“When I was young, I was totally convinced that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were mythological figures,’ says Noriko Ogawa. “But Vienna is so far away from Japan that everything seemed unreal.”

The Japanese pianist is renowned not only for her pianistic prowess, but also for promoting new music and for her commitment towards society.

Ogawa grew up in Kawasaki in a very musical family. Her mother was a piano teacher, and so she grew up to the sound of the piano. “I used to sit under the piano listening to my mother teaching,” she recalls. “There are many photographs of me sitting at the piano since I was really very small.”

The Japanese seem to have a special affinity with early 20th century French repertoire, and Ogawa is no exception. Indeed, the works of composers like Debussy exerted a huge influence on post war Japanese composers like Takemitsu. Ogawa attributes this to the textures, colours and poetry found in this repertoire that resonates with Japanese aesthetics.

By the time she was 12, Ogawa fell under the spell of Debussy, Ravel and the early 20th-century French masters, but her teacher forbade her to play any of that at the time.

“I used to hide and read through famous pieces by him while my mother was out shopping,” she says.

As she grew older, Ogawa’s sense of awe and wonder towards the great masters turned into a sense of responsibility. She wanted to bridge the gap between composer and performer, and thus started commissioning new works. It was a way for her to get back to the very basics.

One of the pieces on her Malta programme for the Malta Arts Festival is Particle of Water by Yoshihiro Kanno, a contemporary Japanese composer. Ogawa has commissioned three pieces from him over three years.

“I asked Kanno to make them sound Japanese without using typical Japanese pentatonic scales.  I suggested using traditional Japanese percussive instruments which I can play alongside the piano, and Kanno suggested Nambu Bells, Myochin Hibashi Chopsticks, and Kabuki Bells.”

Particle of Water makes use of Myochin Hibachi Chopsticks. The name might not be particularly enticing, but these actually have a very colourful history.

Myochin Hibachi Chopsticks are made of Tama-Hagane Steel which is exactly the same kind of steel used for Samurai Swords.  When the era shifted from Edo to Meiji in Japan, all the Samurai had to stop using their swords.

I was totally convinced that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were mythological figures

The Myochin Family, which was a family of sword-makers, was about to go out of business overnight, so they quickly decided to make Myochin Hibashi Chopsticks as objets d’arts instead of swords.   The chopsticks are hung as wind-chimes and they create extremely high frequency sound when the sticks hit each other.

“Kanno’s piece blends the sound of the piano with the chopsticks beautifully,” says Ogawa. I’m curious as to why these chopsticks have to be of a particular brand and it turns out that they are manufactured only by this family which is now in its 54th generation. It also turns out that they cost around €4,000 per pair.

Ogawa is also the brains behind Jamie’s Concerts, a series of recitals aimed at the carers and relatives of autistic children and adults.

“Families with autistic people lead extremely busy, stressful, and demanding lifestyle,” says Ogawa. “I founded Jamie’s Concerts after I spent two years with a severely autistic boy called Jamie at a house of musicians in north London, and experience some of the stress that they go through.”

These recitals offer those who work with autistic individuals a chance to enjoy some music and socialise a bit afterwards. Through these concerts, Ogawa has attracted the attention of several key players in the music world, including the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London who are looking into the beneficial effects of these concerts. Ogawa has also become a cultural ambassador of the National Autistic Society in the UK.

I wish I had enough space to quote Ogawa’s acceptance speech in full, given in April 2015 when she accepted her cultural ambassadorship. It makes for some poignant reading and really shows what a true artist she is; someone who is not just about playing music, but about creating a legacy for future generations and improving lives through the power of music.

Noriko Ogawa performs on Tuesday at 9pm at Auberge de Castille, Valletta.


Other highlights from festival

Tomorrow: Tabula Rasa, at 7pm at BlueBox Theatre, Msida; The Musical Voyages of Marco Polo, at 9pm at the Argotti Gardens, Floriana.

Wednesday: Je Tiens La Reine, at 9pm at the Argotti Gardens.

Friday: Talich Quartet at 9pm at the Palace Courtyard, Valletta.

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