Mitsuko Uchida Says What She Thinks

Mitsuko Uchida is one of the world’s foremost pianists, renowned for her crystalline touch and her interpretations of Mozart and Schubert. She is in demand at leading concert halls and festivals, but is also a celebrated mentor to young performers. She is of such stature that she often travels with her own 1,064-pound Steinway Model D concert grand piano, as well as a dedicated technician for it.

Periodically, for about two years, I had been working to land an interview with Uchida, 75, who was born in Japan and moved at age 12 to Austria, where her father became Japan’s ambassador. She remained there to study music when his diplomatic career took him elsewhere, and now lives in London. At this point (many of her recordings are considered standards), she has little need for publicity. But she agreed to speak one recent afternoon, to discuss the Ojai Festival in California, which begins on Thursday with her as this year’s music director.

When we met in the lobby of a hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Uchida was in the middle of a particularly busy stretch of concerts. Almost immediately, our conversation took an unexpected turn, as she made it clear she was irked by my questions about her life and music.

When I asked how she saw this stage of her career, she gave a blunt and direct response: “I don’t self-analyze.”

But she sat for 75 minutes, offering her unvarnished take on the world and discussing creativity, new music, the pandemic and why she doesn’t conduct Beethoven from the keyboard. (Noting the “conflict and confrontation” in Beethoven, she said that “to induce and incite conflict from others toward me while I’m playing is difficult.”) She spoke about her plans for Ojai, where she will play solo works and conduct Mozart piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (“Mozart is conversational; it is an opera”).

A scholarly artist, Uchida was intent on testing my musical knowledge, stopping the interview several times to quiz me on the German Renaissance, the invention of musical copyright, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and the deaths of Schubert and Webern. Unimpressed, she at one point suggested I leave my job for a year to study music full time.

Toward the end of the interview, the hotel’s fire alarm went off, and Uchida asked whether I had any more questions. I thanked her for her time, and she said she had enjoyed the discussion even though she was not always certain what I was seeking. I remarked to Uchida that interviews were not always predictable. She said that performances weren’t so different.

“I call it the leaves in the autumn,” she said. “We come and go. Once we are dead, that’s it. All that remains is what has been written.”

Worried that I might not have enough material, I later called Uchida at her home in London, where she was practicing Ravel. She agreed to speak for another 45 minutes. Here are edited excerpts from both conversations.

How do you see your artistry in this phase of your career?

My artistry? Excuse me? I live one day at a time.

What do you mean?

Do you think I am navel-watching every day, or what? Excuse me, I am a musician. I am not anybody that important or anything. I just want to understand music. That’s all.

Tell me what excites you about the Ojai Festival.

You think I go to Ojai because I get excited? No. I go because there is music that I might want to do and there are associations, and I might do it for the people who are involved, including the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. I feel connected to this group.

The first time I was in Ojai, I went with Pierre Boulez, and that is a wonderful thing to do. The origins of Ojai — the notion of somebody in the countryside of the United States starting a new music festival — that, I think, is an exciting idea. But other than that, what excites me, I don’t know.

You were originally set to appear in Ojai in 2021, but your schedule shifted during the pandemic. How do you think the pandemic has changed the cultural world?

The selfish desire that “my life should be so wonderful” became a norm during the pandemic — that you are allowed to think that. So people give up very easily. I see that in many, many fields.

A lot of the top hotels in Japan, if you ask me, it’s a lost cause. Restaurants which I loved, the taste is different now because they released their chefs during the pandemic. The newly employed will come in and say, “If I like it, I will stay, and if I don’t like it, I will go elsewhere.” But life isn’t that simple. You have to try.

Did you change at all during the pandemic?

I bet I have. But I am not self-analyzing.

Did it change your routine?

I was so happy to be home. I love not to travel. For once, I could afford to waste my time. It was fantastic.

What do you do now in your free time?

When I am free, I am at home and I study or play music. I want to have time to think. And you need to breathe and to dream.

When you take time to dream, do you have revelations about life or music?

I never have revelations in my life. Or if I do, I won’t tell you.

You mentioned that part of what drew you to Ojai was the opportunity to work with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Opportunity, no. I shall have lots of opportunities. But for them, it is an opportunity. They wanted to go to Ojai. I do it for them.

Ojai has a special atmosphere. At the corner of the park where the concerts happen, there is an ancient tree. I like playing in that open-ended space — not in a box, not in a hall — where the music flies away. Some people hate it. But I like listening to sound that is just going into thin air.

In Ojai, you will play three concertos by Mozart and his Fantasia in D minor, as well as Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces.”

In an ideal world, I might have thought about performing Schoenberg’s piano concerto without a conductor, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. But it needs a fantastic amount of rehearsal time. Can I tell you how life functions? Nobody can afford it because it needs so much rehearsal time. Who is paying for these 40 people to stay in a hotel for a week or 10 days just rehearsing? Nobody.

People do not often associate you with new music.

Somebody told me a long time ago, “Ms. Uchida, you don’t commission that many new pieces.” And I only said, “What am I to know what that schmuck is going to do?” It is so dangerous not to know what the heck the piece is going to be. So I’m perfectly happy not to be the first person to do it. But I am such an admirer of composers like Gyorgy Kurtag; there’s hardly anybody more honest than he.

How would you describe your connection to Mozart?

In Mozart, even if there may be sad moments, he looks up and up — he’s already in love with the lovely girl who is passing. His world is the world of humans running around. And to an extreme extent, I think that in Mozart, every note is a child — every note is trying to take a different direction. That is the extraordinary freedom of Mozart’s music: All the notes behaving as if they were little children.

In Schubert, by contrast, you have described a sense of isolation.

Schubert was a lone character, and his music is utterly lonely. His music is a dream. There is all the sadness of his life; it’s a hopeless situation. And yet there is longing. He’s never lost that longing, and that is the absolute beauty of Schubert.

Do you worry about the impact of artificial intelligence on music?

Creativity happens in the human brain and the human soul. To know the brains of somebody like Mozart must have been shocking. And Johann Sebastian Bach — wow, the abilities he had! That is not possible for machinery to do.

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