The Story Behind Junko Onishi's "Gig" with the Saito Kinen Orchestra
Haruki Murakami had brought me to hear Junko Onishi play a few times in the past, but his most recent invitation took me by surprise, since the concert was billed as her final performance before retirement. I brought my daughter Seira along to the club, which was in Atsugi.
Her trio was fabulous that night, and as I listened all I could think of was what a sad and terrible loss it would be if she really never performed again. Taking the microphone after the encore, she started talking about her retirement, at which I blurted out, "Well I'm against it!" and I'm sure everyone else there felt the same way.
At the party afterwards I told her what a horrible shame it was that she planned to quit, and that she had no choice but to keep playing the piano. She suggested the idea of a jazz piano workshop (essentially a jazz version of the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy).
This is exactly the kind of thing we want to do more of at Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto and a conversation started about perhaps doing something together.
Some time later Haruki hatched the crazy plan to try to get Junko to play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Saito Kinen Orchestra too. I went ahead and asked her, at which she went wide-eyed and said "I'll give it some thought." Since she didn't refuse I knew we had a chance.
Following upon that conversation and after asking many people's advice, I decided to initiate a "Jazz Study Group" in Matsumoto starting this summer, while Haruki Murakami prevailed upon Junko Onishi and she will be playing Rhapsody in Blue on September 6, in the finale concert of this year's festival.
I am overjoyed with how things have turned out, and it is my fervent wish that Junko Onishi will take this as an opportunity to return to the piano and continue playing for many years to come.
An Incredible Sequence of Events
I've long been a huge fan of Junko Onishi, and I've seen her play numerous times over the years, so I was truly shocked when she announced her retirement from performing. It's impossible not to get disillusioned with the state of music and the music business in Japan when you see someone so dexterous and imaginative choosing to bring things to a halt, right in the prime of their career.
Once I took Seiji Ozawa to hear Junko Onishi at a jazz club in Tokyo and he was impressed, saying "what fantastic playing!" So when I told him she was performing her final show at a small jazz club in Atsugi, he readily agreed to come along, and the following extraordinary event occurred. At the end of the concert, Junko Onishi had faced the audience overwhelmed with emotion and started off by saying, "I'm afraid I will be retiring after tonight." Right in the middle of this moving speech, Mr. Ozawa leapt up with no warning and yelled, "Well I'm against it!" I was sitting next to him, and his reaction left me too shocked to speak. But the performance was so wonderful that I also understood with almost painful intensity Mr. Ozawa' s sudden desire to cry out.
Subsequently Mr. Ozawa and Ms. Onishi conferred with one another as musicians. They decided that even though her resolution to quit might make performance impossible, she would still be able to teach younger jazz players if he set up a workshop for her at the festival in Matsumoto. I thought that this alone was still quite marvelous.
It was later that I found myself talking to Mr. Ozawa about how extraordinary it would be to hear Junko Onishi perform Rhapsody in Blue with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. I fully appreciated her determination to retire so I didn't think there was any real chance, but after that Mr. Ozawa vehemently pursued her and the idea became a reality. As a music fan, the entire sequence of events could just have easily been something I dreamt, and I feel honored to have simply witnessed them as they unfolded before me.
I sincerely hope the Jazz Study Group that Ms. Onishi is launching in Matsumoto will continue on long into the future, nurture innumerable talented jazz musicians, and bring even a small bit of extra excitement to the Japanese jazz scene. We are truly lucky that Ms. Onishi is so uniquely positioned to pour the ardor she has thus far reserved for her performing into training the younger generation. Nonetheless, at the same time I do secretly dream that Ms. Onishi will someday return to the jazz scene as the "new Junko Onishi" .
Please do whatever you can to make it happen.