Musician of the Month: Masumi Yamamoto
My parents weren’t musicians but I remember them listening to a lot of music in the car when I was very young. They played anything from classical piano music to pop songs! At the age of 4, I was sent to a kindergarden which had a policy of training every child to have perfect pitch, and we played many instruments – we had marimba lessons, castanet lessons, a lot of singing, and ensemble playing. About the same time, I started attending Yamaha Music School where I had musicianship classes. My life has been filled with music ever since
What led you to the harpsichord?
My piano teacher who taught me from the age of 7 to 13 used to talk a lot about early keyboard instruments when I was learning Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, but I wasn’t able to appreciate the difference between the various keyboard instruments, having never seen any in real life at that point. My first opportunity to see and play on a real harpsichord came when I was about 15 or 16, and I remember having trouble controlling the notes! I must have liked the sound of Baroque music though, because I used to check out every issue of the “24 Hours” magazine (which has broadcasting details of all the works on ABC Classic FM in Australia) and I decided that I had to record on to cassette tape all of Telemann’s chamber music works involving the recorder and harpsichord. A real opportunity came up when I took up the harpsichord as second study in the second year of my undergraduate degree. I really enjoyed feeling the sensation of plucking under my fingers, and found that my level of concentration was totally different when I was playing the harpsichord to when I was practising the piano. Playing the harpsichord in college at the end of the day was always a bad idea – I enjoyed it so much that I kept missing my train home!
What has been your favourite venue to play?
Handel House Museum is one of my favourite places to play because it is a very intimate space and you get immediate audience reaction. As a keyboard player, our audience is usually on our right especially when we play solo, and so we can’t always see their faces while we perform, but at Handel House it is not difficult to feel their presence and feel that we really are interacting with the audience. This also makes it a scary place to play, as we are very exposed and no nuance, whether successful or otherwise, would get lost in the acoustics.
Where is your source of inspiration?
I find that playing Baroque music from different countries gives me fresh inspiration every time I switch countries. It must be because there is such a distinction between national styles at that time, although of course the composers were also inspired by each other. I have also recently been looking into how using different historical temperament influence the way performers interpret a piece, and this I feel is an area which hasn’t been fully explored. For example, I found a piece by Froberger in which when using one temperament I might choose to highlight a particular chord which I would want to try and hide when using another temperament. I find this fascinating.
How have past Baroque artists influenced you?
The musician who has had the biggest influence on me as a harpsichordist is my teacher James Johnstone but he is a current Baroque artist rather than past! As a child, I discovered the joys of Baroque music through listening to music by Telemann and Vivladi and playing music of Purcell arranged for recorder consort. I enjoy the strong rhythmic and harmonic impulse you feel when listening to Baroque music, after all a lot of Baroque music is based on dances whether it has a name of a dance in the title or not. When I’m playing I try to feel that I’m picking up rhythm that’s already been happening, rather than starting a new rhythmic pulse from scratch. I find that this helps me to make gestures alive and to communicate well with the audience.
What does Handel’s music mean to you?
My first public performance as soloist was when I played an arrangement of Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith with a professional orchestra in Japan aged 10. Since then, Handel has always been part of my repertoire. The first professional concert I played as a continuo player after switching to the harpsichord was also a work by Handel, the Messiah, so I have played Handel’s music at crucial points in my career so far. Nowadays, I also use a lot of his works when I’m teaching as his music seems to appeal to players of all abilities. Having performed in Handel’s own house for the past 10 years, I look forward to further exploring his life and music in the future.