Fuzjko Hemming thunders through Broad Stage

Mastering Chopin and playing at Carnegie Hall are like fighting “bosses” in a video game – you get past the first one and no one doubts that you actually play; you get past the second and even your nihilistic relatives think you might be a big deal. Except that once you’ve played the game many times before, your view of those milestones changes – just as your childhood home will feel different to you once you’re older, even if it stays exactly the same. Fuzjko Hemming started her Friday concert with Chopin – that “Ulysses” or “look, ma – no hands!” of classical piano. Transcending the banality of a milestone piece almost didn’t seem to trouble the pianist – rather than rigid and formulaic, her Chopin felt like a well-thought-out monologue on a therapist’s couch. That is, if the content ever puzzled her, by now she knew what every sound of it meant.

The concert continued with Bach, and after an intermission – Mussorgsky and Liszt. Mussorgsky’s violent jolts from mournful and joyfully gentle, thundering through the modernist wood panels of the Broad Stage. Talking to The Corsair, Hemming relates to the composer’s difficult life – his penniless and snowy march to much-belated recognition, his sympathy to pain - both animal and human.

Hemming the pianist and Hemming the person are a curious contrast. If the audience resembled a little conference or a very tame block party, the concert itself felt like a small costumed play.  Hemming playing is a force of nature – she strikes the keys with vim and verve and nerve uncommon in a person of her modest stature, but speaking - confidently in Japanese, and more slowly, tentatively in English – the veneer comes off. She bows and smiles gently at the audience “polite, reserved,” she recalled.

She tilts her head and leans forward whilst listening – like in many a musician, her hearing falters in one ear.  That gentleness and sympathy - to many things - are disarming. When asked what, from her vantage point, would be the greatest challenge to a young musician, she said “Neighbors!” She mimicked this by knocking on the ceiling with a broom. “I love music, but even I – if it’s the same tra-ra-ra, tra-ra-ra,” she said as she dried her eyes and trailed off.

Fuzjko Hemming was born to a Swedish-Russian architect father, who didn’t figure greatly into her life; and a Japanese piano teacher mother, who raised her by herself.

“It wasn’t bad,” she said as she reflected on her early years in the care of her tough disciplinarian mother.  “I played piano in an expensive Chinese restaurant. Many people – soldiers, diplomats – came just to see me play. They’d yell, ‘Tchaikovsky! Tchaikovsky!’ and I’d play them Tchaikovsky!” She laughed.

We asked Hemming to share with SMC’s young musicians something she knows now that she wished she knew then and she told us a short story. Her mother, a beautiful woman who taught children of well-to-do politicians and diplomats in Japan, didn’t think much of her daughter’s talent.

“You aren’t that great”, her mother would say to her. “You should go straight for teaching.”

“I had to travel the world, listen to lots of pianists play to see… that I’m pretty great,” said Hemming. “Those who were great went down, and I kept going.”