Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Fuzjko Hemming & Marek Szpakiewicz - The 5th Anniversary of Fukushima Disaster in Japan (Vol. 7, No. 4)

Fuzjko Hemming, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

March 11, 2011 remains one of those "loaded" dates in recent human history, when a disaster of enormous magnitude and tragic consequences for the whole planet struck Japan, first an earthquake, then a tsunami, then chain reactions and explosions in the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Thousands of people were displaced and their livelihood and health affected, The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (the worst since Czernobyl in Ukraine in 1986) included meltdowns and release of radioactive material at the damaged Fukushima Power Plant. According to official records few people died in this specific disaster, though long-term effects of radiation on health and rising cancer rates are hard to gauge.

[Image from Google Images, March 2011]

However, the earthquake itself, called the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami killed over 15,000 people. Additionally, radiation caused millions of sea and ocean creatures to lose their lives or became sick with radioactive water. As human beings and the makers of this disaster, we have a lot to apologize for. Dr. Masaru Emoto (1943-2014) wrote a prayer for Fukushima Waters, asking people to go to the shore and pray to the ocean:

Water, we are sorry
Water, please forgive us
Water, we thank you
Water, we love you

I liked it so much, I used it as the framework for my poem, Repeat after Me (see my Poetry Laurels blog, scroll down almost to the end to read my poem). Enough poetry. Time for some music!

[Image from Google images]

There were no prayers at the March 13, 2016 concert at the Zipper Hall in Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles. That is, there were no obvious, external signs of grieving for the human and non-human victims of this enormous disaster. The concert, organized by the Dagy Label, and created by the organization's Artistic Director, Keiko Mori was actually a fund-raiser for the 2011 Japan Relief Fund - created on March 11, 2011 by the Japan America Society of Southern California. The fund collects and distributes charitable donations to various organizations assisting the victims of the disaster: Japanese Red Cross Society, Save the Children, Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund, Living Dreams Japan, and Sikeijuku Tohoku Earthquake Fund. So far nearly $1.5 million was collected and provided to the victims. For more information on the 2011 Japan Relief Fund visit:

But then, is a great music performance, a unique concert of incredible, unforgettable quality, a form of prayer of thanksgiving - for the beauty of the Universe, the beauty of music, the talents of the artists and musicians, and the dedication of everyone present.  Invited by extraordinary Polish cellist, Marek Szpakiewicz, I did not even think of buying a ticket in advance, not knowing that the concert was sold out over a month before its date!  Thanks to Marek and Keiko Mori, I was able to enter the crowded concert hall, filled with families, musicians, and officials, including several Consuls General of various countries, Poland, Japan, Peru, and Spain among them.

I would have gone to any concert by Marek Szpakiewicz - this profoundly musical virtuoso is capable of sublime interpretations of music from romantic Chopin to 20th-century Tansman and Lutoslawski.   I never even heard of Ingrid Fuzjko V. Georgii-Hemming, abbreviated to Fuzjko Hemming, a Swedish-Japanese pianist (b. 1932), and a legend in Japanese classical music world.  However, it was her name and her fame that drew crowds to the concert hall and filled nearly 1,000 seats of Zipper Hall.

Her international career took her repeatedly to Europe and Japan, where she lived and gave concerts at various times of her life. Her Swedish father was an architect and artist, her Japanese mother was a pianist and her first teacher. Born in Berlin, she studied in Tokyo, Berlin, and Vienna with Paul Badura-Skoda. After winning competitions (NHK Mainichi Music competition among them), and giving concerts around Europe, in 1971 she nearly lost her hearing and moved to Sweden for treatment. She returned to Japan in 1995 and appeared in a documentary in 1999 that presented her life story and unique approach to piano performance. A specialist in the most virtuosic works by Franz Liszt and Chopin, Hemming recorded a CD "La Campanella" that became a blockbuster, selling many million copies.  She received four Classical Album of the Year Awards in Japan for this and subsequent recordings. She became a household name.

