Sought-after pianist puts head and heart into Mozart's works


New York -- In the staid tearoom of the posh Carlyle Hotel, Mitsuko Uchida calls attention to herself by giggling, by waving her arms about, by her unhesitating willingness to sing pieces of music and -- when she really gets excited -- by throwing herself backward into a sofa as she collapses in gales of laughter.

She's an unconventional woman with an unconventional background. How else can you describe someone who's Japanese-Austrian-English and who is equally at home in the languages of each country? And she's made an unconventional career by playing the piano uncommonly well.

But it's quite a career. Uchida, who plays with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week in Meyerhoff Hall, is now one of the most sought-after pianists in the world. While the 42-year-old pianist was unknown to the public as recently as a few years ago, she now commands the kind of audience recognition that can outsell someone like a longtime pianistic superstar such as Andre Watts. It took the BSO more than a month to sell out Watts' appearances earlier this year; they turned the same trick with Uchida in less than three weeks. Her fees are reportedly $18,000 for a recital and $25,000 for a pair of orchestral appearances. But she limits her concerts to 50 each year -- no other musician of her stature plays less than 70, and most play more than 100 -- and doesn't seem interested in becoming rich.

"What for?" Uchida says, roaring with laughter, falling backward into the cushions and startling the blue-haired matrons at a nearby table. "If I knew what I'd do with it, probably I'd want the money. But who has time to waste owning things that only give you a headache!"

Although her Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann are remarkable, appropriate that Uchida comes to town this week with Mozart. She's his high priestess. Her boxed set of the Mozart piano sonatas is the single best-selling item in Philips Records' huge complete-Mozart edition, and her piano concerto series on the same label outsells those of all other pianists (actually, everything Uchida records nowadays makes it into the top five of Billboard's classical charts). Compared to Uchida's, Brendel's Mozart sounds quirky, Perahia's anemic and Ashkenazy's dull.

It's hard to say what makes Uchida's Mozart so wonderful. There are never any surprises -- it's clear that doing something different for the sake of being different is anathema to her. Her tempos are normal, and so are her articulation and pedaling. There's nothing astounding about her Mozart playing -- except that it's so good, says Neal Zaslaw, a Cornell professor of musicology and one of the world's leading experts on the composer.

"She's found a way of getting across all of Mozart's color and feeling without the Romantic excesses of the past," he says. "I think she's able to do it simply because she's smarter than anyone else who plays Mozart on the grand piano. She's an intellectual who knows all of the Mozart scholarship as well as an artist. In her case, the head and the heart don't get in each other's way -- they enhance each other."

"You need intuition -- you must be true to yourself," Uchida says. "But without scholarship, intuition is dangerous. It leads to . . ."

She smiles, then throws her head back in laughter.

"It leads to arrogance!" she shouts.

Everyone in the the Carlyle lobby stares at her.

Hers is not the sort of behavior that fits the stereotypical image of a Japanese woman. But then, there's nothing stereotypical about Uchida.

Just before the pianist's 12th birthday, her father, a career diplomat, was appointed Japanese ambassador to Austria; he moved the entire family to Vienna. Although she was already an accomplished pianist, Uchida says she never would have become a musician had she stayed in her native land.

"Do you know why so many Japanese women study the piano?" she asks. "Japan considers that there are certain useful things for girls -- flower arrangement, tea ceremonies and the piano."

To say that Uchida is ambivalent about Japan is to understate the case.

"I don't think I'm a feminist, but in Japan feminism is a necessity," says the pianist, who has never married and who prefers not to talk about her private life. "Recently I saw a Japanese production of 'Hamlet' -- they didn't have a clue about what the play was about because it's about intellectual uncertainty, and there's no such thing in Japan. But the Japanese understand 'Macbeth' very well, and do you know why? Because it's about a strong, frustrated woman who controls her husband by manipulation. That's the traditional way fTC Japanese women got and kept power, and it's a frightful price they've had to pay."

Although Uchida did not become famous -- in this country, at least -- until the middle '80s, she began to make her mark when she took prizes in a number of important international competitions, including a first place in Vienna's Beethoven Competition and second-place finishes at the 1970 Chopin and the 1975 Leeds. Her interest in Mozart began after she decided to move to England in 1973.

"I knew I could never go back to Japan," she says. "Going to America would have meant a strong temptation to study with Leon Fleisher, and I wanted to avoid more teachers and to find my own voice. Germany was out because it was too close to Vienna with its 'I am right because I own Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven' attitude. Deciding to go to England was made on the basis of negative elimination."

There were a lot of good pianists in England, and it was not until she gave a complete cycle of Mozart sonatas in 1982 in London's little Wigmore Hall that Uchida's became a name to reckon with. She had long wanted to do an ambitious project, but couldn't decide between a Mozart cycle or a Schubert cycle.

She chose Mozart because -- back in those pre-Uchida days -- his piano sonatas actually had a rather bad reputation. With a few exceptions, they were considered weak works. Moreover, they usually were played badly -- their slender framework often trivialized by pianists who either miniaturized them or who played them with a dynamic scale more appropriate to Beethoven. Uchida's 1982 cycle redrew the map. Critics and audiences went wild, and a Philips executive, who was in the audience, immediately signed her to record the cycle. The records were terrific, and Uchida's photogenic face -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, but always expressive -- seemed to fascinate record buyers.

"Her success is completely due to those records," says Bill Capone, who helps manage Uchida's North American career at Shaw Concerts. "Up to that time, absolutely no one was interested in her, and we were booking her in places like Edmonton and in little places in Alberta you've never heard of. With the records, the career went through the roof. We could completely fill her schedule if she had two or three times as many concerts."

But those records -- good as they are -- do not really do Uchida justice. As Baltimore music lovers who have not heard her in person before are about to discover, she is an enormous risk-taker.

"If you can't take risks, why appear in public?" says Uchida. "I have seen too many great pianists start copying their records, playing safe because they don't want to make mistakes. It's not that I'm not afraid to fail -- it's not easy to risk making a fool of yourself in front of 3,000 complete strangers. But if you give concerts, you had better be prepared to give everything."

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