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Beethoven’s “Emperor,” with Uchida and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Mitsuko Uchida sits on a piano bench against a black background. She leans her elbow on the piano in front of her and rests her chin on her fist. She wears an off-white, knit turtleneck and black pants. She has salt and pepper hair that curls and reaches her shoulders. Her dark eyes look at the camera expectantly.
Decca and Justin Pomfrey
Mitsuko Uchida

Saturday, October 29th, 2022

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida is the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Andris Nelsons harnesses the full force of the BSO in Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 5 on demand.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5

In a conversation with CRB's Brian McCreath, Mitsuko Uchida describes the exceptional qualities of collaborating with Andris Nelsons and the BSO, how her annual time at Vermont's Marlboro Festival informs her concerto performances, and what recording Beethoven's Diabelli Variations revealed to her about the composer. To listen, use the player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Mitsuko Uchida, who has returned to Boston for Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor Concerto. Mitsuko, it's so good to meet you and so good to talk with you. Thank you for being here.

Mitsuko Uchida It's wonderful to talk to you, Brian.

Brian McCreath You have deep relationships with lots of orchestras, and especially, I think, when I think of your name most recently, I think of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Mitsuko Uchida Yes, of the American ones, Cleveland orchestra a lot. And also, peculiarly, a lot with Chicago Symphony.

Brian McCreath Yes, yes.

Mitsuko Uchida Also doing Mozart concerti. But also because somehow I'm one of the rare people, but maybe not, but that who get on with Maestro [Riccardo] Muti [Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director]. And I love working with, making music with Mr. Muti, and he apparently likes to do it with me, too. So Chicago is very close. But Boston is becoming closer, more and more close because of, well, I used to come here with Seiji [Ozawa, former BSO Music Director], and I even worked with [former BSO Principal Guest Conductor] Colin Davis as well as Kurt Sandlerling...

Brian McCreath Yes.

Mitsuko Uchida ... with Boston. But somehow then there was a pause. And then Andris [Nelsons, BSO Music Director] came and I really, really think he's wonderful.

Brian McCreath Well, tell me more about that. What is it that you find when you work with Andris that sparks your imagination or your creativity? What is it about that collaboration that works?

Mitsuko Uchida Well, Andris has got this something. He stands in front of an orchestra and the orchestra people, their eyes lit up and they want to play their best for Andris. And that is his strength, and that somehow the music flows in every blood vessel of his body. And that is the feeling I get with Andris because there are so many different people. I adored his mentor, Mariss Jansons, who sort of discovered Andris when he was a trumpeter in the youth orchestra, or something like that. And I loved working with Mariss. But he's extremely precise, and he comes, and you meet up with Mariss and, you know, he has looked at a piano concerto, regardless of what, as if he were the pianist who had to play every note. I mean, the precision of Mariss's preparation and intensity of Mariss was amazing. But now with Andris, it's not intensity of his having worked. No, he stands there and does something and the people want to play beautifully. So that's the wonderful thing.

Brian McCreath Well, this gets to the question that I had referencing your deeper relationships with Cleveland and Chicago in this country, others in your, Mahler Chamber Orchestra. These groups, you arrive at Severance Hall, say, in Cleveland, and there's a dialog that you've already had.

Mitsuko Uchida Yeah.

Brian McCreath In Boston, you arrive for Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. And how do you, with Andris, instantly come up with your approach, your common approach to the Emperor Concerto?

Mitsuko Uchida Let's see. Let me have each piece. Each piece of music is different. So, but this time we have got half hour meet before the first rehearsal on the day before. And in that half an hour, I shall have to have worked out with Andris what my ideas are and what his ideas might be for us to come close. And that is different with every conductor. And some conductors wouldn't even want to do it, particularly the great ones. And interestingly, Maestro Muti does want to do it because he started as a youngster working with Sviatoslav Richter. And Richter demanded working and working, preparing with him. Yeah? So, he likes to do it, and I love to do it. And that's why we in first place got on so well, because I asked to do when I first worked with him, not knowing that he would want it or not. And within a day, the answer came yes, he wants to to meet up. But Andris also we will meet up, but, for example, Kurt Sanderling, with whom I worked so much, no, we just, he started conducting and I knew. Yeah? He knew what I might want.

Brian McCreath But now, when you sit then after that preparation with Andris and you sit down in front of the Boston Symphony, their sound and the way that they make sounds happen through their instruments is very different from Cleveland or Chicago.

Mitsuko Uchida Or Chicago or any other orchestra. Each orchestra is its own organism. It is like a human being, one human being different from another.

Brian McCreath And so does that.... Do you then sometimes hear what happens and respond instantly with what you're...

Mitsuko Uchida Of course you have to, because, unless you do response, it is somebody else playing one piece and you come play as you planned to play. There is no planning. Every collaboration, everything that you do, whether it is chamber music, that is, being chamber music, it is very, very clear. You listen to everything that happens around you, and you have to adjust to every player. And then somehow with a lot of rehearsal time, work, it happens.

