An Interview with Mari Kodama

Momo made her recordings, I made mine. Until something very special came up: a good friend of ours came with Arensky’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. He said it was special because this music by Arensky had never been published or made available, thus had never been recorded.

primephonic had the pleasure of interviewing Mari Kodama, the internationally acclaimed pianist who in 2014 marked an important stage in her recording career with the release of the complete Beethoven Sonatas. The brilliant yet ever-so-humble pianist talked about her recent collaborations with her sister and her daughter, as well as her releases with PENTATONE.

Could you tell me a bit about why it took so long for you and your sister Momo Kodama to record together?

It’s incredible isn’t it? We haven’t really thought about it – we have our own individual careers and she has a very different repertoire than me. We play together two or three times a year because it’s always easy and pleasurable and everybody likes it. Momo made her recordings, I made mine. Until something very special came up: a good friend of ours came with Arensky’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. He said it was special because this music by Arensky had never been published or made available, thus had never been recorded.  So we searched for more arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s ballets made by other famous composers (such as Debussy and Rachmaninov) that he had told us about and PENTATONE was really interested in the project. That’s how Tchaikovsky – Ballet Suites Transcribed for Piano Duo happened.

How did recording with your sister go?

We were a bit nervous because it was our first time doing a recording together. She has her own way and I have mine, but PENTATONE has a superb team. The best team you can ever wish for. It was done with very good humour, we had a lot of laughter and we even finished early. It was fun!

Is there anything you could have done differently?

Well, I was thinking about that, but for now I wouldn’t do it in a different way, because we did our best at that time. I think we are quite happy with the outcome.

Momo is not the only family member you’ve just collaborated with recently – you also had your first international tour with your daughter Karin (Kei Nagano) in 2015. How was that?

It was fun because normally when a family member or a close friend is playing in a concert and you’re sitting in the audience, your heart is pounding even harder. We are kind of nervous for the person on stage. The good thing is, you don’t have that feeling when you’re on stage together [laughs]. Karin is a very good musician and the tour was a pleasure. In the beginning, when she was younger, I was the one giving suggestions, but now she is also giving suggestions. It’s really fun.

Were there mother-daughter arguments?

No, not really.  Although we have a different way of expression, we have the same way of thinking. When she is saying something I know what she is saying and why she is saying it, and vice versa. No dispute or anything like it.

Will there be more collaborations coming between you and your daughter?

We’re planning to do something in the summer, but she’s having her second release (J.S. Bach: Inventions & Sinfonias, BWV 772-801) with Analekta. Her first one (Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 12 & 13) was a big hit. For her it’s not so easy since she is also studying. Her study at Yale requires a lot from her but she really loves the balance. She organizes concerts at the university to warm up for her other concerts. I’m happy that she’s happy.

At what point in your life did you discover playing piano was a passion for you? What happened during that time?

My mother was a piano teacher, I grew up surrounded by piano since I was 4. We were lucky that my father was assigned to work in Germany when I was 6. As a banker, he was also assigned to work in other countries in Europe. When I was 10 or 11 my parents asked me to choose between piano and an academic study. If I wanted to pursue academic study, I would have had to go back to Japan instead of changing schools in different countries every two years. At that time I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist and it was decided that I did not to return to Japan to prepare for university. Of course combined with a proper academic study.

You’ve had a wonderful career behind and (no doubt) ahead of you, including having recorded all of Beethoven’s sonatas. Are there still dream projects you’d like to envision?

In terms of piano playing, it’s endless. That’s the nice thing in music, you can always aim higher. That’s the reason why we are doing it in life. Maybe it’s not the trend, because the trend is to go fast. But I always believe that we can do better and be better until the end of our life. As pianists we are lucky because we have a wide repertoire that we can learn from. There are many many things I’d like to ‘attack’ now such as the Brahms cycle which I have never done, Berg’s chamber concerto which I’d like to record as well, and maybe Berg’s piano works. That’s probably for the next three or four years.

Any musicians you’d love to work with in the near future?

I’d love to do chamber music and I think there’ll be a possibility to do it with the cellist Truls Mørk whom I really admire. I’d also love to work with violinist Gil Shaham, cellist Matt Haimovitz, and violinist Veronika Eberle, whom I also admire a lot.

Do you still get nervous on stage?

Absolutely, all the time. I think in a way you get used to it. We try to switch our mind once we’re on stage to just focus on the music. Most of the time it works or we pray that it works [chuckles]. There are so many factors in a really superb performance. Of course it’s how you are physically and psychologically, but it’s also the stage, the piano, the acoustic and the audience. It’s easier if you have the whole thing the way you really like it, but sometimes you have to work much much harder.

Could you tell us about one memorable concert in terms of response from the audience?

Well usually you have an audience who come because they want to be there, so I am very lucky that I  have my own audience in a lot of places. Then after a concert you feel like you have shared something together. And it’s always wonderful. Usually I have quite a good contact with my audience.

Anything else about Mari which you’d like to share with us?

[Thinking a bit] Well, I think everything has been said, you can also find stuff about my cooking on my website.

Is there any ambitions when it comes to your cooking?

[Laughs] No, no, it’s just something simple. I like cooking for people I care about. I just got encouraged by friends to publish it.

There is an upcoming release from you which we are all excited about: Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, could you tell us about it?

Ah yes, it’s my first collaboration with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and conductor Kazuki Yamada, to be honest I don’t know yet what to expect, but it was a very happy collaboration, we even finished way earlier than planned. We recorded it at OSR’s magnificent Victoria Hall in Geneva. De Falla is a bit different from what I have usually been recording, but I grew up with Spanish repertoire and as a student, it is not so far from the French repertoire. For me it was a joy to discover this folkloric music and I think also it is the masterpiece of de Falla. It’s a compilation of different kind of folkloric themes. He constructed incredible colour and smell of the ‘nights of Spanish garden’ by just putting one theme after another. It’s an amazing piece. It should be out in a few months, and I’m also curious about the recording!

Mari Kodama in conversation with Rina Sitorus

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