Tomoki Sakata’s big Cliburn adventure

06/08/2013 11:35 AM

11/12/2014 2:48 PM

It’s the piano concerto that made Van Cliburn famous.

And on Sunday afternoon, the Cliburn competition’s youngest finalist, Tomoki Sakata, will tackle Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1, hoping that it, too, will launch his professional music career.

“When I decided to get into this competition, I just wanted to play this concerto,” Sakata said. “It’s a special concerto for him and also for this place. I have a big pressure.”

The 19-year-old Japanese pianist hasn’t buckled under the pressure of his first U.S. piano competition; since his first recital in the preliminary round, he has been intriguing audiences with Debussy etudes and Lizst pieces.

Sakata entered the Cliburn partly because he had never visited the United States. His host family lives in Aledo, and Sakata said he is amazed by the open spaces in Texas.

“You can see the horizon — wow,” Sakata said. “I was just surprised there are cows walking around, and horses.”

Sakata, who like most teenage boys loves to eat, has enjoyed trying Tex-Mex food and Texas barbecue. But his favorite new food is queso and chips.

“I’ve tried many kinds of tortilla chips and I love them,” Sakata said. “I like the guacamole, too. It’s good.”

He was also able to meet an idol, Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, before a Rangers game recently. Sakata remembers watching Darvish pitch in a high school baseball game that was on TV in Japan and being amazed by him then.

“He was very kind,” Sakata said about his meeting with the Japanese pitcher who is very popular in his home country. “He told me good luck for the competition.”

Since his host family lives about an hour away from Bass Hall, Sakata said he hasn’t seen many of the other competitors’ performances, instead choosing to focus on practicing his concertos.

Sakata’s mother said her son wasn’t always enthusiastic about practicing piano.

“In the beginning, he was sort of a slow starter,” Sayuri Sakata said. “I didn’t make him practice a lot. I let him play his own way.”

Watching professional pianists play concerts in Japan inspired Sakata to take his piano lessons more seriously.

“I wanted to be like that and to have the big audiences clapping their hands and say bravo,” Sakata said.

Sakata, who lives in Yokohama, currently studies at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. Two years ago, at a Japanese student piano competition, Sakata’s playing caught the attention of renowned Italian piano teacher William Nabore. Now, Sakata travels to Nabore’s school in Lake Como for several weeks at a time for lessons.

Nabore said Sakata is “incredibly composed” for a pianist who is only 19. The day the finalists were announced, Nabore worked with Sakata on the Mozart concerto, just in case the teen made it to the finals.

“I don’t ever have to tell him anything twice,” Nabore said. “He always understands what I’m trying to impart.”

A friend of Sakata’s who had played in a previous Cliburn competition had told Sakata he would be able to meet Cliburn and take a picture with the famous pianist. But with Cliburn’s death in February, Sakata knew this year’s competition would be tinged with sadness.

“This is such a big competition, and it’s different from the others, especially, this time since we don’t have Cliburn himself,” Sakata said. “I really just wanted to meet him.”

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