But every time we work together, we have a great time, yes.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   And you produce a beautiful tone range, tonal palette. How did you- How’d you come about producing this sound? Is it something that’s developed over the years or have you always been aware that you can make these wonderful sounds with piano?

NORIKO OGAWA: Well, I am a strong believer of beautiful sounds at the piano. If we had not worried about the quality of the sound, why do we worry about playing on big concert ground or you know- big maker brand of the piano? Why are we so worked up about the quality? It’s because we want to make good sound so I am a strong believer of that ummm… So I must have developed because of that that I have some kind of sound somewhere in my mind that I am always looking for it that I am always looking for that kind of sound so I am trying to- to- to produce that kind of sound at the keyboard when I do it and also ummm… Not only in just hearing it but physically, I want to get a lot of pleasure out of playing the piano when we- when our hands are really into the keyboard, we know it.


NORIKO OGAWA: Yes, and- and I’m always looking for that kind of moment and this is the kind of absolute meeting point between the piano and the pianist. So umm… because we have to perform a different instrument all the time ummm.. So it’s like a first meeting and we say hello and I sit down and I start playing and the piano says, “Oh really?”


NORIKO OGAWA: And- and then I say, “Yes, it’s really”. And then- So I have got some kind of image in my mind what kind of sound I want with my head and my hands are looking for this physical pleasure from this particular instrument so my hands want to convince the instrument so when the sound and the piano, this physical- I don’t know what this is- click happen then the piano shakes hands with me and- and i love that moment so that- that probably is the way that I work and that gives me a lot of ummm.. How can I say this- this kind of sound world. Yeah, that I want to swim around.


NORIKO OGAWA: Yes, so the piano tells me the capacity of that instrument while I’m rehearsing and then with the- with the acoustic of the hall and then I know how far I can go in the concert I go even further and if the piano is a good piano and- and uhhh.. If- if this piano can take what I want to do, then it travels with me as far as I want so that’s- that’s the kind of image that I have- I have. It’s a kind of map that I have but it’s always- it’s blank when I go to a concert hall and it, actually, it could work much smaller piano sometimes. Ummm… Th-that goes without reaching things like that, you know it- it- because if I go somewhere then the piano is inevitably smaller than the concert ground.


NORIKO OGAWA: But I can still swim around in that kind of world. But if the piano is big and full-sized with the concert ground is really huge and the acoustic is good then I think I have this sound image and map that I start drawing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   And is this why you enjoy playing Debussy so much because you recorded- you’ve done a huge recording of Debussy’s works recently and is this what attracts you to his music and all the tonal possibilities?

NORIKO OGAWA: Exactly, exactly.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes umm.. Debussy’s sound actually a lot of people think that Debussy’s sound is wish-washy. It’s not. And ummm… uhhh… He- it’s not all the time but he’s got really great, big forte fortissimo fortisissimo as well as very quiet sounds that sometimes I have to take so much risk and actually playing quietly is more difficult.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, hahahaha. Especially on instruments you don’t know.

NORIKO OGAWA: Exactly, and sometimes the bumper sounds louder than the piano sort of, you know, the- the notes. Then it’s a very difficult moment isn’t it?


NORIKO OGAWA: So ummm… Debussy challenges in both ways and ummm.. When it works it’s fantastic and also the colours that he demands, it’s- it’s wonderful when it works. So yes that’s- that’s probably why I love Debussy.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So I know you are very interested in outreach work, charity work. You’ve done a lot of this. How did- How did this come about?

NORIKO OGAWA:Well, since I was a child I was always interested in this sort of thing and ummm… Ummm… First of all, I visit primary schools-


NORIKO OGAWA:  Mainly, when it comes to schools. And then I ask to go to students’ halls and I- I insist on playing on the instrument which lives there even it’s an upright uhhh… And because I want to show the children when I play it, when a professional pianist plays on it it sounds different and they love it umm… So that’s one thing and then uhhh… I always insist on showing my hands so if children are too many I- I tell them to change the seats or I ask the piano to go around so that I can show how my fingers are working.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   So is this in Japan or do you also go to England as well?

NORIKO OGAWA: Well, both.


NORIKO OGAWA: but ummm… It is easier for me to range when I am in Japan.


NORIKO OGAWA: Yes and uhhh… But anyway so that’s that and uhhh… I play something they know so that they can hear the difference and it’s amazing when I do students’ concerts or primary school concerts, children’s’ concerts, they always come up with amazing questions, very musical.


 ORIKO OGAWA: Yes, quite threatening.


NORIKO OGAWA: Somewhat almost professional level of questions. They always amaze me so it’s uhhh.. it’s a very ummm.. stimulating for me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I can imagine.

NORIKO OGAWA: Yes. I’m sure I already met future pianists, future musicians and future audience. I am sure I have met them already. So that’s one thing and another outreach I do really passionately is ummm… It’s called Jamie’s Concerts. That’s my creation kind of thing and when I was- when I first started uhhh… Playing professionally in UK, I was a lodger with an English family- musicians family and uhhh.. There was a- a disabled child in that family and I realized how it was like to- to live with ummm… Those children because for- for- for the parents it’s very very demanding so I started this thing called Jamie’s concert and the Jamie is the- the name of this boy and it’s designed for mainly for the carers so that they can go to concerts during the day while children are in school and they can go home before the children get home and- but the concert is really like professional level concert, nothing different. We always put the dress on  and- and we play in a formal concert hall and uhhh… It’s going really very well and I’ve already done ten concerts- ten concerts in Japan and ummm… I’ve already done two in the UK and I’m about to do the next one in the Liverpool area next February so ummm.. I would really like to continue that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, I bet. I was going to say in the next question, what are your plans for 2013?

NORIKO OGAWA:  Oh. Well, Ummm… It’s just really carrying on playing.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes, of course.

NORIKO OGAWA: And recently I recorded Mozart sonatas and uhhh… It’s going to be released so I would like to play some of those sonatas and see how far I can go. This is a real real test as a pianist.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   That is. Specially playing all of them well. Wow.

NORIKO OGAWA:Yes, it’s- that’s going to be ummm… A big challenge for me and uhhh… Well carry on learning new pieces. Well, this year I’ve done this big Debussy festival and I celebrated year of Debussy’s birthday so next year it’s a little bit quieter in that respect. I don’t have any kind of “big project” but ummm… I’ve got a lot of concerts coming in and people are now finding out that I’ve recorded Mozart, so I am getting some Mozart Concerto dates. So ummm… That’s going to be very interesting to-

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Yes. So what does playing the piano mean to you?

NORIKO OGAWA: Oh dear. Hahaha. It is something which speaks for me. It takes a lot of training and discipline but at the end of the day when I’m at the piano ummm… I cannot really cover it up myself. It just shows what I am and uhhh… I think that’s- that’s what it is. Things that I cannot say when I am a little bit too shy or too happy or too sad, the piano will say it for me.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   Thank you so much for joining me.

NORIKO OGAWA: Thank you very much Melanie.



Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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