Some pianists treat a sonata like it’s a wild horse to be tamed – asserting dominance over the keys and wrangling the melody. Others treat the music like a houseplant, nurturing it to grow into something vibrant and beautiful.

Van Cliburn International Piano Competition contestant Yuki Yoshimi of Japan falls into the latter category, and his relationship to music is one of partnership, not control.

“I don’t try to dominate the music,” Yoshimi said. “Naturally I just play – play with the music.”  

As his hands fly across the keys, it’s clear Yoshimi loves his art. It shows not only in his facial expressions, but flows through his every flourish. And, judging from the audience’s standing ovation following his preliminary recital performance of Liszt’s “Sonata in B Minor,” patrons loved it, too. 

That love was almost enough to carry Yoshimi into the semifinals; he was one of six competitors eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Yoshimi never intended to become a concert pianist, but his love of playing piano naturally led him to the Cliburn. Like his fellow competitors, Yoshimi’s dedication to his craft began during childhood. He was 5-years-old and was visiting a friend’s house, and when he saw the family’s piano, he said he knew it would become his life’s passion. 

“Probably, it was my destiny,” he said. “The piano brought me here, playing on the stage of the Cliburn.”

Outside the performance hall following his preliminary recital, his apparent on-stage confidence was replaced with humility and a shy smile. His adrenaline was still pumping, and he hadn’t slept much the night before (which he said was probably due to nerves). He said he “wasn’t sure” how well he did, but that going into each performance he tries to “let himself go” and focus solely on the music.

“I’m always trying not to get rid of the nerves because otherwise I will get (more) nervous,” he said, laughing.

At 17 he became the youngest winner of the Music Competition of Japan, and has performed with several orchestras, including the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie in Belgium. He is now 22 and studies at the New England Conservatory of Music

He hopes more young people come to appreciate classical music like he did, and said his upbringing helped him develop a natural taste for the genre. Because his parents never forced him to practice, he said he never felt pressured to play – it just came from his heart.

Though some younger listeners might feel intimidated by classical music, Yoshimi said the Cliburn helps make it accessible to the public. 

“Classical music is alive here,” he said, gesturing around him.

Andrew Horton attended Yoshimi’s recital and said he was impressed by Yoshimi’s ability to capture the intensity and power of Liszt’s Sonata.

“Liszt was a good choice for him … He got more sound out of the piano than I’m used to,” he said. 

Another patron had tears in her eyes following Yoshimi’s recital. Maria Fawcett, who competed in the Van Cliburn Amateur Competition in 2000, enthusiastically praised his performance and said she could feel the story behind his music. 

“It was amazing,” Fawcett said, her eyes shining and her voice cracking with emotion. “That’s why we come here – to hear that magic.”

Erin Ratigan is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in narrative news features. She has contributed to KERA News, Fort Worth Weekly and The Metro Report, and has received multiple regional and state-level journalism awards. You can find her on Twitter: @erinratigan.

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