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Music review: Fuzjko Hemming at the Broad Stage

July 25, 2009 |  7:41 pm

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Fuzjko Hemming gave the first of two piano recitals at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Friday night.  Her appearance was heavily promoted on Japanese television, and the audience appeared to be mostly Japanese. Ticket prices were high – $60 to $100 – but both the Friday and Sunday concerts sold out. The 74-year-old pianist has sold more than 2 million CDs in Japan over the last decade, but the Fuzjko phenomenon hasn’t yet crossed the Pacific with the general public. I’m not so sure that it will. But I could be wrong.

Her full name is Ingrid Fuzjko von Georgii-Hemming, and she has a compelling story. She was born in Berlin to a Japanese mother and Swedish-Russian father.  She grew up with her mother in Japan in poverty.  A child prodigy, she learned on a broken-down piano.  At 16 she lost hearing in one ear from an infection, but forged ahead, studying in Tokyo, Berlin and Vienna.

In interviews Hemming speaks of getting support from such great musicians as Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, pianist Shura Cherkassy and composer Bruno Maderna.  She says she was known as an old-fashioned romantic who played freely from the heart. She also painted fanciful depictions of cats.  But she was poor, lived without heat and got another ear infection, which left her deaf.

Triumph over adversity was long coming. She moved to Sweden, continued to study music the best she could and worked as a janitor in a psychiatric hospital, where she also played for the patients on an old upright.  Slowly, she regained 40% of her hearing in one ear, and that, she found, was the bare minimum necessary to relaunch her career. She returned to Japan, where a 1999 television documentary made her famous. 

On stage, Hemming comes across as eccentric. She was dressed Friday in a flamboyant gypsy ensemble of scarves and sashes for the first half and something colorfully kimono-like for the second.  She opened with two Debussy favorites: “Clair de Lune” and “Jardins sous la Pluie.”  But before beginning the next work, Beethoven's "Tempest” Sonata, she took a long look at the keyboard and then got up and walked off stage. 

After a longish pause -- for the lighting on the keyboard to be adjusted, we were told over the loudspeakers -- she returned, examined the keyboard and walked off once more.  After another pause, she again carefully scrutinized the keys and then began to play.  I couldn't see any difference in luminosity from my balcony seat, but videographers were in boxes on both sides to provide an official record for posterity.

Beethoven’s sonata was the only substantial work of the evening.  The rest of her program consisted of short, well-known, generally early pieces by Chopin, Bach and Liszt.  Her recordings are devoted to much the same repertory.

I have saved her playing for last because I can only assume it is not as a pianist that Hemming has won her devoted following.  She was not, on this occasion, a pianist who can be judged by professional standards. 

She played everything loud and insistently. She revealed little sense of a long phrase. She tended to end pieces in an anti-climax as if surprised by the fact that the piece was over or having simply lost interest. She didn’t seem to know where the beat was in Bach’s Aria from the “Goldberg" Variations or how Baroque decorations worked. The “Tempest” was a wayward storm of choppy tempo changes.

Hemming undoubtedly once had technique. In Chopin and Liszt etudes, she rushed up and down the keys with moderate confidence.  But that unvaryingly big and bold sound of hers, impressive in its own right, made it difficult for her to keep a simple melody simple or smooth.  In fact, one of her main traits  this evening was is to make everything sound so very difficult to play.

My sympathy for Hemming only goes so far. In interviews she has defended her erratic style of playing by dismissing other Japanese pianists as mechanical. On Friday, she and her promoters did not supply a single word about the music in the program book, despite the fact that this was clearly a non-classical crowd. 

But maybe everything is only supposed to be about her.  Or maybe a crisp $100 bill only gets you so much these days.
 
-- Mark Swed 

Photo: Japanese pianist Fuzjko Hemming performing at the Broad Stage on Friday night.  Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / Los Angeles Times

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