In a career that has spanned almost 30 years, Mitsuko Uchida (born 1948) has earned her title as one of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th century. She is most readily associated with her ability and recordings of Mozart's piano works and is a sought-after concert pianist worldwide.
Mitsuko Uchida was born in Tokyo, Japan, on December 20, 1948. She was the third child of Fukito Uchida, a diplomat, and Tasuko Uchida, a homemaker. Before Uchida was born her father had served in Europe in the Japanese diplomatic corps during World War II.
Uchida began her piano lessons when she was three years old as part of a traditional Japanese education. She quickly developed a love for classical music, especially Mozart, as she listened to her father's collection of European composers' recordings. She told the Detroit Free Press, "as a small child I remember vividly listening to Mozart again and again." Mozart would prove to be her life's passion at the piano. Although her parents probably never envisioned their daughter becoming one of the most important pianists of her generation, her gift was instantly recognizable from early on. Her father would proudly ask her to play for anyone who would listen. But as she told a group of students at Johns Hopkins once, "My parents wanted me to be an ordinary Japanese housewife. They gave me piano lessons so that I could make them proud… ." Little did they know that she would go on to become one of the great treasures of current classical music and considered one of the best interpreters of Mozart.
Uchida was an inquisitive youth with questions not only about her music but also about life in general. Her curiosity remained unfulfilled while living in Japan. In addition, the Japanese approach to teaching also seemed stifling to Uchida. "There is a tradition in Japanese society that one is not to question," she explained to the New York Times. The customary technique to music education in Japan focused more on the mechanical aspect of training, but Uchida sensed the need for a more interpretive training. Without the background of the Western music tradition, Japanese teachers taught the pure mechanics of the instrument instead of its musicality. She resented the endless rules about notes and formulas because she just wanted to be able to feel and play the music.
At the age of 12, Uchida and her family moved to Vienna, Austria, where her father was a member of the Japanese diplomatic mission. It was in Vienna that Uchida's eagerness for Western music could be satiated. Though the culture was accessible to her, she still did not seem to find what she was searching for musically. While she learned German and began her musical studies in the Viennese school of music under Richard Hauser at the Vienna Academy of Music, she still felt restricted by her instructors. As she related to the New York Times, it was "full of fixed ideas. There are masses of do's and don'ts, and 'music should be played this way.' So I had to get out of that."
Once she came to this realization, Uchida moved to London and ended her formal education at age 22. Enticed by London's independent musical atmosphere, it was there that English became her third "first" language and where she still makes her home. In London Uchida was finally free to explore music on her own terms. For the next several years, Uchida taught herself. She spent all her time studying and listening to music, especially the recordings of the celebrated pianists and conductors of the 20th century. She was especially drawn to Fritz Busch's recordings of Mozart, and her music seemed to go in a new direction. Busch's tasteful liberties with Mozart influenced Uchida to concentrate on the immortal composer's music with great detail, especially the sonatas and piano concertos.
It was playing Mozart's music that gave Uchida her first taste of success. Though she placed first in Vienna's Beethoven Competition in 1969 and second in both Britain's Leeds International and the Warsaw Chopin Competition, these competitions did little to advance or even begin her career. This was acceptable to Uchida, however, who held the belief that a career could and should unfold slowly and at the one's own pace. As she told to Ovation, "My life has been built very slowly and securely. If the career goes ahead of you, there will be one day when you fall off of it."
Clearly to Uchida the music is more important than the public image. But the public, once they heard Uchida's mastery, applauded her as one of her profession's finest. It was in 1982 when she gave a series of concerts of the complete Mozart sonatas when listeners in great numbers sat up and took notice of her talent for the first time. Though clearly regarded as one of the finest composers, Mozart's piano sonatas have sometimes been dubbed simplistic. This simply was not so under the careful study and performance of Uchida, who captivated spectators with her thoughtful and intense interpretation of the pieces.
Her reviewers of this series had nothing but radiant praise to bestow upon her. Biography Today quoted a London Times critic who noted: "She does not sing the music; she exists in it." The interviewer had an astute observation; Uchida feels strongly about her interpretation of the music she plays and the relationship she has with the composer. She also has a humble opinion of her ability. From an interview that she had with Catherine Pate of the London Symphony Orchestra Uchida confided, "All I want is that the people will pick up the beauty of Mozart. I don't care if they forget it was me playing it as long as they feel the music!"
