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Interview with Reiko Yamada

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Reiko Yamada currently serves as principal keyboard of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. She formerly served in that capacity with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago as principal keyboard from 1996 to 1998, and she had appeared as a supplemental keyboardist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also particiapted in a CSO chamber music series in 2001 and in a Fontana chamber music concert series in 2003 and 2004. She was a faculty member of Saint Xavier University.

As a recitalist and chamber musician, she has performed extensively in the United States and Japan. A native of Tochigi, Japan, Yamada holds a bachelor's degree from the Tokyo College of Music.

She came to Chicago in 1990 and subsequently studied with Ludmilla Lazar and David Schrader at Roosevelt University's Chicago Music College (Chicago College of Performing Arts) from which she graduated with a master's degree in piano performance. She also had studied in a piano performance certificate program at DePaul University, where she was a student of Mary Sauer and Roger Goodman.


During her studies at the Tokyo College of Music in the 1980's, Yamada studied under Akira Ifukube. In more recent years, Yamada met with Ifukube several times to discuss his scores in preperation for performances of his music.

Yamada performed as a soloist for Ifukube's Ritmica Ostinata per Pianoforte ed Orchestra with the Tochigi Symphony Orchestra under Masaaki Hayakawa's direction on June 18, 2006. She performed more of Ifukube's music at a commemortive concert in Nikko, Japan on December 17, 2006. On March 28, 2008, Yamada and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchrestra under the baton of Raymond Harvey gave the United States premiere of Ritmica Ostinata at the Miller Auditorium. (The webmaster was in attendance for this performance!)

AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG warmly thanks Mrs. Yamada for taking the time to share her experiences with maestro Ifukube and her thoughts about his music. The interview was conducted by Erik Homenick, the webmaster of AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG.

Erik Homenick: How did you become interested in music, in particular, the piano?


Reiko Yamada: My father was a traditional folk song (minyō) singer when he was young. He used to sing songs when he drank sake, Japanese rice wine. His brothers and family gathered at our house once a year for the Bon festival and enjoyed drinking and singing at dinner.

My mother and older brother liked to listen to music and my older sister had already been taking piano lessons when I was born. I became naturally interested in music and started playing piano in my older sister’s footsteps.

EH: In the 1980s, you studied under maestro Ifukube at the Tokyo College of Music. Please tell me a little about your experiences studying with him.
RY: Since I was a piano major student, I was not allowed to take his seminars for composition major students. I obtained his permission to attend the seminars as an audit student. It was held once a week with about twelve  to twenty students in the class. Maestro Ifukube was always well dressed with a bow tie. He was generous with great manners and truly a gentleman. He treated us politely, even though we were just college students.

The seminar was like a salon in style; we talked over a cup of hot tea, and some students were smoking cigarettes, as did maestro Ifukube. We discussed all kinds of subjects such as ethnology, culture, orchestration, history of instruments, manners of the tea ceremony, films, criticism, and acoustic vibration. All subjects were fascinating to me. He was able to explain the essence of true music with accessible examples. His knowledge was astonishing as if he were a dictionary. He seemed to know everything.

We sometimes went with maestro Ifukube to a coffee shop after class to continue our discussions. When he had to attend an orchestra rehearsal for one of his compositions on a seminar day, he invited us to observe the rehearsal. The insight and knowledge I gained through four years of his seminars are very precious to me and still helpful in my career as a performer and educator.









EH: How did you become interested in Ritmica Ostinata?
RY: One of my friends who studied with maestro Ifukube introduced me Ritmica Ostinata since I was interested in contemporary music. I was greatly impressed by the music right away. I felt that this composer was someone very special and for that reason, I decided to pursue his instruction. While I was very interested in learning Ritmica Ostinata, I felt that it was impossible to perform such a difficult piece. The score also was not commercially available at that time.

After many years of living away from Japan in the U.S., I began to reflect again on the teaching of maestro Ifukube. In my quest to find a deeper artistic identity, I was reminded of his remarks about the understanding of one’s own ethnic/cultural identity as a starting point to taking the ultimate step of creating art of universal significance. I still remember some of his comments on the matter:


“I pursue my composition with abundant spiritual force, soul, and vitality rather than national and heuristic emphasis. Ritmica Ostinata is in a sense my absolute music. I composed Ritmica Ostinata as an embodiment of the Japanese spirituality inherited through thousands of years.”


It became clear to me learning this great work would be essential for me to discover my own artistic identity.

EH: You had personally visited Ifukube-sensei several time at his home in Tokyo to ask him about Ritmica Ostinata. Please tell me about your visits to his home.


RY: Actually, I visited maestro Ifukube once in September in 2005. I had visited him several times after moving to the U.S., and he always extended a warm welcome to me.

















When I left his house, he would always come by the front door to see me off which is a very respectful gesture in Japanese culture by a man of his stature. (I believe that he did it to everyone.) I felt such honor to be in his presence that it was at times hard for me to begin conversation, but he could always made the topic lively with his large stock of knowledge and great humor.

