Playing a piano concerto at age 91, with full orchestra in concert, is a remarkable feat. Playing two concertos in the same concert … well, it’s way past remarkable.
Pianist Michi Hirata North will do just that on April 16, when the local keyboard legend performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (K. 595) and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in concert with the Northwest Sinfonietta. It is billed as her final concert.
All this takes not only artistry, but considerable stamina. But those who know North are certain she can do it. After all, as a younger pianist she sometimes played three concertos in a single concert, a phenomenon not often heard today. And her repertoire contains no fewer than 43 concertos.
“A few years ago, in concert, she dashed off the Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto and Chopin Concerto No. 1, with the panache of a sword swallower,” says her fellow pianist Robin McCabe, music professor at the University of Washington. “And now we will have a final ‘doubleheader’ with the Mozart and the finger-blistering Tchaikovsky. Remarkable virtuosity and the deep humanity of life experience make for a powerful combination. This will be an afternoon to remember, for all.” McCabe, who calls North “a dear friend and mentor, and a meaningful presence in my life,” has joined her fellow pianist in rehearsal by playing the keyboard reductions of the orchestra parts to both concertos on North’s second piano.
Bright-eyed, gracious and full of good humor, North recounted some high and low points of her lengthy career in an interview at her Eastside home. She pointed to her battered, yellowing, weathered musical scores of the Mozart and Tchaikovsky concertos, explaining how she would quickly snatch them up and run for shelter when the World War II air raid sirens sounded in her native Tokyo as B-29 bombers roared overhead. No wonder these two scores have a special lifelong meaning for her.
She began her piano studies at age 4, when she couldn’t reach the pedals, and by age 6 she was playing her debut concert. At 9, North first performed the Mozart concerto that she’ll play in the April 16 concert. And at 12, in 1945, North played the Tchaikovsky concerto in a Japanese documentary designed for export to the U.S. She wore special padding and a steel helmet while walking to the film studio, as protection from the firebombing air raids. Later that year, the raids destroyed the film studio and all copies of the film.
During the U.S. postwar occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur heard North play, and he asked her to perform at his residence and for his official dinners. When he requested George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” she asked, “Who is Gershwin?” She soon found out, and his music became a staple of her early repertoire. Gen. MacArthur loved her rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” so much that he asked her to play it frequently, including in a 1947 memorial for the 10th anniversary of Gershwin’s death.
In 1951, the teenaged North — who spoke no English at the time — boarded an ocean liner to study in the United States, sponsored by the U.S. occupation forces (U.S. General Headquarters in Japan). She eventually arrived at the University of Oklahoma, where she studied English as well as music. This was the start of an educational journey that went on to a full scholarship at the Chicago Musical College (now the Chicago College of Performing Arts). She studied there with the Swiss American pianist/conductor Rudolph Ganz, and performed concerts in several states.
North went on to receive a full scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music and studied under renowned pianist/teacher Rosina Lhévinne, a highly influential mentor whose partisanship could make a student’s career. In that studio, her classmates included famous-pianists-in-the-making Van Cliburn, John Browning and Daniel Pollack. She also was awarded a Rockefeller grant in recognition of her musical achievements.
“I will never forget my audition for Mme. Lhévinne,” North recalls. “I had never played an audition before … just concerts. I played for her, and then I ran out of the studio, taking deep breaths. Right behind me was Mme. Lhévinne, shouting, ‘I will take you! Come tomorrow morning to my apartment.’ I don’t know how I did it!” Later, Lhévinne would choose her to assist with teaching private students, and to teach alongside her at the prestigious Aspen Festival.
In 1955, Michi married Charles Murray North, a conductor and professor, and the couple eventually settled in Bellevue. There, Michi Hirata North taught aspiring pianists, and she and her husband raised five sons: Michael, Tom, David, Kevin and Brian. She made regular trips to Taiwan to coach young piano students and train teachers. In her home studio, with two side-by-side concert grand pianos, North still teaches students and coaches professional players. Shinichi Suzuki, the violinist/teacher who developed the highly influential Suzuki Method of music instruction, designated her as a “master teacher” for Japan and the United States in 1993.
“I never push students to be professional,” she explains. “Even as a nonprofessional, you want to play well; I shoot for that.”
As the years go by, North is learning how to say no.
“I used to take 45 students,” she recalls. “Now I have nine. And I practice, too: I used to play eight hours a day, then six. Now I play two-and-a-half or three hours, then my back starts to hurt. I take a break and take a walk.
“But I still play. I still love it. It is my life.”
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