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Sorita Kyôhei, the star pianist in 2nd place at the prestigious Frédéric-Chopin International Competition

A childhood dream come true

— When did you start thinking about taking part in the Frédéric-Chopin Competition?

SORITA KYOHEI I discovered this contest at the age of 12 while watching a documentary on television. It was the first time that I discovered the existence of such a world of music. My dream at the time was to become a footballer. I was fascinated by the glamor of famous players like Ronaldinho or David Beckham and by the idea that during events such as the World Cup, their slightest gesture was watched by tens of millions of people. When these athletes hit the ball, waves of excitement are felt by spectators around the world. And this documentary showed me that a similar enthusiasm also exists for music. The last notes of the performance barely fade away as the crowd rises in unison to loud applause. I was very impressed by the passion generated by this contest. And after a while, I started to think that I too would like to perform on this stage one day.

— What was your state of mind when you applied for the competition? You had then started to build a very good career as a professional musician, and it was already very difficult to get your hands on one of your concert tickets.

SK I was of course quite delighted with the success I had in Japan. It is very pleasant for a musician to play to sold-out crowds. But deep down I knew that I was still only well known in my country. And although classical music is well established there nowadays, it is clear that this art form is mainly popular in Europe, which even today includes the biggest celebrities and the most prestigious orchestras of this genre. I too wanted to obtain the recognition of the old continent.

I started thinking about the best way to achieve my ambitions. Of course, I could have played as an understudy for other musicians, and built up a reputation for myself little by little, but I felt that the fastest way to make a name for myself would be to make a brilliance during a prestigious competition. It was around 2017 that I started thinking about it seriously. I realized that I would have to prepare well in advance for an event like the Frederic Chopin Competition, so I decided to study in Poland. But in truth, I only made my final decision at the very last moment, as the deadline for applications was fast approaching.

Careful preparation

— As part of the preliminary application, a written application must be submitted along with a recording of the repertoire that the candidate intends to perform in the first round. In your case, many people apparently only learned of your participation after the results of your application were published.

SK I think people were very surprised when they saw these results. A lot of people even asked me why I wanted to participate. I was told that I didn’t need that at this stage of my career, when I was already well established. And of course, this kind of comment created a certain kind of pressure… I felt that I couldn’t come all this way and return to Japan empty-handed. I was determined to win a prize.

It was really the desire to put my skill to the test that reinforced my desire to enter the competition. I also wanted to play one of the two piano concertos by Chopin assigned to the participants on this stage which had impressed and inspired me so much when I was younger.

The musicians by my side also motivated me. In 2018, I founded a small ensemble with other young musicians called the MLM double concerto. It expanded to become the MLM National Orchestra in 2019 and changed its name in 2021: it is now the Japan National Orchestra. The musicians left to take part in international competitions, or obtain jobs within professional orchestras. I started to feel that I couldn’t escape competitions, partly for myself, partly for the JNO. The best way to ensure the popularity of the orchestra was to make myself known as a founding member, which would give us the spotlight to be invited to play all around the world. This was also another motivating factor.

— You have developed a detailed strategy to eliminate your competitors following your decision. How did you approach the competition?

SK I compiled all the data I could find on the last two competitions: what songs were played by each musician, as well as the type of interpretation they gave. I had ended up with information from around 4,000 performances. The competition being in three rounds, with the winning places decided at the last, I looked into the type of piece that would give me the best chance of passing the first round. And I also read all the comments from the judges for the last two competitions.

One of the comments of the president of the jury during the last competition had marked me then. All of the contestants had played a waltz as their assigned piece, and the judge had noticed that none of them had played in the rhythm of a waltz, and that there was some lack of ideas in several of the performances. Based on these kinds of comments, I gradually began to get an idea of ​​the type of interpretation I wanted to aim for. Simply put, I wanted to present a version of Chopin that might be able to win the competition.

“You are not a pianist. Are you an artist. »

— How well did your performances in the competition reflect these tendencies you have seen in past competitions?