That is what I do in Marlboro [Music Festival in Vermont]. And we spend so much time, you cannot imagine. Now, with concerti, as there is a conductor, there is one organism, or one big person being there. Now they will adjust to me as well, as well as I adjust to them. And there is the additional matter of the piano that is a different piano from anywhere else. And then the acoustics of the Boston Symphony Hall is very special, and it is gigantic. How many seats? I ask people and nobody is that clear. 2,000?

Brian McCreath 2,600.

Mitsuko Uchida 26, you see.

Brian McCreath Yeah, 2,600.

Mitsuko Uchida 2,600. That is very big. Of course, the only one more hall that is larger and is miraculous is Carnegie Hall, and that is over 3,000. But the interesting thing is, in Carnegie, you come out and the floor space is not that big, but it goes up very high. So, you come out and you don't feel the hugeness. And maybe it's also that I have played in the Carnegie so, so many times. But Boston Symphony Hall, each time I play here, it is a rediscovery of the piano and the orchestra together. So I look forward.

Brian McCreath You've anticipated so many questions that were already in my mind. And one is your work at Marlboro and the chamber music you do there, and under those particular circumstances with the students and other faculty that you collaborate with, and what that means. I'm curious about what that means for your performances in concertos during the regular season, as we might put it.

Mitsuko Uchida Yes. Well, it changes you. I mean, the years that I am as a Co-Director in Marlboro, it's I think only 22 years. And before that, I was still on top of it another seven or eight years involved as a very vague title of the Special Advisor for whatever musical, whatever, whatever. Yeah? As it was, as Marlboro is known to be vague about these titles in the olden days, more so than now. And that means that I missed three years in all those 29 or so years, three summers. Otherwise I was there. And that gave me, particularly the last few years, oh, then one more year because of the pandemic. But what happens is, the way that you work out how to work with other people, making the best out of the other people, as well as trying to work out the best out of me, yeah? And if I didn't do it, it is difficult. And because I would be the senior, yeah? OK, we call us, I call myself, I am an "oldie," so I here we are. And I might even, for a bigger group, like a quintet, I might have another string "oldie," yeah? Or if it is, say, Mozart or Beethoven, the Wind and Piano Quintet, I might have one more "oldie" person. But, otherwise, up to piano quartet, I would be facing three young people from the different corners of the world playing together. And each person has a different way of playing, different ideas, if they have any. And also different egos. And it is the point of the ego how to let them out, some people need to be freed, some people have to be, rather, adjusted to come with the others, and so on. And it is an act of, ultimately, it is an act of love. And that, if it happens, it is extraordinary.

And last summer, as it was still difficult, although the world is opening up, but we had had also for the rehearsals with singers and wind players, it was very controlled and particularly the singers, they spit smack into you, see? And so we had the first eight rows were free in the concert hall, and so on. And rehearsals, they were mainly in the concert hall stages or in the biggest rehearsal rooms. And we would take distance to each other. And I couldn't face, I knew that I wouldn't be able to risk having a choir of varied people, locals, kids, and you name them, come in and spit over the other string players and the instrumental players. And at the end of the festival, we would have five or six people, infected people leaving Marlboro. I mean, I knew that it was not possible. So we got rid of the singers and the choir. So it was a great pity because [each summer] we always end with [Beethoven's] Choral Fantasy. Because [Marlboro founder and pianist Rudolf] Serkin, as he might have put it, if we could commission a piece to end Marlboro, this would have been it. And it exists, so therefore we have to do it, because that is the piano, and then a certain number of wind players, as if in a chamber music situation. And then the choir comes in and the singers, the solo singers come in, and then it ends, praising the beauty and strength of music, yeah? And we have, in the chorus, dishwashers and cleaning crew, local kids, everybody, yeah? Or some stupid pianist who can't play, that sort of thing. So this is saying thank you to, well, to something that Marlboro happen yet again.

But we couldn't do it this year. So I directed just the string players and just the instrumental players without oboe because it happened to be [Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 in A,] K.488, I directed and played. And it was an extraordinary experience because most of them have never played it. But these are not orchestra players, you see? And we had one extra rehearsal more than usual, but still, from there, by the time the concert happened, it was such an incredible experience. And somebody listening to it said, "Everybody played with so much love." And that was said before I said that is that point. No, somebody said it. It was an extraordinary event. And so that person didn't say, "Oh, you played with so much love towards them." [laughs] But anyway, so there are amazing things that can happen.

And I go out away from Marlboro. Seven weeks is the long time. And five weeks is the shorter one. I now, I divide with [Co-Artistic Director and pianist] Jonathan Biss, and one summer I have seven weeks, he has five. And the next year I shall have five weeks and Jonathan seven. And so, since we have this set up now, I go away enriched and having learned. So that is why I am continuing all the time. It is a hell of a long time out of my life every year. But I think I learned by doing so what difference it is also to play solo with an orchestra. And each orchestra has a different sound. And also Boston Symphony has a specific grand sound, different from the grand sound of Chicago. Cleveland is not a grand sound. It used to be transparent sound. But they are changing. So each one is different. But having said grand sound or not, but it's different. So I am waiting for the first E-flat chord [of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5], and then it will start from there.

