Wednesday, November 25, 2015         

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Piano forte

An American Studies professor switches gears to perform in the Van Cliburn competition

By Steven Mark


Until recently, Mari Yoshihara had found a perfect balance between artistic and intellectual pursuits. The University of Hawaii at Manoa professor of American Studies is a pianist by avocation and has written books and articles about classical music.

Now she is stepping away from her books and onto the stage. On Monday, she will perform in the Van Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas, competing against 71 others.

"I'm someone who needs pressure to push myself," said Yoshihara, who is on sabbatical. "I do take lessons (with UH piano professor Thomas Yee) and practice fairly regularly, but … I don't have an occasion to perform to a big audience. I thought by setting this goal, I would push myself to work harder and achieve a higher level of musicianship."

Competitions for pianists who play purely for the joy of music have become a popular trend in classical music, with contests in New York, Chicago, Boston and Seattle in recent years. Open to amateurs age 35 or older, the Cliburn is considered the most prestigious because of its ties to the Van Cliburn Foundation, which holds a contest for young professionals and has been the springboard for many touring artists.

Yoshihara, a native of Japan, attended the 2009 competition for professionals as an academic, writing a book in Japanese about it. (One of the winners was a blind Japanese pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii.)

"I just loved everybody there," she said. "I just wanted to be part of it."

Piano has been a dominant theme in Yoshihara's life. Like many youngsters in Japan, she took lessons from a young age, and when she lived briefly in the United States and was initially language-challenged, piano become a tonic for her self-esteem. Her experience in the United States led her to pursue American Studies in Japan and put aside dreams of a career in music.

She has never participated in a piano competition and said she doesn't expect to win the $2,000 first prize. "I will be darn lucky to make it to the semifinals," she said. "I've been told about half the people are like me — they're there to have fun — but that half the people are very competitive."

Despite her modest expectations, Yoshihara is approaching the competition strategically. In the first round, she will play works by Samuel Barber, an unusual choice she hopes will help her stand out. She also thinks her research during the 2009 competition, for which she interviewed some of the experts who will be judges, will garner some extra notice.

Whether this earns Yoshihara a "thumbs up" from the judges is unclear, but at any rate she wants to be "judged purely by the merit of my musicianship," she said, laughing.

Playing piano is a way "of giving myself over to something greater than myself," she said. "It's a very humbling experience … to sort of submit myself to this vast, endless body of human creation."

The competition will be streamed live at Yoshihara is scheduled to perform about 5:15 p.m. Hawaii time on Monday. Individual performances also will be available on demand.

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