Now, at 84 years old, she could just stay at home, sit by the fireplace, browse through her photograph and press clipping albums, and reminiscence about the good old times. Why would she travel to Los Angeles for this concert? Everyone applauded the eccentric pianist as she shuffled onto the stage in her slippers. She had A beautiful, strong, giving heart. A love of music and of her listeners. An urge to share the beauty that she discovered in the music that seems to have been well known before she played it, and before it became an apparition from a different world, totally captivating the audience.

There are moments in the concert hall, that everyone listens with bated breath and the air is so still and electric that you could hear a pin drop, if anyone dared to drop a pin. The recital of Fuzjko Hemming was filled with such moments, as the aging pianist took her listeners on a journey of a lifetime. The program was mammoth, enormous, and filled with extremely difficult pieces, interpreted by Ms. Hemming in her indiosycratic way. She has this incomparable touch that makes the piano sounds shimmer and float up, as if they were made of a million of little stars, or fireworks bursting up above the keyboard. She also is not afraid of playing the music her way, a completely different way than the enthroned tradition, with slower tempi, extreme range of tempo fluctuations - I have never heard such intense tempo rubato. The virtuosic technique was still there, astoundingly, as her fingers flew across the keyboard, seeming to barely touch them. It was a surprise how intensely emotional, touching and sublimely beautiful the music was. Pure magic. So many people had tears in their eyes... some mourning their families and friends in Japan, others touched by the intensity of emotional saturation of the music.

The first half of the program was filled with piano classics: Franz Schubert's Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 90 No. 3, Maurice Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Major Op. 32 No. 5, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K. 331 (the one with the Rondo alla Turca in the final movement).  Apparently, my neighbor in the next seat said, Hemming's interpretation of Ravel's Pavane is incomparable and unforgettable. Indeed, how could one ever forget the heavy, resonant chords, the mournful, solemn melody  soaring above the keyboard, the slow pace, and the expression? In this review, the same words keep coming to my mind: "intense" "sublime" "expressive" and "beautiful."  There must be other ways of describing unnamed and unnameable beauty.of Hemming's interpretation. I'll call it spiritual. Not of this world - the realms of consolation. Rachmaninoff's  prelude sparkles with trills and arpeggios, the music shimmers under the fingers of the pianist...

In this recital, nothing sounded the way we are used to hearing it. Mozart's Sonata, with its hackneyed Rondo alla Turca, was also suffused with the dazzling colors and misty timbres favored by Ms. Hemming. For once, I did not cringe when hearing the fast ascending refrain Turkish style. There was so much detail and so many hues in this music. The most unusual interpretation was of an "impromptu" addition to the program, Chopin's Revolutionary Etude, in C Major, Op. 10 No. 1. I have always loved its dramatic, aggressive and heroic interpretations by Maurizio Pollini or Stanislaw Bunin -both Chopin Competition winners... Actually, Pollini's recording from 1960 competition (when Artur  Rubinstein was the president of the Jury!), was my introduction to this work and I could not imagine it sounding differently, than this precise, measured, avalanche of sound and fury.

But Fuzjko Hemming managed to make it into something else... Shimmering, sparkling, effervescent, it was much slower than the regular 2:35 to 2:45 minutes by most pianist. She would not have made it even to the first stage of the Chopin Competition with an interpretation like that. But she made the whole concert hall hold its breath as they followed her discoveries of internal voices and textural/harmonic delights. Still romantic and dramatic, her interpretation did not have any aggression, any sharp edges, any violence.

After the intermission, cellist Marek Szpakiewicz joined the pianist in four pieces for cello and piano: Jules Massenett's "Meditation" from the opera Thais, Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3, and two Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms, No. 1 in G Minor, and No. 5 in F-Sharp Minor.  In a typical arrangement of chamber music, the piano accompanies the solo string instrument; but due to Ms. Hemming's unusual tempi, slowing down in places that one would not expect, it was the cellist who had to accompany and follow the lead of the pianist, taking this music, too, into her own, private universe of sonorous beauty.

