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Culture news, 09.11.2004 13:45

The keys to success

japanese_pianist The St.Petersburg Times

By Mayura Koiwai

Special to the St.Petersburg Times

Photo by Alexander Belenky / SPT

Mutsuko Dohi, the first Japanese pianist to earn a doctorate in music at St. Petersburg's Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, a woman who won second prize at two international piano competitions in Russia and Ukraine, is to perform with the Hermitage Theater's orchestra during a month-long tour of Japan this fall.

She also plans a solo concert at the Hermitage Theater, a concert venue within the buildings of the State Hermitage, in January and another concert during a Japan-Russia cultural festival supported by the Japanese consulate in March.

"I hope that the listeners not only notice my playing beautifully but also are moved by what I am feeling," says Dohi. "I hope that the audience will receive something inspirational during my concerts."

Coming to St. Petersburg was her destiny, says Dohi.

What motivated her to come here from Japan in 1996 was a photo of the Smolny Convent on the back of playing cards given to her by a friend. The convent looked so beautiful that she was eager to see it in person. She was also curious about the conservatory from which Pyotr Tchaikovsky had graduated and the city where other famous figures in the world of music had lived.

She decided to enroll in a two-week piano course at the conservatory, with the intention of taking a fruitful summer vacation.

Dohi's knowledge of Russia before visiting St. Petersburg was limited - and influenced by the negative news she had seen about Russia in Japan. But when she arrived she was shocked, she says, by the wide gap between her image of Russia and the country in reality. For instance, she says she was surprised by well-dressed Russian women and how European the city seemed.

After a concert at the end of the course at the conservatory, a teacher invited Dohi to enroll in its two-year undergraduate course without taking an exam.

Back in Japan, however, Dohi had abundant opportunities to teach and play piano and she turned down the offer.

But, she says, the idea of studying in St. Petersburg attracted her so much that she continued to think about going back to the conservatory. But studying in Russia for two years was a tough choice for her because she would have to quit her jobs in Japan. Finally, she decided she would regret having missed the chance to study in St. Petersburg more than missing opportunities in Japan - and made the leap.

After completing the undergraduate program at the conservatory, she moved on to its two-year graduate course. While studying piano in St. Petersburg, she was asked to perform at concerts. She took these jobs and has been working in Russia as a pianist ever since.

Dohi first received music lessons from her mother, a piano teacher, when she was 3 years old and her mother saw her "playing" a desk as if it was a piano.

As Dohi grew up, her mother decided to let her to take lessons from other teachers. Dohi describes the teachers as "scary," "very strict," and "enthusiastic." But she also says that when she had not practiced, she was sometimes kicked or beaten by her tutors. After such hard lessons, she vowed she would quit piano.

Dohi says she planned to stop taking lessons after a piano recital in high school. For this supposedly last recital, Dohi practiced to the best of her ability, wanting to do well because she imagined the concert to be her last. Ironically, the dedication she showed caused her to re-evealuate her interest in a career as a pianist after one of her teachers recommended that she become a professional.

Looking back, Dohi thanks the tough teachers whose discipline led her to pursue her career. If the teachers had been kind all the time, she would have played piano as a hobby, not as a profession, she says.

Despite her professional success, Dohi still experiences stagefright and admits to great anxiety before every concert. She says she calms herself by reminding herself that performing in a concert is better than going to the dentist.

Dohi says she recognizes that a certain amount of tension contributes to the success of her concerts, She says she deals with the stress by chatting with friends or taking taking trips out of the city. St. Petersburg's historical center also distracts her: its architecture reminds her of favorite novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially in fall and winter.

Dohi prefers performing with ensembles to solo concerts because it allows her to create one unified work of music with her partners. She also enjoys performing with orchestras in various places in Russia.

Dohi says that pianists in Russia enjoy a higher status than those in Japan. For example, Russian people tend to treat pianists as equal partners of singers, while Japanese people tend to view pianists as mere accompanists.

Playing piano is more than using ones hands and fingertips, she says. It also requires brainwork. Dohi imagines her sound first, and then tries to produce an actual sound to match.

"My thought passes through my senses which are connected to my hands. When I place my fingers on the keys, the piano produces sound..." she says. "I hope I am a pianist who can transmit my thought through my fingertips."

For Dohi, the warmth of the Russian people, their somewhat "earthy" attitudes, their music and their country's climate seem similar to those of Japan, perhaps because she comes from Hokkaido, in north Japan.

When she returns to Russia after visiting other countries, she relaxes and feels at home although she cannot fully enter into Russian society, mainly because a Russian law prohibits state-owned theaters from hiring non-Russian citizens.

While studying and working in Russia, Dohi has had opportunities to introduce Japanese music and culture to Russian people. As a result, she has learned about, and has come to appreciate, Japanese melodies and cultural elements which she had not consciously noticed when she was in Japan.

Yasunobu Osaki, a diplomatic sta-ffer at the Japanese consulate in St. Petersburg, describes Dohi as a person who does not advertise herself very much and yet who enjoys talking if someone draws her out. During the interview, although she began speaking in a somewhat nervous voice, she soon relaxed and talked in her usual joyous voice punctuated by occasional laughter.

Dohi's St. Petersburg apartment has Japanese and Russian decorations that add a unique air to her multi-purpose living room that she uses as a bedroom, piano room and studying place.

Genrietta Serova, Dohi's piano professor who trained her at the conservatory for four years, says that Dohi is a good pianist and good friend with a curious and intelligent mind and a warm heart, and who has achieved her goals. Dohi can express herself through the piano, Serova adds.

Dohi says: "I am sometimes thrilled by really a beautiful sound, by a short piano melody played casually by my teacher."

Dohi hopes that her listeners will feel similarly when they listen to her playing.

"I hope to hold a concert where at least one person is moved by it ... and returns home with something remaining in his or her heart."

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(c) 2000