Brian McCreath And along with all of those orchestras, what you're saying is that you take from Marlboro and come to the stage with these groups with the same approach, with love.

Mitsuko Uchida Yes.

Brian McCreath You want to help the players in the orchestra at their best.

Mitsuko Uchida I want to be helped by them. And then you look at them, and when eyes meet with the players, they always react.

Brian McCreath Yes. Yes. Earlier this year, you released a recording for the first time in a number of years. I think, [Beethoven's] Diabelli Variations.

Mitsuko Uchida Yes, that's it. Almost, soon to be a year since I'd recorded it.

Brian McCreath And so what made this the right time? Because it's not a piece that you had recorded before. And I don't know...

Mitsuko Uchida Of course not. But I have been learning it and working on it and working and working and thinking almost about nothing but that for the last well over ten years. And I have played in concerts and then I wanted to have recorded it before. But some things happened. Once was because I was having terribly bad vertigo and those things. Then the pandemic happened. And so it got postponed twice.

And I remember having a conversation, well, this is well over ten years ago, or five years ago or so with my dear, dear late Radu Lupu. He was, for nearly 50 years, one of my close friends. And not that we are talking every week or every month. But then whenever I picked up a phone and phoned him, [it was] as if nothing broke off. So one day I was pestering him about this and that, and he was much lazier than me. And I was much more diligent. And I told him, you know what? I have started working on the Diabelli Variations. And there was a pause at his side. And he said. "Don't you know that you are 60?" [laughs] And I said, "Of course I know. That's why I'm doing it. If I didn't do it now, I shall never do it." So therefore, yeah? And he wished me good luck. [laughs] But now, yeah, now, as he is not [with us] anymore, but here we are. Otherwise I would have gloated to him, "You see? I've done it."

Brian McCreath Well, when you spend that much time in a single piece, a massive piece of music, but certainly a single piece of music.

Mitsuko Uchida Of course, yeah, yeah.

Brian McCreath What did the Diabelli Variations reveal to you about Beethoven, which you might now also carry into the Piano Concerto Number Five?

Mitsuko Uchida Of course, because this is the culmination of his piano composition altogether. And it has got more variety and more vision, wide vision than almost any other piece. And I would say it goes further than the Hammerklavier [Piano Sonata No. 29], because Hammerklavier, in a way, it is very complex and complicated and wonderful and everything. I adore that piece. Don't forget, I don't think that I, I sneer at this piece. It's one of the most amazing pieces, and yet it's more straightforward to play. But of course, the bad news of Hammerklavier is that the fugue comes at the end of 30 odd minutes. You still have to play that fugue. That is the worst bit. And then this strange thinking and his attempt to do it, which he did often, the theme of the first movement is avoidance of the Dominant [key center]. [Piano Sonata No. 28, Opus] 101 is avoidance of the Tonic. And that has been very much copied by [Robert] Schumann in [his] Fantasy [in C, Op. 17]. Schumann Fantasy first movement is avoidance of the Tonic, but he does it so obviously, and it is a gigantic movement. And then it goes on and you wait and wait and wait. And the Tonic never really, really happens. He brushes on the top of it, but he goes away. He doesn't really, it doesn't get into [it], and at the very end, when it comes to [sings] it's just so moving.

But [Beethoven's Opus] 101? He doesn't even do it. But he doesn't make you fret about the missing Tonic either. It's so beautiful, and it's so deep, and you love it. And then it never is there. So, the Diabelli is rather very close to [Opus] 109, 110, and 111. And those three pieces have one thing in common, that is the intervalic developments of 109 and 110 are basically twins, as it were, and 111 jumps off it. But 111 has got the closest link to the Diabelli because of the ending, that is the closest and then furthest events, sounding so similar and the meaning of it is so different.

But the intervalic matter of Fourth and Third [sings]. This is Fourth and Third, and that is 109 and 110. And 111 stretches it. But [Diabelli] has got the joke factor of not having really loved that theme in first place, and then realizing how useful some of the materials were. He uses every bit of the material to the hilt.

Brian McCreath This is in the Diabelli.

Mitsuko Uchida The Diabelli, yeah. And to that extent that it becomes riveting. And then the composition got broke off halfway through. And then he finished 110, 111, and then came Missa Solemnis, as well. And only then did he finish that Diabelli, and the last 11 [variations] that he composed, he added. They make that piece truly great. Up to then, [there are] fantastic complications and imagination and his gleefulness about having yet again found something so interesting from that benign theme. But in the end, it's not that gleefulness, but it is the different vision, different depth, different soul. And really digging deeply into the soul. And because of that having happened, that the Diabelli has got everything. So it is possibly the widest ranging piece that he ever composed. And it certainly helped me also be, stick my elbow out for the sake of the Fifth Concerto. [laughs]

Brian McCreath That's a great way to put it. That's wonderful. That's fantastic.

Well, Mitsuko Uchita, it's so good to have you here in Boston. And thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Mitsuko Uchida Thank you.