SK To be honest, in the first round, I had no idea what the jury was looking for. It was therefore difficult for me to imagine the results. The only thing I could do was play it safe, without making any glaring mistakes. The results of the first round gave me a lot of information. Indeed, the competitors to have had the best results were those who had best known how to express their personality. The musicians with strong individual styles, or who (by contrast) played very orthodox, are the ones who survived the ordeal. I could just play the way I like, but I felt like it wouldn’t be enough this time around. One of the things that has helped me is my learning from Piotr Paleczny since 2017. My Polish teacher’s opinions have become more important than ever. I learned so much from him about the right way to play Chopin.

— It was clear that you had given a lot of thought to the different songs you performed at each stage of the competition.

SK I started seriously thinking about my participation as early as 2016, and I’ve been playing Chopin pieces on tour ever since. From that moment, I wondered which works could best highlight my style. I thought the ability to compile and present a cohesive program would be one of the things the judges would appreciate. So I carefully selected the pieces thinking about the message I wanted to convey with each interpretation.

At the awards ceremony, Kevin Kenner, one of the jurors, said to me, “I could see that you chose your program carefully. He has a reputation for being quite strict and hard to please, so I was delighted with his compliment. Another remark that still comes to mind is that of the Brazilian juror Arthur Moreira Lima, who said to me: “You are not a pianist. Are you an artist. At first, that shocked me a bit. I wasn’t sure how to take it. But after thinking about it, I think that was the most flattering compliment anyone could give me. During the competition, I had received all kinds of reactions, especially from the winners of previous editions, which was very encouraging for me.

Take Care of Your Haircut and Build Muscle

“You’ve even thought about your haircut, which some local media have called the ‘samurai cut’…

SK Of course, you want to be judged on the merits of your performance, and on the quality of the sound you produce. But these elements alone are probably not enough to win. I think we need something out of the ordinary, a trademark. People have to remember you, your face. And I’m not just talking about the members of the jury, but also the spectators. In the era of social networks and YouTube, we want to communicate with people all over the world. So I decided to let my hair and beard grow out.

“And you also started lifting weights to build muscle?”

SK When I was studying at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, I went to see the performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 by Denis Matsuev. He is nearly 1.95m tall and has a particularly impressive physique for a pianist. And what an incredible sound he got from his instrument! He practically drowned his orchestra. Hearing it made me realize how weak and light my own sound could sound in comparison. And I said to myself that even if I couldn’t do anything to increase my height, I could always work on my muscles. So I decided to play sports to transform my physical appearance.

I wasn’t sure about the acoustics of the venue for the Frederic Chopin Competition, the hall of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and so I wasn’t sure I was able to produce a loud enough sound to stand by the side of the orchestra. I just made up my mind to eat really rich meals and keep my fingers moving as best I could. I’m naturally a little muscular, so I gained muscle mass quickly.

Towards the next step

“You never seem to stop working. You are about to go to Vienna, where you will learn conducting from Yuasa Yûji, one of whose former students, Kirill Petrenko, became conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Will this role become an important part of your musical activities in the future?

SK The sound of an orchestra provides a pleasure comparable to no other. Of course, the piano is a wonderful instrument. But since I was little I always had a strong desire to immerse myself in music with my whole body. I really hope to be able to dedicate myself to conducting in the coming months. I think of sharing this activity with the piano for a ratio of 40/60, or 30/70. Ideally, I would like to be able to conduct 10 plays a year, both to surpass myself but also to extend my musical know-how. I think conducting can also provide valuable feedback to a pianist. As part of this learning, I would also like to study ballet and opera. For the latter genre, we will begin with Mozart. I would love to conduct “The Magic Flute” one day.

— It seems that you also had plans to open a school…

SK If the JNO becomes well known, the next step is to open a music conservatory. I would like to offer degree courses, with master classes given by world-renowned performers, as well as music departments for ordinary students. Alexander Gadjiev, who represented Italy and took second place alongside me in the Frederic Chopin Competition, and Spaniard Martín García García, who finished third in the competition, have similar plans to open music academies in their country. We promised each other to come and visit each other’s schools one day. For the moment, nothing is decided. I will judge whether or not this is possible based on the development of the JNO and my own career over the next five years.

(All photos: © Uwadaira Tsunebumi)

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