And who were these influences? She mentions the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the cellist Pablo Casals and the pianist Edwin Fischer, as well as a string of German-Jewish musicians “who were deeply committed to the music and fabulously obstinate”. I point out that none was English. “But England was where I discovered them. Through the English language came my clearer thinking. I still don’t think clearly but I’m working at it. I feel deeply attached to the tolerance of British culture. London is the true cosmopolitan city. You can be yourself.”
But surely, for a world citizen such as Uchida, social etiquette in Vienna or Tokyo cannot be so markedly different? “In England, in spite of the class system, society is more open,” she says. “That’s why Handel and Haydn wanted to come here [in the 18th century]. Musically speaking, it was a no man’s land. In Vienna, everyone thinks they know how Mozart goes. ‘It has to be like this.’ That’s dangerous, because you can’t know it when you are dealing with someone else’s creation. It was the same with Debussy in Paris, so I avoided France. I needed to figure out what was true to my way of listening to music. The no man’s land of England suited me. It is a meeting point of lots of cultures, with no dominant ideology.”
What does she owe, then, to her Japanese heritage? Uchida has become an icon for the hordes of young Japanese who love western classical music but she no longer has family ties there. Her niece, born in Germany and now working in London, “is more Japanese than me. She knows the social code of the Japanese language. It’s not a language to clarify your thoughts but to work out your relationship with your neighbour. It’s to do with the degree of familiarity and how to degrade your family by talking up the people you are talking to. [Speaking Japanese is] not just a science but an art form.”
Perhaps I have touched a nerve. Dipping another chip into the dill sauce while a waiter tops up our mineral water, Uchida seems unstoppable. “Japanese culture has two extremes – utter simplicity and over-the-top vulgarity. The Japanese culture of paper-making is one of the most beautiful I know: it’s a handicraft bordering on art.”
And the vulgarity? “Have you never visited a Japanese household? The traditional image is of clear-cut lines, everything so simple, nothing to be seen except the tatami mat. Today, every tiny Japanese apartment is crammed with a mishmash of souvenirs, east European embroidery, a candle from Greece, a German plate, a good-luck cat with one hand up – superstitious things you can buy at a temple. There’s an obsession with labels but no judgment of what constitutes vulgarity. People are more affluent. There’s a lack of confidence about tradition because the Japanese are still enthralled with western culture. But when I look at [the classical music boom in] China, Japan and Korea, the only country where they seem to be genuinely music-loving is Korea.”
Really? Such an opinion may not go down well with Uchida’s Japanese fans. “Probably not, but that’s my experience. At the end of the second world war, there was an urge to overtake the west. Today, that sort of gigantic strength is in China. The energy [in Japan] is not so strong any more. It used to be that we were ‘always right’. It’s no longer so simple.”
And, I ask, did March’s earthquake and tsunami, with the ensuing nuclear fallout, somehow reinforce that decline of national self-confidence? Mention of the Fukushima nuclear disaster momentarily punctures Uchida’s ebullience. She believes no other nation would have reacted so calmly after suffering such hardship, which, she points out with feeling, is still going on. She says it’s a quality of the Japanese that they “endure” – a word that sends her on another tangent. “My mother used to say, ‘Women are to endure.’ That’s what she was taught. I said, ‘Why only women?’ If I had stayed [in Japan], I hope I would have been intelligent enough to quit music.”
“Until I left, I had never heard a professional orchestral concert. I never knew such music existed. I went to the Toho music school [one of Japan’s leading conservatoires] but so much time was wasted. What they valued was how loud the music was, and how fast. The scope for understanding anything deeper would have been impossible. That’s why Vienna was a revelation.”
I tell Uchida that such opinions sound almost hostile to Japan. She disagrees. “I’m not anti-Japan. I’m an outsider. Nationality means nothing to me, it’s not an issue, but it is for most Japanese. For me, what counts is judging things on their merit. That’s why I am against positive discrimination for African-Americans. [In the US] every board has to bend over backwards to select African-Americans. It’s a fact – they really need to push it. Music schools and orchestras have to be seen to have them. If there are two people applying for a place, they take the African-American, even if the other is a little bit better. That’s reverse racism. I don’t go for colour, race or sex. I don’t give a damn. I’m not a feminist. If there is a heaven – I’m not a Christian – and if I arrive at the gate and they ask me what I am, all I will say is, ‘Musician.’”
For dessert, Uchida chooses the dark chocolate mousse and homemade nougat tart; I go for fruit crumble with cinnamon cream. Having listened to her views on Asian musical life, I decide it is time to mention Lang Lang. The Chinese pianist, still in his twenties, has developed a huge following without convincing everyone that he has musical depth. He has also become very rich. I want to know Uchida’s opinion. Even though we are now quite relaxed, she is circumspect. Sizing up the desserts that have appeared, she says that “in 10 years’ time we might talk [about the Lang Lang phenomenon]. It might have disappeared by then. If not, I might say, ‘Well done, Lang Lang.’”
Naming no names, then, how does one start to assess musical quality? Uchida argues that everyone is born with “a certain musicality” but the degree of facility with which it is exercised varies from person to person. “What truly matters,” she says, summing up, “is that your love of music is stronger than your love of yourself. Success will come if you have something [musical] to say. Some people have success with very little to say. They are lucky. There is a hit and miss factor in life and you have to accept it.”
The restaurant has started to empty: we were first to arrive and, more than two hours later, we are almost the last to leave. Uchida downs her coffee quickly. I settle the bill and we make for the door, where she chuckles to the waiter that she has already booked a table for December. As we spill out into the sunshine, Uchida is still talking about music. “There is no perfection. One works and if one is lucky, one discovers something every day. At a certain time one must have the courage to stop, and that’s that.”
But for Uchida, now is the time to start. With a quick “goodbye”, she heads back to her piano.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.