May 11, 2019

Schumann and Tomoko's Turns in Life

Tomoko often performs pieces from the Romantic era, when music became more complex and expressive. This music’s themes typically touched on nature and the fantastic.  

German composers were the vanguards of Romantic music, and the Robert Schuman was considered one of the best German composers of that time.  Yet his life took several turns.

Even before formally studying music at age seven, Schuman was composing. Nevertheless, after his father died when Schumann was 16 years old, he studied law instead of music as part of the terms of his inheritance and because his surviving family did not support his musical dreams.

Schumann still took piano lessons, and his teacher thought he had a great future as a concert pianist. However, Schuman’s hand became afflicted so he focused on composing instead. There is a certain irony about Schumann’s affliction, as Tomoko points out: “Schumann can be hard to play because of the expertise needed by both hands.”

Schumann eyed blossoming pianist Clara Wieck when she was only 15 years old. Her father was strictly against their courtship, and it took almost six years of legal battling for them to marry. However, that delay motivated Schumann to write at least 138 songs in one year, inspired by his love to Clara during that delay. Clara proved to be a great business partner and confidante for Schumann. After he died at age 46, Clara performed professionally and became the main editor of his work. Tomoko praises Clara, “Schumann himself didn’t play the piano; his wife did. His wife was accomplished in everything.”

About his compositions, Tomoko explains, “ “His mind becomes the melody, but it is hard to teach a student to play his music. You need a lot of spirit and imagination.” Therefore, Tomoko recommends that players should be in their thirties before attempting Schumann.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that Tomoko performs Schumann since her fingers are agile and her own spirit is so expressive. And as Tomoko’s own life has taken many turns since she was born in Japan, it is fitting that one of her favorite Schumann compositions is “Scenes from Childhood #1: From Foreign Lands and People,” which Tomoko performs on her album Baroque-20th Century, available at

April 26, 2019

Bravo for Beethoven

In comparing piano composers, Tomoko asserts: “Some composers are harder because they are more complex, such as Beethoven.” In that vein, Tomoko says that choosing pieces by composers should consider the performer’s age; “Beethoven is good for pianists in their 40s because of Beethoven’s depth and mystery.” Tomoko continues: “Beethoven’s music conveys his emotion, which was so strong inside.”

As one would suspect, Tomoko enjoys playing Beethoven compositions. When she performed with violinist Ernestine Riedel Chihuaria, their repertoire included sonatas and duos by Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. In her CD “Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann,” Tomoko performed Beethoven’s “Fantasia in g minor B flat major, Opus 77.” (1809).

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 and died in 1827. He was largely influenced by the Viennese classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn, but developed his own individual style that presaged the Romantic era – and has influenced musicians ever since.

At the time that Beethoven composed the above fantasia, he was in his middle heroic period, as his deafness began. More specifically, the year 1809 was sorrowful for Beethoven. France occupied Vienna, where Beethoven was living. His patron Archduke Rudolph and many of the Viennese fled the city. The piece was first published in 1810 in Leipzig and London, and was dedicated to Count Franz von Brunsvik. Beethoven had been enamored with the count’s sister, Josephine, who was a widow with children. While Beethoven wanted to be even closer to Josephine, in 1810 she married a baron instead. During that summer Beethoven wrote this composition, and spent much time with Franz.

As for the style of the composition, it followed in the tradition of the fantasy genre, which started centuries earlier. By the 19th century, this genre implied a sense of freedom and even chaos hiding an underlying structural framework. Thus this piece is sometimes considered a studied improvisation, going through several tempos and meters, never developing a unified theme, but rather using fermatas to indicate different sections. Nevertheless, Beethoven’s composition reveals a coherent if capricious structure.

Surprisingly, this work is not well known nor frequently played. So listeners especially appreciate Tomoko’s performance of this unique composition.

April 13, 2019

Bravo for Bartók

One of Tomoko’s favorite composers to perform is Bela Bartók. In her CD “Touria” (available from Amazon), Bartók is the featured composers, showcasing six Rumanian folk dances frp, 1915, seventeen Hungarian and Slovak folk melodies, and “Allegro Barbaro” (1911).

Like Tomoko’s husband Desi, Bartók was born in Hungary (although Bartók’s town came under Romanian rule later on).  And like Desi, Bartók fled his country for America during war times. In Bartók’s case, his anti-Nazi sentiments endangered him. Nevertheless, Bartók always maintained a Hungarian spirit and sense of nationalism.

Bartók showed early musical talent, and gave his first public piano recital at age 11 in 1892 with his own composition, written two years earlier. Among his teachers was a pupil of Hungarian Franz Liszt. Later he was influenced by Richard Strauss and French composer Claude Debussy. In turn, Bartók taught Lili Kraus, one of Tomoko’s professional friends. 

Bartók’s compositions often built on folk music, particularly Rumanian folk dances. Bartók was not only a composer but also an ethnomusicologist, collecting and researching traditional Magyar folk melodies just as nationalism was blooming. Tomoko points out, “The folk inspiration fostered music that came from the heart, and yet how the composers built upon that folk music helped them express their own individuality.”

Bartók played “Allegro Barbaro” privately ten years before the published version of this short dance-like piece was performed publicly in 1921. Each of his pre-published performance was unique, changing speed as well as accents and dynamics. The piece’s title translates into “brisk barbarian”, which was an ironic reference to critics’ labelling of Bartók and his colleagues as young barbarians. Interestingly, the piece was based on Ravel’s “Scarbo.” The final rendition offers a unique counterbalancing of French and Hungarian folk melodies. The tonal pitch is constant, but the major, major and modal relations around it change. “Allegro Barbaro” has two themes, alternating between F# and F. The cadences are surprising, jagged, irregular but they still have chromatic motion. Even this this piece was written relatively early in his career, his compositional style was already mature.

It is no wonder that Tomoko appreciates Bartók: he brings cultural understanding to create an original compelling sound.  And Tomoko brings her own performance gifts to provide a unique experience for her own listeners.