From War to Education: Michi Hirata North has a Storied Piano Past

 Eight-year-old piano prodigy Michi Hirata North makes her debut in 1940 at the Shin Philharmonic Orchestra (currently NHK Symphony Orchestra) in Tokyo.

Eight-year-old piano prodigy Michi Hirata North makes her debut in 1940 at the Shin Philharmonic Orchestra (currently NHK Symphony Orchestra) in Tokyo.

By Tyler Sipe for the Japanese Community Center of Western Washington

In 1940, barely tall enough to reach the piano pedals, eight-year-old piano prodigy Michi Hirata North drew national attention in Japan through her mesmerizing performance of Mozart’s Bflat major Concerto K.595 with the Shin Philharmonic Orchestra (currently NHK Symphony Orchestra) and its conductor Hisatada Odaka.

North’s performance was so stirring, she was asked to continue to play at venues across Tokyo, helping to provide a much needed distraction for a country deep in the throws of a bloody global war. In 1943, her public performances were put on hold; large public gatherings were too risky with the constant roar of war planes overhead.

The risk of harm did not stop the Japanese government from asking North to distract a war weary nation. In March of 1945, North was being prepped for a documentary film about her piano accomplishments. An elaborate studio was built, but on March 9th and 10th, the filmset and much of Tokyo were destroyed by fire in one of the most deadly and destructive bombing campaigns by U.S. military forces of World War II.

“The only thing we took was a bag of sugar,” North said, recalling leaving her family’s home in the Tokyo neighborhood of Mejiro. “And oh, I carried my Tchaikovsky music book that came from Germany.”

North still has the Tchaikovsky music book dated in the 1920s; it is tinged brown from age, its edges are weathered.

The Hirata house survived the fire bombings of March 1945, but the home’s Western-style appearance and large size — used primarily as a piano school — attracted American occupation officers. The U.S. army wanted to make the home a temporary quarters for military officers involved in Japan’s reconstruction.

“If you take my house, there will be no music,” North recalled her father saying. “Children will not learn the beauty of the piano.”

Perhaps it was a nod to the universal connection of music, but the Hirata home never became occupied, and remained a place where music poured into the narrow streets of Mejiro.

The sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin coming from the Hirata household caught the ear of U.S. Army Captain Kermit G. Stewart. Noting the exceptional piano skills of North, the music lover and conductor asked her to learn and play George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ The style of music was new to Japan, and many Japanese pianists had difficulty playing the iconic song.

“The song was so different, and technically it is not easy,” North said. “But I’ve always loved a good challenge.”

In 1947, on the 10th anniversary of Gershwin’s death, North premiered a few of the American composer’s greatest compositions in Japan. Her original performance at the Tokyo Takazuka Theater, which at the time was renamed the Ernie Pyle Theatre, was so popular that she went on to perform Gershwin more than 100 times.

Now in her 80s, and living in Bellevue, Wash., North teaches Gershwin to the next generation of piano prodigies.

She began teaching piano in 1958, and she quickly developed a global reputation and rock star status in piano circles. Over the decades, she has earned high praise and respect from educators and students; some of her pupils travel from around the world to learn under her for months at a time. Many of these youth quickly go on to perform in international competitions playing Gershwin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and other iconic composers.

On Sept. 20th, North will take the stage once more, assisted by conductor Julia Tai and Philharmonia Northwest, to perform the renowned Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor and Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor. The event will celebrate her 75 years since her debut with the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

The concert will benefit the JCCCW.

The Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle is pleased to co-sponsor a reception for this historic event. 

 Now in her 80s, and living in Bellevue, Wash., North teaches Gershwin to the next generation of piano prodigies. 

Now in her 80s, and living in Bellevue, Wash., North teaches Gershwin to the next generation of piano prodigies.