In 1999, Philips Records released “Great Pianists of the 20th Century,” a 200-CD box set of recordings by 72 of that era’s most celebrated keyboardists. Featured alongside such earlier giants like Claudio Arrau, Emil Gilels, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Artur Schnabel was Mitsuko Uchida, and deservingly so. If anything, the reputation of the pianist, revered for the extraordinary nuance and depth of her playing, has only grown since.
Typically, Uchida performs in a set of concerts each season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a soloist and conductor (or director, as she prefers to be called); this season, she and the CSO could not find a mutually agreeable date. So the CSO’s artistic department suggested the pianist perform a chamber-music concert with some of the orchestra’s musicians, and Uchida quickly agreed.
As part of the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series, Uchida will be centerstage Feb. 28 in an unusual program focused mostly on wind rather than the more typical string works. “I didn’t want to do the obvious,” the pianist said from her home in London. Spotlighted will be four section leaders of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Keith Buncke, who took over as principal bassoon in July, along with principal clarinet Stephen Williamson, acting principal horn Daniel Gingrich and principal cello John Sharp. Also participating will be Nathan Hughes, principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “He was one of [former Cleveland Orchestra principal oboist] John Mack’s students,” and he was also in Marlboro [a summer music festival in Vermont] quite a lot, first as a youngster and later as a senior, so I know him quite well,” she said. “It was very lucky.”
The program will open with three sets of two-instrument works by Robert Schumann: Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94; Three Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 73, and Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, Op. 70. “Those are late-ish Schumann, and those are all three glorious sets of pieces, and I don’t know which one I prefer,” she said. Uchida will then take a short break while Buncke and Sharp team for Mozart’s Sonata for Bassoon and Cello in B-Flat Major, K. 292. Finally, everyone but Sharp will be showcased in the closer: Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat Major, K. 452.
Uchida’s move into conducting began around 1983, when she was asked to substitute as both soloist and conductor in performances of a group of Mozart piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. “I had no idea how to direct them or anything,” she said of the orchestra musicians. “But they knew the pieces very well, and they somehow guessed what I wanted. We got on like a house on fire, and I’ve kept on directing ever since.”
Uchida, however, keeps her conducting engagements to a minimum, she said, because she’s aware of her “shortcomings” and won’t conduct any work that doesn’t involve her as a piano soloist. “I have no wish to conduct Wagner operas or Bruckner symphonies,” she said. While she has worked with many chamber orchestras, including currently the Berlin-based Mahler Chamber Orchestra, she has limited her conducting of symphony orchestras to just the CSO and the Cleveland Orchestra, with which she has been recording the Mozart piano concertos since 2011. “I do know that I can play the piano up to a point,” she said, “but my conducting is incomparably below that level.”
Much like her direction work in general, her guest conducting of the CSO began on a lark. She was scheduled to appear in a group of concerts in May 2004 with noted Australian conductor Charles Mackerras, but he was forced to cancel because of a bout of vertigo that made travel impossible. The CSO was scrambling for a replacement when then-music director Daniel Barenboim, who regularly doubles as a piano soloist and conductor, suggested that Uchida conduct as well. “Surprisingly, the Chicago Symphony people played unbelievably beautifully for me,” she said. “I said all sorts of wrong things and everything, and they apparently loved it, and we’ve kept on ever since.”
Uchida is well-known for her performances of the music of Chopin, Schubert, Schumann and especially Mozart, and she is an “adamant exponent” the Second Viennese School, championing such works as Schoenberg’s infrequently heard Piano Concerto (1942). But the pianist steers clear of Russian repertoire or any of what she calls “virtuoso music,” and she plays very little by Liszt. “There is more to it than virtuoso music, I know that,” she said, “but it’s not my cup of tea.”
Though some touring musicians perform more than 100 concerts a year, Uchida prefers to limit her annual schedule to 50 appearances. Last year, she did more than that and found it to be too much. Incredibly, she claims “I’m not very talented,” and adds, “I need a lot of time, and I get easily tired.” She likes to have ample time to learn and prepare works new to her repertoire, such as Beethoven’s famed Diabelli Variations, which she began performing 2½ years ago. In addition, she devotes her summers — as many as seven weeks — to teaching at Marlboro Music, the well-respected music festival in Vermont, where she served as co-artistic director with pianist Richard Goode from to 1999 to 2013 before taking over as sole artistic director.
“I don’t want to be the most exposed person,” Uchida said. “I don’t want to be the most famous one. I’m trying to play a little bit better every day, and that’s all.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.