It was a trip to northern England that gave pianist Noriko Ogawa the inspiration for a UK-based festival focusing on the works of Debussy. Ogawa is recognised as one of the finest interpreters of Debussy’s music and she has recorded his entire piano output. The internationally acclaimed Japanese pianist was giving a recital at Birkenhead School and, as part of the programme, played his Études.
“I said casually to Peter Davison, director of the Two Rivers Festival, that not many people let me play Debussy’s Études,” says Ogawa. “Wouldn’t it be great to play them at a place like the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester? He came back with the suggestion of a whole festival. I was amazed!”
Now Ogawa is artistic director of the eight-concert Reflections on Debussy series, a joint venture between the BBC Philharmonic and Bridgewater Hall.
“Debussy has been my favourite composer since childhood,” says Ogawa. “When I was in primary school I saw André Watts play book one of Debussy’s Images on TV.
I thought it was the most beautiful music in the world.
“I’d heard Claire de Lune and The Girl with the Flaxen Hair before but this was different. I remember his performance so well and I thought, then, I’d like to play this music.”
In Japan at that time, Debussy was not that well-known, recalls Ogawa, even being seen as rather “alternative”.
“My teachers were also from the last generation of the old school of piano tutors. They were very strict and, if they said you must learn a Beethoven sonata, you did it. But Debussy was so atmospheric and I suppose his miniatures were seen as easygoing compared to the rigours of Beethoven.
“Debussy broke all the rules and everything is open to you, the interpreter. For me, the saddest thing is he didn’t pass on any of his own performance techniques to anyone.”
The festival also has a Japanese vein running through it. It’s not only 150 years since the birth of Debussy but also a century and a half since Japanese diplomats were first stationed in the UK. The music of Japanese composer Takemitsu features prominently as well as Yoshimatsu and Kanno, three voices heavily influenced by Debussy.
“Debussy was fascinated by the east and by Japan in particular,” says Ogawa. “When Debussy was alive, Japan was closed and foreigners could not visit. Perhaps that’s why people are still fascinated by things Japanese.
“For my recital in April, for instance, there will be a traditional Japanese flower ceremony. The flower arranger will come on to the platform and I have asked him to look as formal as possible. He’ll be in a kimono – unusual these days.
“I will be playing books one and two of the Préludes – all very visual.”
Ogawa’s June recital includes a tea ceremony, which she describes as Japan’s “most abstract” ritual.
The four recitals begin on 15 April with Sound and Image, Innocence and Experience on 28 April, Terror and Beauty on 25 May and Nature and Form on 9 June. The May concert features the world première of Japanese composer Yoshihiro Kanno’s Sky Maze, which inolves the unusual combination of organ and piano, while the June concert features the world première of the full cycle of A Particle of Light; Water; Rainbow.
In May, Ogawa is joined by fellow pianist Martin Roscoe and organist Jonathan Scott, while the second April concert features chamber music by Debussy and Takemitsu, when he will be joined by cellist Natalie Klein, harpist Catherine Beynon, flautist Emily Beynon, the violinist Kyoko Takezawa and violist Nobuko Imai.
The early part of the series features Debussy orchestral works, including Nocturnes at the opening concert on 20 January. Ogawa makes her first appearance then, playing Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream with fellow pianist Kathryn Stott. That concert is conducted by the BBC Philharmonic’s new chief conductor Juanjo Mena.
Reflections on Debussy begins on 20 January at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
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