Marek Szpakiewicz studied the cello since he was six in Lublin, in his native Poland.  After moving to the U.S. he was a student of Stephen Kates at the Peabody Conservatory and got his DMA doctorate in music performance with Eleonore Schoenfeld at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. At present, he is the Director of Chamber Music and cello professor at Azusa Pacific University. Yo-Yo Ma described Szpakiewicz as an artist whose "energy, motivation, earnestness and generosity of sprit are evident through his work."  Szpakiewicz also worked as orchestrator on film music, including the score for Finding Neverland composed by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, that received the 77th Academy Award for Best Original Score in 2005.

It must have been very hard for Marek to play Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise Brillante at such a slow speed. It was still recognizably a Polonaise, noble and stately: it could have been danced as a "walking" dance ("chodzony") with couples following each other in a "khorovod" around the room. This Polonaise, brilliant and sparkling, shone with musical beauties and did not lose its typical proud and heroic quality... Mr. Szpakiewicz's intense tone of the cello, perfect bowing technique and intonation shone in the romantic flowering of melodies in Massenett's work and enchanted in the Hungarian Dances. But the eyes were on Ms. Hemming: what would she do next, where would she take her young partner and the audience with them, too?

After the four works noted in the program, Ms. Hemming invited Mr. Szpakiewicz for an encore or three... and they played together Ravel's In the Form of Habanera, Sukegawa's Lacrimosa and The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens. All were a delight to hear. The Spanish character of Ravel's work came across as more dramatic and expressive. The poignant and sorrowful, yet tranquil Lacrimosa brought a solemn, melancholy mood back for this Memorial concert. Finally: The Swan. Played by every single cellist on this planet, and some violinists and violists too, The Swan's melody soards and entices in a thread, connecting, somehow, to the melody of Ravel's Pavane and the Japanese yet universal Lacrimosa.  

For those who have not yet encountered the musical talents of Szpakiewicz, here are some of his YouTube's recordings: Kreisler's Liebesleid, Astor Piazzola's Grand Tango, and Johannes Brahms' Trio Op. 8 played by the Azusa Pacific University's faculty trio.

It would have been quite all right to end the concert right there. The first half of solo piano - with an extra Etude by Chopin, the second half of piano and cello. What else would one want to dream about? But Ms. Hemming wanted to give her audiences the virtuosity they expected.  The last set of three pieces consisted of some of the most virtuosic and best known transcriptions by Franz Liszt: Robert Schumann's song Fruhlingsnacht, framed by the Paganini Etude No. 6 in A minor,   and the famous La Campanella.  All three were played in much slower tempi than usually heard in concert hall, where the pianists treat their productions as musical fireworks and competitions in velocity.

Her technique, at 84, was still there, but she decided to go inwards, find hidden voices, counterpoints, and sonorities inside these massive sound whirlwinds. The result? We heard them for the first time. Before the last piece, touchingly, the pianist turned to the audience and said that her hands were really tired but she would not give up the last piece, so important to  her audience and a signature display of her interpretative talent.  She rested her hands on her lap between phrases and sections of this extended set of variations.  The standing ovation at the end of the concert was well deserved. So were the tears in the eyes of so many. They knew it could be the last time they saw and heard such music. This is  how it must have been when Liszt, and Chopin and Paderewski and all these  monumental 19th-century virtuosi played for their audiences. This is why the concert-goers went beserk and followed their idols around the country, collecting their tickets, concert reviews, programs... trying to capture and preserve the magic of experience of a unique moment of synchronized vibrations - when the hearts and the brainwaves beat in the same rhythm.

Thank you Fuzjko Hemming and Marek Szpakiewicz for the gift of your music. And thank you Keiko Mori for organizing this inspired and inspirational concert, for such a great cause. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Here I bow down, and bow out...

Photos from Google Images, and from the concert by Maja Trochimczyk