Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Meeting with violinist Yasuko Hirata

On May 25th 2011, Baroque violinist Yasuko Hirata and I sat down to talk.

PH: What were your earliest musical experiences?

Yasuko Hirata: I was born in 1970 in Tokyo. At age six, I began learning the violin with a private teacher. My maternal grandfather was an amateur violinist. (I now play his violin.) I attended a regular school, moving on to become a student at the Kwansei Gakuin University.

PH: Did you enroll in music school?

YH: No. My father was against my taking a music degree, so I studied Economics but I did join the university orchestra, becoming its concertmaster. Playing in the orchestra was intensive, demanding daily practice. We toured Germany and Holland with the orchestra. A person assisting us in Holland, a piano student at the Conservatory, told me about music studies there at the time, informing me that student fees were quite cheap and that the Dutch government was supporting all students at that time. This student’s family became my “Dutch family” and we have stayed in touch. It was because of this family that my parents felt fine about letting me go off to study in Holland.

PH: Did you leave Japan for Holland?

YH: Not immediately. Back in Japan, I took a job at the JTB World Vacations Travel Agency, planning European package tours. After one year of full-time work there, I had saved enough money for one year’s study in Holland and applied to study at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague as a student of modern violin. I passed the entrance exam but would be obliged to take a four-year course. It was then that my father agreed to pay for me to do the full course at the Conservatory there.

PH: Would you like to talk about your studies in The Hague?

YH: Yes. I took a BA in performing modern violin (my teacher was Professor Theodora Geraets) and teaching it. I knew nothing about Baroque music, but would talk to Japanese students studying Baroque music there. However, I was not yet involved in the Baroque music scene. So many well-known Baroque artists would be sitting in the cafeteria but I did not even know who they were!

PH: Did you then return to Japan?

YH: No. In the meantime, I had married. My Israeli husband was studying lute at the same school. (He now works as a physicist.) We remained in Holland for one more year after completion of my studies. I played in ensembles and continued to teach mathematics and Japanese at Japanese Saturday schools there.

PH: When did you move to Israel?

YH: We moved to Israel in 2000. It was not an easy time for me. I was at home with my small daughter and the Intifada was raging outside. But I started to play with pianist Irit Rimon and with harpist Adina Haroz, and we performed some duo concerts. So, for a while, I was doing two recitals a year.

PH: When did you make your way into the field of Baroque music?

YH: It was by coincidence. When studying in The Hague, I liked playing the Bach solo sonatas. The Conservatory there has a very strong Baroque music department and encourages players of modern instruments to play Baroque music in a manner close to the style. Viol player and instrument maker Amit Tiefenbrunn and my husband were friends in Holland. When we visited Amit here in Israel, he showed me a Baroque violin he had made and asked me to try it. Then he suggested I join the Barrocade Ensemble, which is what I did. I have learned much about performing Baroque music from the Barrocade players as well as from other Israeli colleagues and guest players from abroad. Am now playing a different Baroque violin built by Amit. The Baroque bow is the work of Eitan Hoffer. I feel indebted to Amit for this change in my career. I then started to play with other ensembles – the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the Israeli Bach Soloists and frequently with PHOENIX. Myrna Herzog, PHOENIX's musical director, took me on as first violinist for the PHOENIX chamber music series; I am so enjoying playing chamber music with her excellent musicians. Year in, year out, she creates interesting programs. I appreciate those many inspiring musicians who are giving me the chance to perform interesting programs; the friendships that have come out of it give my life color and excitement.

But it was no easy adjustment. Starting to play Baroque violin was so different: the violin was almost slipping off my shoulder; the bow is different and felt difficult to control, as are tuning, the manner of playing and intonation.

I feel I am still learning the Baroque art of playing, the rhythms and character of its dance music, its structures and styles. When I sense the rhythm and “groove” of it physically I feel like I am “in Luna Park”. It is so much fun! When the music is sad and touching I am emotionally involved, sometimes performing with tears in my eyes. Music has such power!

PH: Have you put aside the modern violin?

YH: Most definitely not. I played with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble for a while, but I really prefer playing chamber music. Am now a member of a piano trio, with pianist Oleg Yakerevich and ‘cellist Hamutal Tsur. And, at home, I give private lessons on the modern violin.

I should say that since playing Baroque violin, I feel I understand structure and musical language better and am playing the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms quite differently to how I played it before. I hope I am in the right direction of change…I may be playing differently again in a decade!

PH: How do you view the Baroque scene in Israel?

YH: I enjoy being part of Baroque music in Israel. It is developing fast. I love to play with others, but it is not easy to live off it. There is a specific Baroque audience here. It is very nice to see them listening carefully and enjoying the music.

PH: Do you perform in Japan?

YH: Yes. When I was there, I played for schools and kindergartens in the south of Japan (where my father lives) on a voluntary basis. I have been written up in local newspapers several times. So, most of the children in the area know of me: they tell me how much they enjoy listening to me and they thank me. This is very heart-warming. My father is now happy and proud about my career…but it was a long, hard struggle with him. In the future, I would like to perform in Japan with my Israeli colleagues!

PH: When you are not busy with your profession, how do you like to spend your time?

YH: There is always a lot of practicing to be done for the next concert, but I make time for gardening. I really love flowers. They react and change. Looking at the beautiful greenness of trees and the colors of flowers gives me peace of mind. When I was in Japan last year I took a course in Ikebana - Japanese flower-arranging. I now do it with flowers from my own garden here. It demands energy and concentration. I would like to continue learning about it.

As a mother with a family, there is always plenty of work at home, as all mothers do. And I do not want to be absent too much from home; the balance between work and family is important. I need my family’s help and understanding to be able to work.

Sometimes I play ping-pong with my children.

When I am tired, I watch Japanese dramas on the Internet. I also like Japanese pop music and listen to it, singing along, when driving…and I drive a lot. I have to practice for the next Karaoke in Japan!

PH: How do you see the future?

YH: Till now I have been very busy preparing for performances. I would like to devote more time to studying Baroque sonatas and strengthening my knowledge of the Baroque era and its music.

And I hope to share a lot of exciting moments and special experiences with audiences.

PH: Yasuko, it has been most interesting talking to you. Many thanks. Looking forward to hearing more of your superb performances.