June 9th 2009. A moment fraught with anticipation as Van Cliburn himself opens the last of six envelopes to announce the final winner of his own piano competition: Nobuyuki Tsujii.
Nobuyuki Tsujii’s win was unprecedented on three levels. He was the first Japanese pianist ever to win the Van Cliburn Competition, touching off a torrent of coverage in his native country. He was also the first CO-Gold Medal Winner; the deadlocked jury also gave the top prize to 19-year old Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang. Third, and most compellingly and controversially, 20-yeard old Nobuyuki Tsujii has been blind since birth. Sightless, but nonetheless dazzling to the notoriously tough Van Cliburn jurors. From one: “I found after a few minutes that I’d just put aside my note pad and simply watch, and listen.“ From another: “After his preliminary round, we were all in tears.” And the critic-softening composer of choice for the blind pianist? Fryderyk Chopin.
Tsujii’s preliminary-round performances included all of Chopin’s Op. 10 Etudes. His reading of Chopin’s Berceuse was declared “ideal, graceful, and innocent.”
The blind pianist seems to have a special connection to the Polish exile: when he was 16 “Nobu,” as he’s called, won a special Critic’s Prize at the 2005 Chopin Competition. And in the Van Cliburn competition’s concerto round, when the field was down to six finalists, Nobuyuki Tsujii chose Chopin for his closing arguments. Some critics groused how a blind soloist could interact with an orchestra. Not so, according to Fort Worth Symphony Assistant Conductor Ron Spigelman. “The communication was not only easy, but breathtaking and heroic. Totally inspiring to all of us, James Conlon, and the orchestra included.” And producing gold for Nobukyuki Tsujii, the Blind Chopinist. - Benjamin K. Roe