Nobuyuki Tsujii makes impressive Baltimore Symphony debut

If you ever doubted music’s magnetic power, or how it can inspire a person to soar past many a boundary or impediment, consider the case of Nobuyuki Tsujii, the compelling guest pianist for this weekend’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program.

Blind from birth, Tsujii was drawn to music at a tender age in his native Japan. From the toy piano that he started playing at 2, he quickly graduated to the real thing, learning by ear. That painstaking process didn’t deter him.

He made his public debut in a concerto when he was 10, his solo recital debut two years later. A major affirmation of his talent came when, at the age of 20, Tsujii was one of two pianists to share the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, after being guided by Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit across the stage to the Steinway, the diminutive, boyish-looking pianist took a moment to run his hands lightly across the tops of the keys a couple of times to get his bearings, then plunged heartily into Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

It’s hard to make this war horse gallop in fresh ways, though many a pianist will try, all too often by ramping up tempos for the fast bits and turning the slow ones into goo. Tsujii avoided the latter approach but couldn’t resist some warp-speed flurries, especially for the octaves in the finale (they were fun, if not cleanly articulated).

Still, it was clear that the pianist was far more interested in making music than effects. He sustained a remarkably warm tone throughout and shaped phrases in a natural, unfussy fashion. It is possible to uncover more in the way of subtle details in this score, but Tsujii delivered a satisfying performance, backed solidly by Remmereit and the BSO.

The audience, which was exceptionally quiet during the concerto (coughers heard earlier in the program seem to have been magically cured), exploded with enthusiasm afterward. Tsujii, giving a smile that lit up the hall, responded with a couple of eager encores, including a bold charge through Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude.

The program also offered a recent orchestral work by Japanese-born composer Karen Tanaka, “Water of Life,” dedicated to the victims of the tsunami in Japan. With its slowly unfolding harmonies and beautifully layered instrumental colors, the score exerts a gentle, comforting pull.

Remmereit drew finely nuanced playing from the musicians. The slow, haunting fade at the end, in particular, was exquisitely realized.

The conductor’s attention to dynamics also yielded memorable results at the start of the evening in a suite from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” especially the introspective “Ase’s Death” and “Solveig’s Song,” which found the strings producing an extraordinarily delicate tone.

In the suite’s propulsive selections, Remmereit’s keen ear for color and rhythmic tension seemed to fire up the BSO, resulting in vividly atmospheric music-making.

The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall.

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