Cellist Hirai pursues purity in Casals’ footsteps

Takeichiro Hirai plays the cello at his 80th birthday anniversary concert at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Aug. 28.

By Michinobu Yanagisawa / Japan News Assistant EditorNow aged 80, world-renowned cellist-composer Takeichiro Hirai is reenergizing his ambition of following in the footsteps of his master — legendary Spanish cellist Pau Casals (1876-1973) — by pursuing the essence of music and humanity.

Hirai demonstrated anew his masterful skills and exuberant spirit at his birthday anniversary concert on Aug. 28 at the packed Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno Park, Tokyo. The cellist’s selection of pieces was illustrative of his polished but classical style, as well as a life filled with deep respect for Casals, who is also known as Pablo Casals.

Accompanied on the piano by his second son Motoki Hirai, a pianist-composer based in London, Hirai senior began the night with Vivaldi’s Cello Sonata No. 2, a luminous piece with balanced beauty.

Hirai then played Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in dramatic harmony with Motoki’s piano accompaniment. One of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas — often collectively referred to as the New Testament for cello works — this particular piece has a special importance for Hirai. At the 95th birthday celebration for Casals in 1971, the master suddenly handed his cello to Hirai and had the disciple play the piece on stage without rehearsal on his behalf because he was not feeling well.

Winning first prize at the prestigious Music Competition of Japan in 1954, Hirai studied cello under Casals for five years from 1957 in Puerto Rico — the birthplace of Casals’ mother — where the master was then living. He had been in exile from his native Catalonia since 1939, protesting Spain’s dictatorship under Francisco Franco, who suppressed the region’s culture.

At a New York airport on their way to Tokyo for Hirai’s debut concerts, Casals declared at a press conference, “He [Hirai] will be my successor.”

Since the concert in Tokyo in the presence of the then crown prince and princess — now the Emperor and Empress — Hirai has solidly established his reputation as a soloist by performing in about 40 countries. His talent as a composer even allowed him to earn the honor in 1988 of composing a duet for, and playing it with, Prince Naruhito, now the crown prince.

In the August concert, Hirai appeared with an orchestra conducted by his eldest son Hideaki Hirai, who is also active in the international scene. In the second half, the cellist played “Celebration Overture,” an elegant piece he composed to mark the 1993 marriage of the crown prince and his wife Masako. It began with a powerful tutti, followed by a festive solo part played by Hirai.

One of the most impressive highlights came after Hirai reappeared for an encore. “For me, the 80th birthday has a special meaning as my sensei [teacher] Casals had just turned 80 years old when I met him at the age of 19,” he said on stage. “Sensei continued to compose and play music while also working for peace until the age of 96. I would like to follow his example.”

Hirai then paused and said with hesitation, “Now comes a piece by the sensei — ‘The Song of the Birds.’” Immediately, tension filled the entire hall.

The traditional Catalan song was famous for having been played by Casals at the United Nations in 1971 when he was awarded the U.N. Peace Medal. The melody never ceases to kindle the souls of Catalan people. In a massive peace march in Barcelona in August this year following terrorist attacks in the region, people cried while listening to cellists perform the piece.

Closing his eyes, Hirai played the melody with slight physical movements, as if his entire body and soul — rather than the musical instrument — were hitting the notes. The trembling sounds, full of emotion, elevated the audience to an ephemeral but holy state of mind.

Reflecting on his long career during an interview with The Japan News, Hirai feels he has steadily improved. “By eliminating redundancy, I am now able to play musical pieces in such a manner as to let [the sounds] more directly permeate the hearts of the audience than in my younger days,” he said.

The cellist’s pursuit of purity, however, is unstoppable. “Casals is known for drastically improving cello technique,” he said. “However, his interpretation of music was even more marvelous than his technique. Everything he did was so natural. No one else is able to play more naturally than him.”

To pursue such naturalness is never easy. “To play naturally does not mean to play smoothly,” Hirai stressed. “Nature signifies changes, providing both sunny and stormy days, and both mountains and valleys. Casals-sensei was convinced that changes are important in music as well.”

Hirai looks forward to changing and renewing himself. “Aged over 90, my sensei kept on discovering new truths in playing the cello,” he said. “I will also keep my mind young because I still have so many things to do.”Speech

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