The last visit in 2005 was wonderful opportunity for me to discuss several things about Ritmica Ostinata with him. His physical strength had declined a bit, but he was in full of spirit. Maestro Ifukube thought that when a composition is really complete, the music should stand on its own feet. Hence, he never suggested much about the piece to performers except when attending rehearsals or recording sessions. Otherwise, he would say, “ There are many ways to express the music, so please perform it any way you believe.” However, I did ask several questions about Ritmica Ostinata to maestro Ifukube, and he answered me, sometimes indirectly. He brought out some interesting examples and stories to help me find the answer to my questions. It really helped me understand his music better. I was hoping to play Ritmica Ostinata for him and getting his comments before the performance and also hoped that he would attend my concert. I am very sorry he departed before then.


























EH: On June 18, 2006, you performed Ritmica Ostinata in Tochigi with the Tochigi-ken Symphony Orchestra with Masaaki Hayakawa conducting. Please tell me a little about that performance.
RY: I played Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra for audience of over 1,400 people. The hall is located in Utsunomiya, Tochigi prefecture, in Japan.


It was a very exciting concert. The audience and members of the orchestra were greatly touched by the music. It was a very special moment. I felt that the orchestra and I brought it together and maestro Ifukube’s spirit was certainly there. I returned to the front of the stage many times to the warm applause from the audience.



EH: You had mentioned to me that two of Ifukube's children attended the June 18 concert. How did they respond to your performance?
RY: The first-born daughter, Rei, came to a rehearsal several days before the concert since she had a schedule conflict on the day of the concert. She was moved to tears and she commented to us that maestro Ifukube would be very pleased for our hard work if he were there.

It was a wonderful surprise that maestro Ifukube’s son, Kiwami, and his second daughter, Kyoko, came to the concert since I had not expected them. They came to my dressing room immediately with their families and friends after the performance. They were excited and gave me warm and kind words; “ We enjoyed watching you happily perform Ritmica Ostinata from the beginning to the end,” “We were amazed that you memorized the piece,” “It was a very exciting performance,” etc. It was such an honor to have them at the concert. I was also very pleased that I could perform for all of Ifukube’s children.


EH: I understand that Ritmica Ostinata requires great skill and endurance from the pianist. Is this true?
RY: Yes, I think so! Although every piece has different difficulty, Ritmica Ostinata requires great skill and endurance in combining his theory with practice. If you like to bring out every mark on the score clearly such as accent, tenuto, and marcato with fast tempo (eight notes = 176), you need to have strength and flexible hands, arms and back.

It also requires great focus since the ostinato rhythm and peculiar time continue throughout the piece. In order to play Ritmica Ostinata, I had to get extra help. I worked out with Mr. Yasushi Koyama, a specialist of neuromuscle control, and Ichiro’s trainer, to get physical strength and good overall condition. Second, I was able to use a special concert grand piano, Shigeru Kawai (SK-EX), which has quick hammer action and beautiful sound. Kawai MFG. Co. sponsored me and they brought their 9-foot concert grand piano for the concert. Their technician did amazing regulation too.

EH: Why is Ritmica Ostinata so important to you as a pianist?


RY: Ritmica Ostinata is very important to me not only as a pianist but also as a human being because it made me realize who I am and what I am capable of doing. I also wanted to introduce this outstanding piece with Ifukube’s concept to as many people as possible. Ritmica Ostinata was in part inspired by an idea from Leonardo da Vinci: “Force lives by restriction and dies from liberty”. Maestro Ifukube intended to reveal our collective unconscious as a nation, and something vibrant and powerful, something that will never weaken. I am sure that people who listen to Ritmica Ostinata will get great energy from the music.

EH: Do you have any other favorite pieces by Akira Ifukube?
RY: I love all of his music but I will pick three. Sinfonia TapkaaraEglogue Symphonique pour Koto à Vingt Cordes et Orchestre and Symphonic Ode: Gotama the Buddha.


EH: Any final remarks?

RY: Thank you very much for sharing the great memory of maestro Ifukube. I will play Ritmica Ostinata as my life work and I love to perform the piece everywhere. I also love to work on his other compositions in order to share them with more people.


Maestro Ifukube will be always my great mentor. Ifukube's wisdom will be my important guidance to hew my way to be a better musician and human.


Photos from The United States premiere of Ifukube's
Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra, March 28, 2008

Miller Auditorium, Kalamazoo, Michigan

The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Raymond Harvey

Reiko Yamada, pianist

Photos by John Lacko


Reiko Yamada (far right) sits with Akira Ifukube and his wife, Ai, at the Tokyo College of Music


Yamada at the entrance of Ifukube's home

reiko_ifukube_sitting (1).jpg

Reiko Yamada and Akira Ifukube discuss Ritmica Ostinata in September 2005


© Erik Homenick. All rights reserved.

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