Accomplished piano prodigy to perform at The War Memorial

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 23, 2017

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Her peers might be listening to artists like Harry Styles and Katy Perry, but 13-year-old piano prodigy Naomi Yamaguchi doesn’t follow the pop artists of the moment.

“It’s just classical and jazz,” said Yamaguchi said of her listening habits, adding that she prefers to tune in to WRCJ-FM. “I don’t like pop music very much. My dad sometimes listens to (pop) in the car.”

A seventh-grader at West Middle School who lives in Rochester Hills, Yamaguchi will be honored as the 2017 winner of the Ruth Laredo “An die Musik” (“To Music”) Award when she performs with the Tuesday Musicale of Detroit Orchestra during a concert at 7:30 p.m. June 6 at The War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms.

The Tuesday Musicale of Detroit Orchestra will be under the direction of Scott Hanoian. Besides performing with the orchestra, Yamaguchi will play works for solo piano by Beethoven, Chopin and Menotti, as well as the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major K488. This marks Tuesday Musicale of Detroit’s first Young Artist of the Year concert.

Yamaguchi, who started to study piano at age 4, has already played venerated Carnegie Hall in New York City — making her debut there in 2011, when she was only 7. Her orchestral debut occurred when she was 9, when she played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major K488 with the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Society. She performed at the Young Artist World Piano Festival in Minnesota, was featured in a Rising Star of Tomorrow Concert at Music Fest Perugia, and she was spotlighted as a young piano virtuoso at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies conference in Grand Rapids in September 2016.

Her honors include the Doreen Wessell Taylor Piano Award from Tuesday Musicale of Detroit, and the Betty Brewster Scholarship from Cranbrook Music Guild. And each year since 2013, Yamaguchi has been the youngest winner of the James Tatum Foundation’s Millennium Prodigy Scholars, which includes an annual performance at Orchestra Hall — home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Her father, Satoru Yamaguchi, said he and his wife, Yuri, knew their daughter had a special gift by the time she was about 5 or 6. Early on in her piano studies, he said, one of Naomi’s teachers told them they needed to seek out a classical music teacher for her.

“She has perfect pitch, which basically means she knows the notes when she (hears them),” he said.

Naomi Yamaguchi was thrilled when she learned she would be receiving the Laredo award.

“I thought I was very fortunate, and I was very excited,” she said.

Her first musical training was a preschool music class.

“I don’t know what drew me to the piano (at that age),” she said. “I think it might have been the black and white keys.”

Through the piano, Yamaguchi has truly found her voice.

As a pianist, “you can play with other instruments (and musicians),” she said. “It’s fun to travel around with the musical world and share music and feelings. I like performing because I can express myself through my actions and my expressions, and through (the) music.”

Although she enjoys playing solo, Yamaguchi said she’d like to be a “collaborative pianist,” which means she’d be performing with others, such as in a chamber music setting. While she was with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Ensemble, Yamaguchi said, she played in a quintet. Yamaguchi composes as well.

“I like solo music a lot, but sometimes it gets a bit lonely,” she said. “I like playing with other kids who are like me.”

Yamaguchi believes that schools need to offer music education, which is often one of the first targets of budget cuts for financially strapped school districts.

“I really want people to be introduced to classical music,” she said.

Besides piano, Yamaguchi enjoys swimming and badminton. Her favorite subject in school, besides music, is math.

Satoru Yamaguchi — who thanked Tuesday Musicale of Detroit and the other music organizations that have supported his daughter and helped her to grow as a musician — said that the family is moving to Boston this summer.

“This is going to be Naomi’s last concert in the Detroit area,” he said.

By email, longtime Tuesday Musicale of Detroit supporter Dina Soresi Winter, of Grosse Pointe Shores — a retired professional opera singer — called Yamaguchi “an extraordinary pianist and a charming young lady.”

“Naomi loves to perform in front of people,” said her father. “She seems to excel (on stage).”

Yamaguchi said she feels “comfortable talking about music” and performing, but she’s not as outgoing in all aspects of her life.

“At concerts, I’m not shy at all, but in school, I get nervous,” she said.

Two years ago, Yamaguchi performed during a Tuesday Musical of Detroit fundraiser for the Ruth Laredo “An die Musik” Memorial Fund for Outstanding Young Musicians at the Max M. Fisher Music Center at Orchestra Hall. That concert was to establish the fund and award, which helps young musicians continue their musical studies. Laredo, a Detroit native who died of ovarian cancer in 2005 at the age of 67, was an internationally renowned musician who was dubbed “America’s First Lady of the Piano.”

In a 2015 email interview, acclaimed pianist and eastside Detroit native James Tocco — who knew Laredo well — said the scholarship award in her name is a fitting tribute to Laredo.

“One of her greatest concerns was to help young gifted musicians, because she realized through her own experience what a tough road lies ahead of them,” Tocco said. “She was an active teacher at the Manhattan School of Music, and constantly sought opportunities to further the cause of young artists.”

Tickets for the concert cost $21 for adults and are free for students ages 25 and younger, thanks to the Perlman Insurance Agency. There will be an afterglow with Yamaguchi following the concert. The War Memorial is located at 32 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms. For advance tickets, call (313) 881-7511. For more information, call (313) 885-7882.