A few years after her innovative performances of Mozart's sonatas, she presented all 21 piano concertos in a series of concerts with the English Chamber Orchestra. She conducted these concertos from the piano over the 1985-1986 concert season. Again both audiences and critics were smitten by her ability and expression. She had made the music of Mozart her own while still keeping his intent in the forefront of the music in a way that few performers had been able to achieve. As she revealed in Time, Mozart's music is a "kind of world in itself … so complete that you can forget about the rest. Then you come out, and you are blinded."
The series of sonata and concerto concerts propelled Uchida into the worldwide spotlight. Soon she was performing in concert halls all over the world and recording award-winning CDs. She has recorded her performances of Mozart's piano concertos and sonatas, as well as pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussey, and Schubert, just to name a few. Her 2001 recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto has won four awards including a Gramophone Award for the best concerto recording.
In preparation for her career and indeed, her mastery of any piece that she chooses to perform, Uchida undertakes the task with intricate deliberation. Not only does she study the music and writings of the composer, but she also searches for insight into what the composer was thinking and how his ideas came about. It was this knowledge of music she craved as a youth in Japan but could not find. Now on her own she was free to discover it. She does this in part by examining music theory with Heinrich Schenker, a theorist, editor, and pianist who is known for his revolutionary method of musical analysis. He has been a great influence on her as she told a group of students she spoke to in 1998 at Johns Hopkins University. "I have found his analysis fascinating… ."
Uchida brings this knowledge and careful preparation to her performances, where audiences and critics alike are privy to it. Critics have praised her incessantly. Time wrote that she "plays … with a remarkable combination of energy and tenderness, a considerable rhythmic freedom and a lovely tone." In the American Record Guide Shirley Fleming wrote "Her range of touch is extraordinary… . Perhaps her overriding characteristic is lyrical flow, captured in … complete elegance of phrasing." Louis Gerber identified her as an artist with "refreshing interpretations of Beethoven's works and clear and pure playing." Uchida has absolutely earned her reputation as one of the world's supreme concert pianists.
By most standards, Uchida is conservative in how many concerts she will give in a year. She tries to keep the number between 50 and 60 a year, though she has done 70 once. She told the New York Times, "It was excessively hard for me. If you stick to two piano concertos plus one recital program, you can play 100 concerts. But I like to play different things. The repertory is so vast." In addition to wanting to play a more varied concert program, she is careful to restrict her numbers to ward off burnout. Even so, she is incredibly busy as an artist. In 1998 she was named the first woman director of the Ojai Music Festival in California. At the same time, she was acting as co-director of the Marlboro Festival in Vermont. She was also an Artist-in-Residence at the Cleveland Orchestra.
Undaunted by the bias the profession has for younger musicians, Uchida has already made plans to perform a series of concerts in 2018. According to Biography Today, "She is already preparing for a series of concerts she plans to give … when she turns 70. That year, she plans to perform Bach's Goldberg Variations and all 48 of his Preludes and Fugues." The music will take her years to prepare, but she is looking forward to it. It is still a joy for her to play the instrument after so many years.
Life outside of performing for Uchida is still consumed with the piano and music. She is a confirmed Londoner and lives in a house there with a separate studio that houses her five pianos. She has never married and has never had children, believing, according to Biography Today, that her career would not have been possible if she had had a child. Because of the travel required, as well as preparation, both children and her work would have suffered greatly. In this way, though she enjoys other activities such as reading and theater, she has little time for much else other than music and it is a positive choice that Uchida has made. As she told Catherine Pate in an interview, "I have no other passions. I like other things, but I only have enough room for one real passion, and that is music."
Harris, Laurie Lanzen, Biography Today, Omnigraphics, Inc., 1999.
American Record Guide, March-April 1996.
The Detroit Free Press, November 28, 1984.
The New York Times, February 23, 1988; October 16, 1988.
Ovation, October 1988.
Time, March 25, 1991.
"Interview-Mitsuko Uchida," The London Symphony Orchestra website, http://www.lso.co.uk/newsfeatures/uchida.html (January 30, 2003).
"Mitsuko Uchida," Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 1989.
"Mitsuko Uchida Biography," Arts Management Group, Inc. website, http://artsmg.com/uchida.htm (January 30, 2003).
"Uchida Speaks at Peabody," Johns Hopkins University website, http://www.jhu.edu/~newslett/03-03-98/Arts/5.html (January 30, 2003).